A tale of Sire and Ice
Second, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
There was a planet of Ice…And then Star Wars became a franchise. A glimpse back at the original Episode V, its iterations and context in the wake of The Force Awakens glorious boosting of Hollywood’s mightiest space franchise.
It was a film that needed no beginning, required no end…
HERE IT IS, EMERGING IN THE DEPTHS OF A DISTANT GALAXY WITH THE DEPLOYMENT OF A SPACE PROBE THAT THEN CRASHES INTO THE ICE SHEETS OF THE PLANET HOTH. Everything we might have assumed from the oddly triumphant and indulgent close of Episode IV wasn’t true. Everything Hollywood imagined about summer films was about to be blown out of the galaxy.
The Empire Strikes Back is legendary, there’s no doubt about it. Still quoted, among a select few, as a if not the premier example of a sequel that outdoes its original, the last three decades of try-hard comparators have failed to dislodge it. Its quality is far too enshrined to be knocked.
Here is where things began. It’s almost solely responsible for the early 21st century preoccupation with blockbuster trilogies, a neat model when it comes to actors, contracts and budgets. But just as A New Hope had slotted genres and intention together in ways never thought possible, Empire was just as ground-breaking in the way it seized and built on that position. It was a film that needed no beginning, required no end. But it served up two dramatic sledge-hammer blows at either end. And immediately, cockily, the threat level was deftly and massively raised as the audience discovers that the destruction of the Death Star had only served to annoy the Empire. Who could guess the twists, turns and ending that were to follow…
And it wasn’t just the threat that had increased.
Star Wars: Episode IV – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The saga’s themes of family and lineage were about to be set in carbonite
Come the end it’s easy to see that The Empire Strikes Back had no choice but to ramp up the drama. That it did it so well, following the simplistic, fairy tale plot of the previous film, is Empire’s considerable achievement. We join the Rebel Alliance in a far different state to the one we left it. On the run and in a make-shift soon to be discovered base; dug into ice foundations that are a metaphor for isolation. It’s cold in space, it’s colder on Hoth. We didn’t know it at the time, but the saga’s overriding themes of family and lineage were about to be set in carbonite. So it’s little surprise that one route to that dramatic elevation falls to classical tragedy.
From Bar to Bard
In Empire our Hamlet, position and role thrust upon him, is destined to encounter his father’s ghost
Indeed, Empire pushes Shakespeare to the fore. We join the Rebel troops on the battlements of Elsinore, unknowingly waiting for a ghost of Hamlet’s father that is a far more powerful and compelling than it appears in massed stop-motion and snowtrooper-clad force. That establishes a heightened universe where Vader, seen for the first time in communication with the Emperor, the father figure he rushed to with indecent haste, can get away with the use of “thy”. But the Bard’s influence is greater than choice words. We have expanded the atavistic palette of Biblical quests and Campbellian monomyth to include the nearer world of Greek tragedy and the great playwrights in general.
In Empire our Hamlet, his position and role thrust upon him, is destined to encounter his father’s ghost at the climax of the film; and in so doing he creates one of the most famous sequences in film history. That sets the tone for the concluding part of the trilogy to examine the consequences of those revelations as the tightening familial loops meets the return to a leaner structure. By Return of the Jedi, Luke would be fully formed as his black robed Hamlet, wavering not between action and indecision but the universal spiritual concepts of light and dark. The story of how he got there just feels so much more compelling…
This is a huge galaxy… Episode V is intent on using the Battle of Hoth to force our apart.
The change to ice from the cold space and hot desert of the first film sits prettier in the hindsight of Vader’s fiery creation on the planet Mustafar, committed to film over two decades later in Episode III. The switch stands up to scrutiny in much the same way that themed ice and fire levels do in videogame platformers; it was something that no space operas had the vision or finance to attempt before, even if such intentions existed on screen, and rammed one thing home: This was a huge galaxy. And every entry in the saga would widen it further up until The Force Awakens chose familiarity. That’s a central tenet to George Lucas’ Star Wars films that he always stayed true to, and no doubt one of the reasons behind his inability to withhold criticism of the most recent instalment. The subtlety of that film’s Jakku being a cold desert planet compared to Tatooine’s hot and arid desert eco-system is lost against the broad palette of the original and prequel trilogies. But as iconic as the Battle of Hoth that opens Empire is (albeit 25 minutes in), the film doesn’t feel the need to stay there for long. While Episode IV brought our heroes together, Episode V is intent on using that battle to force them apart.
Behind the scenes consistency
Nature may abhor a vacuum, Star Wars makes a meal of it.
The original Star Wars trilogy benefits from a remarkable strength of consistency. That overcame the uncertainty that run through the first film’s production all the way up to release, the three-year gap between each sequel and the changing personnel behind the scenes. Lucas was a constant of course, although as he stepped back from directing and writing chores. And it’s clear that The Empire Strikes Back’s benefitted from the addition of some high quality creators. Nature may abhor a vacuum; Star Wars makes a meal of it. And some of those new creators came from unexpected quarters.
Far from the beach retreat that marked the end of Lucas’ short film career in a parallel universe, the few years that followed the release of the first Star Wars film found the producer-director in wildly different circumstances. His science-fiction project had vastly exceeded expectations, unleashing a phenomenon and changing Hollywood in the process. And against the norm, Lucas proceeded to finance the sequel himself, all $30-odd million of it. Not having had the easiest ride directing the first instalment, and having taken on increasing responsibilities producing the work of his freshly minted special effects company ILM as well as the brewing Indiana Jones franchise, he sought a new director. And who better than someone who tutored him at film school? Against early protestations, Lucas insisted Irvin Kershner, previously known for smaller, character-based fare, helm the hottest sequel in Hollywood. Kershner would make a name on action franchises through the next two decades, including the rogue James Bond film Never Say Never Again three years later, but Empire remained his finest hour.
