The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)

the-empire-strikes-back-princess-leia-and-han-solo

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After their encounter during the destruction of the Death Star, Darth Vader is determined to track down the hero of the rebellion, Luke Skywalker – but young Luke is learning more and more about the Force…

WHICH VERSION? The original 1980 cut (as released on DVD in 2006). I like pedantry as much as the next geek, but childhood habit stops me calling it Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

GOOD GUYS

* Commander Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his pals in the Rebel Alliance are hiding out on the snow-covered planet of Hoth. Non-diegetic sources tend to claim this film is set three years after the events of Star Wars, but it feels more like a few weeks to me. Early on, Luke is attacked and captured by a bear-like creature – a sequence cooked up to explain some scars Mark Hamill had from a 1977 car accident – and uses his Force powers to escape. He then plays a big role as the Rebels evacuate the planet after the bad guys find them. But when Ben’s ghost pops up and tells Luke to go to the planet Dagobah, he abandons his pals with no explanation and heads off. On Dagobah, he finds Jedi master Yoda, who further teaches him the ways of the Force. One of his trials is a surreal sequence where he imagines fighting Darth Vader. After a slow-motion lightsaber duel, Vader’s mask is blown away… to reveal Luke’s face. It’s an omen of Luke’s future if he goes down a certain path. He then gets a precognitive vision of Han, Leia and the others in danger (which we don’t see, slightly oddly), so abandons his training to go help them. Fickle, isn’t he? Arriving at Bespin, he fights Vader for real and gets his hand chopped off. (Astonishingly, it’s 96 minutes into film two before Luke and Darth Vader actually meet.) In one of cinema’s best – but most widely known – plot twists, Luke then learns that Darth Vader is actually his father. Upset, he escapes Vader and is later fitted with a skin-covered robotic hand.

* Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is now a full-time member of the Alliance, but he knows he’s a dead man unless he pays off his debt to Jabba the Hutt so says he’ll have to leave. (Princess Leia is clearly upset by this, but would never admit it.) While the rebels evacuate from their Hoth base, he’s frantically tinkering away on the broken-down Millennium Falcon. He won’t leave until he knows Leia is safe, though (what a hero!), and actually takes her with him when she can’t get to her transport. To avoid the Imperial ships, Solo flies into an asteroid field then hides inside a big one. Later, the gang end up in Cloud City, a floating gas mine on the planet Bespin. When the Imperial forces arrive and capture our heroes, Han is tortured then cryogenically frozen and given to bounty hunter Boba Fett.

* Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) wants to make Han jealous, so early on gives Luke a robust kiss on the lips (she’ll regret that later!). She’s in charge of the rebel forces, but is separated from them after the evacuation. She and Han trade sarcasm like petulant schoolkids, but clearly fancy the pants off each other. They actually share a sweet scene together when the facades drop for a moment, but C-3PO interrupts their first kiss. The bickering is forgotten about when Han is later captured and tortured by Darth Vader. In one of the film’s best moments (in one of *film’s* best moments), a terrified Leia says, “I love you,” and Han stoically replies, “I know.” After Han has been frozen, Leia gets her fuck-you on again as she realises they can save Han – you wouldn’t cross her – but his rescue will have to wait for the next movie. Afterwards, she psychically hears Luke’s call for help: a hint that maybe she has some Force skills of her own?

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is upset when his path diverges from his friend R2-D2. On Bespin, he stumbles across some hidden Imperial troops and they dismantle him. Thankfully, Chewy soon finds all the bits and begins to reconstitute his pal. Near the end, 3PO shares a scene with Darth Vader – the only time the two are in the same room in the entire original trilogy. Given that C-3PO is in a sack on Chewy’s back, we can forgive Vader for not recognising him from the prequels.

* General Rieekan (Bruce Boa) is a high-ranking rebel leader who presumably enjoys Waldorf salads.

* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) goes with Luke to Dagobah, but he doesn’t enjoy it: he falls in a swamp, is menaced by a monster and gets left out in the rain. He’s involved more later on in the Bespin scenes.

* Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) doesn’t get a huge amount of focus – rescuing C-3PO is his main contribution.

* Major Derlin (John Ratzenberger) is a rebel officer who presumably enjoys recounting dubious anecdotes in bars.

* Ben ‘Obi-Wan’ Kenobi (Alec Guinness) appears only as a ghostly image and gives Luke vital plot information and emotional guidance. He’s had a haircut in the afterlife.

* Wedge Antilles (Denis Lawson) is one of the rebel pilots on Hoth; he was also in Star Wars, but I neglected to mention him.

* Yoda (Frank Oz) is a muppet with the voice of Fozzie Bear. In broken, jumbled-up English speaks he does. He’s short, green and elderly, and seems to be vague and comedic, so Luke at first doesn’t realise that he’s the Jedi master Ben recommended. Yoda is at least 800 years old, and he trained both Ben and Luke’s dad. The last we see of him, he’s making an enigmatic reference to Luke not being the good guys’ *only* hope… As well as Frank Oz and his team of puppeteers, Mark Hamill must take credit for how well the character works. By playing the scenes so sincerely, he makes us believe in Yoda as a character.

* Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is a gambler and all-round cad, who’s now the administrator of the Art Deco-styled Cloud City. He and Han go way back – Han won the Falcon from him, in fact – while he takes an instant shine to Leia. Han’s right not to trust him, though: Lando’s being blackmailed into delivering our heroes to Darth Vader. (Because of this betrayal, my six-year-old self would object to him being listed under ‘Good guys’.)

