Should I Watch..? Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
What's the big deal?
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (originally released as The Empire Strikes Back) is an epic action sci-fi film released in 1980 and is the sequel to the 1977 Star Wars film, A New Hope. Directed by Irvin Kershner instead of series creator George Lucas, the film has a much darker feel than before and introduces plot elements that would fuel the prequels that Lucas would make later on. The film sees Luke Skywalker train to become a Jedi Knight under the tutelage of Master Yoda while his friends Han Solo, Leia, Chewie and C-3PO are pursued across the galaxy by the Imperial forces led by Darth Vader. The film has since become widely recognised as the best in the series so far and has been selected for preservation in the Library of Congress in the US. After numerous re-releases, the film's total box office takings are more than $535 million.
What's it about?
Three years have passed since the destruction of the Death Star and the Galactic Empire have forced the Rebel Alliance to relocate their base to the icy world of Hoth. Luke is contacted by a spiritual apparition of Obi-Wan Kenobi who instructs Luke to travel to Dagobah to learn the ways of the Force under Jedi Master Yoda. Meanwhile, Han and Chewie discover an Imperial probe droid which alerts the nearby Darth Vader to their presence on Hoth. Launching a full-scale ground assault on the base, Han barely escapes on board the Millennium Falcon with Leia, Chewie and C-3PO while Luke and R2-D2 join the battle in their X-Wing before fleeing Hoth.
Heading to Dagobah, Luke is astonished to find a small green creature incredibly strong in the ways of the Force and Yoda reluctantly agrees to take him on as an apprentice. Meanwhile, Han and the others struggle to escape the Imperial blockade of Hoth after hiding in an asteroid field before making their way to Cloud City on the world of Bespin to meet up with an old friend of Hans, Lando Calrissian. But Vader's pursuit of the rebels knows no limits and even bounty hunters like Boba Fett are hired to bring them in...
Princess Leia Organa
Darth Vader *
Billy Dee Williams
Yoda (voice & puppet performance)
Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan *
Release Date (UK)
21st May, 1980
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Best Sound, Special Achievement (visual effects)
Academy Award Nomination
Best Set Direction, Best Original Score
What's to like?
Even if you've never seen a Star Wars film, there is something remarkably comforting about them like an old armchair or your favourite pair of trainers. The Empire Strikes Back might contain the most discussed plot twist in history (and certainly not even worth discussing if you've seen the prequels) but the moment of its delivery is so powerful that it still shocks. Credit Kershner for finally delivering a Star Wars film where the characters feel believable and the dialogue brings a gravitas all of its own. And it isn't just about characterisation as the film even manages to improve on the pioneering visuals of A New Hope - the opening battle on Hoth is spectacular while Oz's performance as Yoda is as good as Andy Serkis was in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
Ford steps up as Solo, delivering a winning performance full of charm and misplaced arrogance. Fisher also moves away from the traditional damsel-in-distress role she had before and becomes a character in her own right. By contrast, Hamill spends most of the movie in a swamp talking to Frank Oz's right hand but his level of interaction with Yoda gives further strength to the illusion. Like A New Hope, it's so easy to fall into this distant galaxy with its own customs and creatures and believe in it totally. The story, while maybe not as strong as before, still allows plenty of scope for betrayal, redemption and facing up to one's destiny in the face of impossible odds.
- Apart from being sucked out of a window in Cloud City, Hamill did all his own stunts. Even the shots of him emerging from the Wampa's cave were shot in the middle of a fierce snowstorm while the crew filmed safely from their hotel's lobby!
- The set for Dagobah had to be elevated to allow Oz to operate the Yoda puppet. Hamill had an earpiece to hear Oz's dialogue to allow a greater degree of interaction. Kershner frequently found himself giving directions to the puppet while Oz had to remind him who he was talking to.
- After an extra fell sick, Jeremy Bulloch (who played Boba Fett) was called in to replace him. He is the Imperial officer captured by Lando's men.
What's not to like?
The film has been endlessly tinkered with by Lucas ever since its release with much of the film's intricate model work and set design plastered over by ultra-smooth CG. There has also been some recasting done since the prequels came out - the brief appearance of Palpatine resulted in Ian McDiarmid performing in place of original actor Clive Revill while Temuera Morrison returns as Boba Fett, the son of his part in Attack Of The Clones. I understand the need for continuity but not every Star Wars fan came on board after The Phantom Menace, George. We remember the originals and they were fine, thanks! Just leave the films alone!
Those viewers expecting a grandstand moment like the Death Star assault from A New Hope might be disappointed that the film's opening battle on Hoth is the film's highlight. There's nothing wrong with that - it's a staggering piece of cinema, after all - but the film has a uneven pace once the narrative splits in two and viewers not used to the story's vast scale might get a bit lost at times. But really, I can't find much wrong with The Empire Strikes Back - I'm being picky here but take no notice, the film remains an absolute classic.
Should I watch it?
On its own, it's an incredible piece of escapist cinema that rewards fans with almost any expectation. As part of the Star Wars saga, it is the best film produced so far with the perfect balance of action, story, effects and characterisation. The best thing that can be said about The Empire Strikes Back is that it provided Lucas with all the material he'd need not just for the next film but also the entire prequel trilogy. If A New Hope is the face of the series then this is the beating heart that fuels the others.
Great For: Star Wars fans, action junkies, families
Not So Great For: the Star Trek faithful, British actors who always end up as baddies
What else should I watch?
Guess what? Both A New Hope and Return Of The Jedi complete this original trilogy and all three completely wipe the floor with the digitally enhanced prequel trilogy. Only the third prequel, Revenge Of The Sith provides a decent outing for the series but the first two prequels - The Phantom Menace and Attack Of The Clones - are riddled with poor casting and performances, excessive use of CG and boring storylines. Of course, fans whipped themselves into a frenzy about J.J. Abrams effort The Force Awakens and to be honest, they had every right - the film is a stunning return to form if it is a little too familiar, if you catch my meaning.
Trekkers need not despair as they actually have more movies with which to worship Captain Kirk. Granted, one of those films is Star Trek V: The Final Frontier which isn't just bad but utterly bonkers. But don't hold that against them - Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is a classy and tense thriller while Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country remains my favourite - a murder-mystery, political allegory and sci-fi action film blended into one kooky whole.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox