100 Film Favorites – #37: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
(Irvin Kershner, 1980)
Today, we continue the Star Wars saga with the series’ most critically-acclaimed entry, The Empire Strikes Back.
The film’s opening crawl explains that three years have passed since the events of “A New Hope,” and the Rebels have established a new base for themselves on Hoth, a remote ice planet. The Empire has been deploying probe droids throughout the galaxy in an attempt to locate the Rebels’ new digs, and one such droid lands on Hoth shortly after the film begins. Luke leaves the base and gets attacked by a yeti-like creature called a a wampa. He escapes, but eventually succumbs to the cold and collapses in the snow. Lying dazed, Luke sees a spectral vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who advises him to visit the planet Dagobah to complete his training with Yoda, a Jedi master in exile there. Han Solo finds the snowbound Luke and rescues him, and none too soon: The probe droid has relayed the Rebels’ location to the Imperial army, who are fast approaching.
As foretold in the title, the Empire “strikes back” in impressive fashion, attacking the Rebel Base in AT-AT walkers, colossal war machines which are essentially big robotic elephants powered by stop-motion animation. Though the Rebels successfully destroy several of the walkers (with Luke taking one down single-handedly), they are forced to abandon their base.
Luke leaves for Dagobah, while Han and Leia conceal the damaged Millennium Falcon in an asteroid field to evade the Empire’s pursuit. After crash-landing on Dagobah, a swamp planet, Luke encounters a creature resembling a small green space-Grover. He is initially irritated by the creature’s antics, until the diminutive swamp Muppet reveals himself to be Yoda. Yoda imparts assorted chestnuts of wisdom to Luke, and the two embark on a rigorous training regimen, including plenty of rope-swingiing, hand-standing, rock-lifting, and profound observations.
Evading Darth Vader’s detection, Han Solo directs the Falcon toward the Planet Bespin, where Han’s friend Lando Calrissian (aptly described in Family Guy as “the only black guy in the galaxy”) is the leader of Cloud City, a major metropolis.
Luke has a premonition that his friends are in danger and leaves Dagobah, despite the objections of Yoda and Obi-Wan. Based on the way the film is edited, this part of the film may constitute something of a plot hole: Luke’s training seems to take a very short time. He appears to arrive on Dagobah, begin, and then abandon his training in less time than it takes Han and Leia to go from Hoth to Bespin. This might be explained by the fact that the Millennium Falcon was damaged and could not go to hyperspace…or else it was just a plot-hole.
Lando double-crosses Han and turns the Falcon crew over to Darth Vader to save his city. Han is frozen in carbonite, some sort of unpleasant space mineral, and Vader turns him over to Boba Fett, a bounty hunter the Empire had hired earlier to help track down Luke and his space-buddies. Boba Fett departs Bespin with the frozen Solo, intending to deliver him to Jabba the Hutt, a gangster to whom Han owes a debt.
Luke confronts Vader, royally miffed at the mistreatment of his friends. As Luke and Vader duel over an impossibly large, gaping hole of some kind (establishing a trope which would be re-iterated in future “Star Wars” films), Vader utters one of the most shocking and memorable revelations in film history: “I am your father.” Luke is greatly distressed by this “pop secret,” and throws himself down the enormous hole. Manipulating his fall with the force, Luke guides himself out an escape chute and rendezvous with the Millennium Falcon underneath cloud city. In a cliffhanger that, to use the vernacular of the decade which “Empire” ushered in, is a “total bummer,” Luke, Leia and the droids look uncertainly out a window, wary of the fate of their friend and their cause.
Though it received mixed reviews upon its initial release, The Empire Strikes Back has come to be seen by many as the best film in the Star Wars series. Characters are developed more than in the first film, with Han and Leia’s relationship developing into a romance, and Luke struggling to balance his spiritual journey as a Jedi with his emotional ties to his friends.
Additionally, the film introduces Yoda, perhaps the most identifiable embodiment of pure wisdom in contemporary culture. Voiced and operated by Muppeteer Frank Oz (Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Bert, and Grover), the shrimpy, wizened frog-man teaches Luke and, by extension, the audience, about the nature of the Force: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” By embracing and channeling one’s spiritual nature, the old and the small can become far more mighty than the large and impetuous. As acclaimed internet reviewer Harry S. Plinkett points out, this lesson was largely undermined by the prequel trilogy, in which Yoda directly engages in physical combat multiple times, and is therefore at a disadvantage due to his size. But we still have 36 more reviews to go, so we hardly have time to rehash reasons that the prequels are bad. If you’re curious, Google it.
Oh! One last great thing about The Empire Strikes Back – Darth Vader finally gets a theme song! The “Imperial March” has become the unofficial anthem of regal bad guys everywhere, especially those with capes.
Ben Burtt once again won an Academy Award for his sound mixing work on the film, and ILM received a Special Achievement Oscar for their many innovative special effects sequences, such as the AT-AT battle on Hoth.
Speaking of the battle on Hoth, check out this pretty incredible fanfilm mockumentary, The Battle of Hoth, done in the style of Ken Burns’ The Civil War:
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.
One thought on “Brian Terrill’s 100 Film Favorites – #37: “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back””
In general, I credit for Episode V for the overall creative success of the trilogy. If it had ended with the explosion of another big bad ship, another happy ending, another lesson learned… maybe Star Wars feels less like a continuous series and more like an episodic adventure.
There’s so much good here. The Hoth sequence is gripping, Luke’s “training” (Katy and I re-noticed the timing plot hole) is compelling, the climactic ending is perfect. Perhaps best of all is the series decision to go all-in on the Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher chemistry. Seriously, the bits where they get to play off of each other might be the most entertaining in the series.
Everyone knows how great the big twist is (even if “Darth Vader” is German for “Dark Father” or something like that). It’s just such a great twist for raising the stakes and altering our understanding of the main character that you can’t even use the “bad guy is unexpectedly parent” trope anymore. Star Wars owns it.
It’s tough to come up with complaints about this entry, but I can never get into the Lando character. The character doesn’t hold much interest for me, and his supposed “redemption” towards the end doesn’t really make him feel heroic at all. Honestly, he feels like a Han Solo retread, but a black dude.
Oh, and one thing I’m sure you also appreciate: Season 2 of Avatar TOTALLY rips this movie off, in the best possible way. There are so many parallels between the last few episodes of that season and this movie that it’s almost mind-boggling.