* Lobot (John Hollis, and not Mr Strickland from Back to the Future as I used to think as a child) is Lando’s mute, part-robotic sidekick.

BAD GUYS

* Darth Vader (body: David Prowse, voice: James Earl Jones) has been obsessed with finding Luke since their paths crossed in Star Wars. Now the Death Star’s gone, he hangs out on a Super Star Destroyer – a city-sized space ship – and we see him sitting in his giant, golf-ball-shaped command centre. No longer tempered by Grand Moff Tarkin, he seems to have executive power over the Imperial forces, though he kowtows to the Emperor when they talk over Skype. For the first time, we get a glimpse under Vader’s mask – he has a hairless, scarred head. Creepy!

* Admiral Ozzel (Michael Sheard) is an Imperial officer who presumably enjoys being the deputy headmaster of Grange Hill. Vader kills him after he misjudges a manoeuvre.

* Captain Piett (Ken Colley) is an officer who presumably enjoys playing Jesus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. He gets promoted to admiral after Ozzel’s death.

* General Veers (Julian Glover) is an officer who presumably enjoys being the baddie in both For Your Eyes Only and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He commands the Imperial troops as they attack Hoth.

* The Emperor (body: Elaine Baker, voice: Clive Revill) appears as a hologram projection when he contacts Vader wanting an update.

* Boba Fett (body: Jeremy Bulloch, voice: Jason Wingreen) is one of a gaggle of bounty hunters hired by Darth Vader to locate and capture the Millennium Falcon and its crew. Attentive fans at the time will have recognised him from the 1978 TV special. Fett easily tracks the Falcon to Bespin, then the last we see of him he’s carting Han off to Jabba the Hutt.

* Captain Bewil (Milton Johns) is an Imperial officer who presumably enjoys running the corner shop in Coronation Street. He seems to have a different voice for each of his two lines.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Luke and Vader’s lightsaber duel. It begins in a smoky, archly lit industrial space. Luke gets sweaty but is able to use his Force skills to escape being frozen. The pair then end up on an unbelievably high gantry: Vader cuts Luke’s hand off and implores him to join the Dark Side, but Luke refuses. Vader then reveals that he’s Luke’s dad, and Luke is all like ‘What the actual fuck?!’

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Han and Leia’s relationship is a succession of smartly written and brilliantly played moments, many of them sharp and witty, all of them brimming with sexual tension. The best comes when Leia falls onto Han’s lap and he grabs hold of her. She demands to be let go. “Don’t get excited,” he says. “Captain, being held by you isn’t quite enough to get me excited,” she replies huffily. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he says with a scintillating smirk, “haven’t got time for anything else.”

MUSIC: Even better than in the first movie. Scene after scene is scored by music of world-beating quality. Just check out the action sequence in the asteroid field! John Williams has also added a killer new theme – the Nazi-like Imperial March.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: When I was a child, I was allowed to rent one film a week from the local video shop in Ormskirk. I picked a Star Wars movie most weeks, occasionally slipping in The Karate Kid or Back to the Future or Superman III or Ghostbusters or whatever just for variation. So I’d seen this film several dozen times before I even owned a copy. I first bought it on VHS when the series was released in widescreen in about 1991.

REVIEW: Like any great sequel – The Godfather Part II, Aliens, From Russia With Love, Terminator 2, Police Academy 5 – this takes what worked in the first film, and then pushes every dial up a notch or three. So while the ambition, scale and spectacle get even bigger, the emotion becomes richer, the storyline more nuanced and the comedy wittier. This is Star Wars plus complexity. Star Wars plus feeling. Star Wars plus subtext. It’s irresistible to assume the credit must lie with the new injection of behind-the-scenes talent. Not having enjoyed the first film’s shoot, George Lucas took an executive-producer role and hired his old film-school lecturer Irvin Kershner as director. His contribution is superb. The first film rode along on a swashbuckling wave. This one does too, but it also puts us much more inside people’s heads. There’s added *soul* to what’s happening. There’s also a noticeable increase of comedy and characterisation. Han and Leia’s bickering is a never-ending thrill: their dialogue constantly fizzes with energy and charisma. Han and Luke’s friendship is similarly believable and fun, though they get very little time together. Even Darth Vader is less of a cartoon villain now: he has goals and desires and moods. As well as a new director, Lucas employed two new writers. Leigh Brackett, who had plenty of film-noir credentials, worked on a draft but then died – so Lawrence Kasdan, who later wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, was drafted in and he created magic. The script is wonderfully structured – there’s lots of edge-of-your-seat action, meaningful character moments and some terrific intercutting of the plot strands. And the story has a real sense of the shit hitting the fan again and again. Plans go awry, technology breaks down, characters are betrayed. It’s gripping stuff. Meanwhile, there’s a fresh visual tone from new director of photography Peter Suschitzky (Melody, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Krull, lots of David Cronenberg films). The cinematography is a galactic leap forward from the first film, which was actually shot quite flatly. The Empire Strikes Back is a beautiful movie. It uses shallow focus, moody and expressionistic lighting, faces lit by in-scene sources, lots of smoke, and some fantastic bold colours. (Just look at the reds and blues doing battle!) The first Star Wars film was more or less perfect. This is better.

Eleven stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herders out of 10

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