A Saga in Review: Star Wars Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

We're just a couple weeks away from The Force Awakens.  Read the second of the original trilogy reviews right here.

After the groundbreaking success and cultural phenomenon of Star Wars: A New Hope which revolutionized the film industry and with Steven Spielberg's Jaws singlehandedly gave birth to the Summer Blockbuster film, modern cinema was now George Lucas' oyster.  An unqualified triumph and epic event ending on exaltation and marking a new chapter in cinema history, Star Wars and its beloved cast of characters had no place else to go but up.  In a daring and still debatable move that would turn audience expectations and the series itself on its head, George Lucas passed the directorial reigns to the more serious minded Irvin Kirshner and brought aboard additional writers such as director Lawrence Kasdan to create undeniably the darkest, most intense and realistic offering of the Star Wars saga: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

"Pew Pew Pew!!!"
Set three years after the Rebel Alliance's triumph over the Imperial Empire in A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back finds its heroes in hiding deep within the Arctic planet of Hoth.  Foraging for survival as the Empire systematically hunts them down, The Empire Strikes Back opens on an intentionally dour and cold note.  From the oppressive ice Hoth planet to Yoda's squalid planet of Endor and finally the sterile yet foreboding City of Clouds, all in all the world of The Empire Strikes Back is a less than pleasant one to be in.  Shot by David Cronenberg's eventual longtime director of photography Peter Suschitzky, The Empire Strikes Back's desaturated color schema effectively deflates all the warmth felt in A New Hope, providing viewers with a far bleaker looking film overall.

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Clearly influenced by Ridley Scott's Alien (including but not limited to certain sound effects), the Millennium Falcon, Luke Skywalker's X-Wing and environmental designs have a far dirtier and leaky motor oil look to them than in A New Hope with the Falcon often breaking down at the drop of a hat.  Also more elaborate is the sound design which works to amplify all the technological deficiencies of the Falcon, the heavy industrial atmosphere of the carbonite chamber during Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader's lightsaber battle and heavy winds in the city of clouds.  The Empire Strikes Back in an audiovisual sense bears the distinction of feeling used and slightly worn around the edges, making the fantastical elements of the Star Wars universe surprisingly believable.  If any film paved the way for Christopher Nolan's realistic take on the Batman movies, it's The Empire Strikes Back.

"And then she said, 'size matters not'."
Edgier in tone and far more violent this time around than previously, The Empire Strikes Back gave us that rare great Blockbuster film in which the protagonists lose the fight.  Greater risks are taken with the characters' fates, notably with the cliffhanger encasing of Han Solo in carbonite.  Everything that could possibly go wrong for these characters inevitably goes wrong with the Empire winning the upper hand.  It's also a far more thought provoking effort than A New Hope, particularly with the introduction of Jedi master Yoda and even more Joseph Campbell inspired mythologizing imbued into the story of Yoda's training of Luke Skywalker on his path to becoming a Jedi knight.  Arguably the film's greatest image involves a surreal nightmare where Luke Skywalker battles and defeats Darth Vader, decapitating him.  As the severed head of Vader rolls on the ground the face mask explodes revealing Luke Skywalker underneath, suggesting Skywalker will either vanquish the evil in himself or destroy himself in the process of vanquishing Vader.  It's a striking image of high art you would not expect to see in a big budget franchise film.

Equally daring in its grand revelation of Darth Vader's identity is Empire's deliberate lack of closure, playing as a middle chapter which as Kershner put it, left you "feeling satisfied to have seen some sort of closure but wanting to see more".  Where A New Hope, Return of the Jedi and arguably the Prequel trilogy left viewers with a pretty clear indication as to where the series and its characters were, The Empire Strikes Back ends on a note of uncertainty with some degree of finality but clearly left open ended for the next movie.  It's a bold and still daring movie in the Star Wars saga for effectively undoing everything optimistic A New Hope strove to create.  While the final shot of the Falcon careening towards a galaxy leaves viewers with a dogged sense of hope at the end, you're as unsure of the characters' fates (notably Solo's) as they are.

"This looks like a great spot for
bungee jumping!"
When A New Hope first came out, no one at the studio or the filmmaking team knew it would become the revolutionary box office smash that it was.  Without that film's monumental success, a film that takes as many risks with an established mainstream film franchise as The Empire Strikes Back does would not have been possible.  Save for a souped-up sequence involving the Wampa ice monster and a digitally recast Emperor in the Special Edition re-release, The Empire Strikes Back is something of an outlier in the Star Wars saga for having undergone the least amount of retooling.  It's an impeccable masterpiece of dystopian science fiction action adventure, classical mythology and that rare opportunity in which its makers took everything you loved about A New Hope and pulled the rug out from under you.  If that's not indicative of The Empire Strikes Back being one of the greatest films of all time, nothing else is.


-Andrew Kotwicki