It’s a movie that, on paper, does everything wrong — all of the major action scenes are crammed into the first 40 minutes, and it has no ending. It’s also considered by many to be the greatest sci-fi sequel ever made. On May 21, 1980, George Lucas’s highly anticipated sequel to Star Wars hit theaters.
So why exactly is The Empire Strikes Back so awesome? First and foremost, it has a great screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, with George Lucas receiving story credit. Noted science fiction author Brackett completed a draft before she died of cancer in 1978; it’s unclear just how much of her work remains in the film, but Lucas wrote at least one draft himself before hiring Kasdan, an up-and-coming screenwriter who also happened to be working with the filmmaker on the script for a little something called Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Kasdan went on to write the screenplay for the underrated romantic comedy Continental Divide (1981), which turned out to be one of John Belushi’s last films, as well as write and direct Body Heat (1981), The Big Chill (1983), and Silverado (1985). His contribution to the success of both Empire and Raiders is immeasurable.
Indeed, it’s the little character moments that are allowed to shine in Empire. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) begins his transition from a kid who whined about power converters in Star Wars to a young Jedi Knight undergoing training from Yoda (perfectly realized by the puppet work of the amazing Frank Oz). The combative relationship between Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is developed, even within action scenes such as the asteroid-field sequence, culminating in his priceless response to “I love you, Han.” Even the lightsaber confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader becomes a strong character moment, with a shocking revelation from the Dark Lord (chillingly delivered by James Earl Jones, who provides Vader’s voice).
In addition to the screenplay, another possible reason for Empire’s greatness is the fact that Lucas chose to finance it himself rather than go through the conventional studio system, allowing for less interference and more artistic freedom. Having directed 1977’s Star Wars himself, Lucas chose not to helm the sequel, instead hiring Irvin Kershner, who directed the acclaimed 1977 TV movie Raid on Entebbe as well as Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), among other films. Kershner managed to give Empire a more serious tone than Star Wars without completely taking it out of the realm of the fun spirit of the original and the Saturday-matinee serials that inspired it.
Back in 1980, many folks were undoubtedly confused by the “Episode V” title at the beginning of Empire‘s credit crawl, but thanks to my addiction to Starlog magazine, I knew that the film was merely part of the middle trilogy of a nine-episode saga. (Not only were plans for episodes VII, VIII, and IX later abandoned, Lucas has repeatedly denied that there were ever any plans to begin with.)
Here’s reason #437 why John Williams is a genius: the Imperial frigging March. All he had to do was cash his paycheck and do a quick rehash of the Star Wars score, but that’s just not how John Williams rolls. Sure, the familiar Star Wars themes return, giving the series continuity (notably the main title tune and also the theme associated with Ben Kenobi and the Force), but a whole new wealth of material was created for Empire, including a noble theme for Yoda, a new love theme for (spoiler alert!) Han Solo and the princess, and the aforementioned Imperial frigging March. The music is also slightly darker in tone in order to match that of the film, making it my personal favorite score from all the Star Wars movies.
At the end of Empire, virtually nothing is resolved. Solo has been frozen in carbonite and taken by bounty hunter Boba Fett, with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in pursuit, and we have no idea whether Vader’s revelation to Luke is true, nor do we know who “the other” is that Yoda speaks of in an earlier scene. Yet despite all this, it’s quite possible The Empire Strikes Back has the greatest cliffhanger ending in the history of movies. I say this because within the circle of friends I knew at the time, not a single person was disappointed by the ending, even though none of us knew for sure if another movie was in the works or when it would be coming out. Instead, the general attitude seemed to be “Holy shit, we’ve gotta get back in line and see that again!”
By the way, the version of the film I’m writing about here is the original theatrical version I saw back in May 1980, not the so-called “special edition” that was released in ’97 and the version with yet even more changes that arrived on DVD in 2004. The only thing I’ll say about the special edition of Empire is that it’s the one with the fewest changes and is thus the least fucked-up of the original trilogy. (In fact maybe that’s a good box quote for the special-edition release: “The least fucked-up of the original trilogy.”)
It’s not so much the idea of going back and tinkering with some of the special effects that I find annoying, nor the fact that every single change made to the three films in the original trilogy was either unnecessary or stupid — it’s the fact that it seemed like it was George Lucas’s intent to have these new versions replace the original theatrical versions forever. It wasn’t until fans continuously complained that the original versions were finally released on DVD in 2006, and those were slapped together from old laserdisc masters — they weren’t even formatted for 16×9 screens.
Dear Mr. Lucas, I love your movies. I love American Graffiti, I love Star Wars, I love Empire, and yes, I even love Return of the Jedi. And I respect the fact that these are your films, but you must respect the sentiment that, at 30 years and counting, they’re also our films. It’s been announced that the Star Wars movies are going to receive a Blu-ray release, but to date it hasn’t been announced whether the original theatrical versions will be included. If they aren’t, I for one will pass — I don’t need a Blu-ray that contains a version of a movie I’ll never want to watch. Here’s hoping the odds of the original films being included aren’t the same as successfully navigating an asteroid field.
End of rant. Apology accepted, Captain Needa.