Summer Movie Showdown: "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" Review

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Directed by Irvin Kershner, this 1980 film is set three years after the original Star Wars. The Galactic Empire, under the leadership of the villainous Darth Vader, is in pursuit of Luke Skywalker and the rest of the Rebel Alliance.
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Summer Movie Showdown: "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" Review

-- Rating: PG
Length: 124 minutes
Release Date: May 21, 1980
Directed by: Irvin Kershner
Genre: Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi

"Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" is the best of the original "Star Wars" trilogy, with better special effects than its immediate predecessor, "Star Wars: A New Hope," and a moody plot that features a gut punch of an ending. Creator George Lucas stepped away from the directing chair, providing only a story for screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and director Irvin Kershner to work with. The result is a dark film that elevates the series from its pulpy origins into a truly mythical piece of filmmaking.

The story takes place three years after the destruction of the Death Star, with the Empire searching the galaxy for the Rebel Alliance. Darth Vader has taken particular interest in the young Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Meanwhile, the Rebels are tucked away on the ice planet of Hoth when an Imperial probe droid alerts Skywalker and his compatriots to the coming invasion. Once the invasion begins, Luke leaves his friends Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), opting to go to Dagobah to train with Jedi Master Yoda (Frank Oz). Meanwhile, the Empire and Vader join forces with the bounty hunter Boba Fett to chase Solo and Leia throughout the galaxy. Eventually, the two are forced to take refuge in Cloud City, a mining colony under the governance of the shady Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).

From the opening crawl of "The Empire Strikes Back," it's clear this film is far different from its predecessor. Where the original was steeped in pulpy fun, "Empire" is sinister and distressing. When writing the script, Lucas and Kasdan did a phenomenal job of ensuring our heroes feel like they've been through hell and back since "Star Wars." Luke's wide-eyed attitude towards the war is gone, replaced with a hardened personality that will only become more defined as the film moves along. Han Solo is still on the run from Jabba the Hutt, becoming increasingly nervous about the bounty hunter's search for him. Meanwhile, Leia's resolve and leadership is still on display, but she shows more vulnerability than in the first movie.

The main arc of "The Empire Strikes Back" involves Luke's training as a Jedi and his inevitable confrontation with Darth Vader. His introduction to Yoda is a highlight of the film, as is the brief glimpse of the training that Jedis go through. Yoda is one of the key characters of the film, giving the viewer insight into the history of the old Jedi Order. Although Yoda is a puppet, it can be argued that he provides more emotion than most of the CGI creations seen in the prequel trilogy. There's a sadness and frustration that the character conveys, especially in the scene where Luke disobeys him and flies off to face Vader. Even without knowing the character's backstory, Yoda is one of the more effective creations seen in the original "Star Wars" films.

As Luke's training goes on, Han and Leia have a subplot that enriches the characters, while providing the first hints of romance in the series. While the two flirt and charm each other, the respective characters move beyond their initial constructs as the spoiled princess and rugged scoundrel. Ford, in particular, has grown leaps and bounds as an actor since the original "Star Wars." His famous ad-lib, "I know," in response to Leia's, "I love you," is simple, yet direct, and gives the character's last scene in the film added power.

Tragedy hovers over "The Empire Strikes Back" from the moment the film begins with Luke being attacked by a Wampa on the planet Hoth. It's a shot across the bow for the audience, a warning that no one is safe. In particular, the Vader and Skywalker dynamic propels the story into the realm of a Greek tragedy. It's also the only storyline that benefits from seeing the prequel films beforehand.

Of course, "Empire's" power comes from the big reveal regarding Darth Vadar. The film is a middle chapter without a clear beginning or an ending, but the revelation is enough to set the film apart from the rest of its sequels and prequels. It's a shocking turn of events, played perfectly by Hamill. Emotionally, the film series would never hit these kinds of highs again.

For better or worse, "The Empire Strikes Back" elevated "Star Wars" from sci-fi fun to a futuristic tragedy. If you're a newcomer to the "Star Wars" films, it's recommended that you watch the originals first to gain the most out of the emotional twists and turns. If you've seen them all, come back and revisit "Empire" to see why it stands out as the best of the "Star Wars" films and also as one of the major achievements in science fiction cinema.

Rating: 4 out of 5