When sourcing screenwriters, Lucas was rather surprised to find one applicant was indeed the Leigh Brackett. Scribe of The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye among other classics, and since her earliest writing days, a penner of science fiction. Brackett passed away soon after completing her first draft, one that a slightly disgruntled Lucas subsequently took his pen to. But the tone was set. And quite possibly it was there and then that Lucas decided on the great reveal: Darth Vader was to be Luke Skywalker’s father. That name, a twist on the Germanic word for “father”, wasn’t always a hint. And around that revelation, the combination of Brackett’s dialogue, Kershner’s smaller film leanings and a franchise owner who suddenly rediscovered the joy of screenwriting worked wonders.
Empire’s lucky to have Brackett capture that inner Chandler on ice.
Brackett’s surprise and tragic loss aside, there was much serendipity in Empire, and the quality of this creative mix did much to establish the film’s place in the Star Wars and wider science fiction pantheon. Brackett’s dialogue, she who once crafted the barbed quick-fire of Bogart and Bacall, may contribute the most famous answer to “I love you” in film history. But from the very beginning there’s an indication that Empire’s lucky to have her capture that inner Chandler on ice. Amid the glorious Tauntauns that escaped a Special Edition upgrade (compared to the previous film’s upgrades, it’s a sign of how regarded those Hoth sequences are), Solo’s vicious “Then I’ll see you in hell” when he sets out to find the missing Luke stands out as a roguish overreaction that could give even Dalton’s over-sensitive Bond of the late 1980s a run for his money.
A small almost distracting adventure before the battle, Skywalker’s Wampa cave capture may have been inserted to explain away Mark Hamill’s reconstructed nose following a motorbike crash and provide one of the saga’s many nods to Akira Kurosawa, but it’s also narratively efficient at reaffirming four things: the bond between Solo and Skywalker, that the Rebels are isolated and vulnerable, the concept of the Force and; demonstrating that Luke’s skills have come on a pelt.
Raising the threat
“General Veers, prepare your men”
Empire does what a sequel should. It pounds on a bigger threat from its first scene. The Empire is on the offensive, the Rebel Alliance on the run. And the first strings of John Williams’ sublime Imperial March are so much more effective when backing the Empire at full tilt, rather than the foreshadowing role it was forced into during the prequel trilogy.
The Empire Strikes Back is brilliantly titled as the imperial antagonists are in constant control and never let up. What appeared to be their destruction at the close of the previous film is fast written off as a glancing blow (as preposterous as that seems) as they reach a new ascendancy. The Force Awakens would take the same shortcut as the Empire twisted into the all too familiar New Order. Completely ignoring the details as these films tend to (but the prequels failed to), we don’t see the massive stranglehold that must have squeezed the finance and man power to achieve this – let alone set about building a new Death Star. Still, it’s a compelling demonstration of power that the Jedi in all their blandness could never rival.
At the top of the threat pile, the Dark Lord is back and ready to assume his true mantle. Vader not only survived the destruction of the Death Star but is unshackled from a superior. And he means business, with many an Admiral’s throat to crush. By the middle of the film, that’s become a well-known trait, and something Kershner uses as a shortcut to black comedy: “Apology accepted Captain Needa”.
A Sith chat loaded with suspicion…
Tarkin’s absence is filled by the ghostly holo-projection of the Emperor, his initial appearance now retconned into consistency through the rather sharp relief of Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine. The original theatrical cut found the Emperor voiced by Clive Revill but, rather oddly, played by Elaine Baker (wife of Rick) sporting the superimposed eyes of a chimpanzee. The commanders of the Empire have little care whether these holo-projections appear in miniature mid-cockpit of an AT-AT Walker or on a gigantic scale in Vader’s chamber of ambiguous use. Come the distant sequel, The Force Awakens, the Emperor’s successor Supreme Leader Snoke seems far more precious about it. The fun of playing with this scale isn’t something these initial films are interested in.
Although vague, The Emperor’s appearance lurches the threat of the supernatural Dark Side ahead of the Empire’s vast military machine, even when that aspect is at full momentum. The disturbance in the Force triggered by Luke’s awakening is naturally irresistible to two Sith who’ve had very little to lust after for close to two decades. A gloriously over the top highlight of the whole saga, particularly in the context of the following prequel trilogy, it’s a Sith chat loaded with suspicion. As if either would consider a third wheel… Young Skywalker is a threat to both but more compellingly the new apprentice that would either allow Vader to supplant Palpatine or give Palpatine the alternative to dispense with Vader. A giant force ghost of an elephant in the Star Destroyer, it’s surely only the blunt and difficult openness of that secret that gives the Emperor cause to break the lies he peddled to Anakin Skywalker 18 years before (as revealed in Episode III).
And the mode of the Emperor’s entrance creates further balance. It’s in Empire that the Force Ghosts of the light side reveal themselves. Mildly diminishing the danger Luke faces in the snow, Obi-Wan’s manifestation is a bold deus ex machina, repeating the dulcet encouragement at the climax of the previous film, but mainly forcing this film’s plot split. During his short trip during A New Hope the old Jedi Knight had clearly been formulating. A further step in the puzzle Obi-Wan modifies Luke’s quest, as the young hero heads to a further wise guide, the Emperor’s nemesis, Jedi master Yoda, and through some reassuringly odd scenes takes the film from ice to swamp.
To the Swamp
“You will be. You will be”
And over in Dagobah Yoda is one scary muppet. The misdirection of Skywalker’s discover is another of the film’s neat if unnecessary diversions. At the muppet’s reveal as a great Jedi master, the chat between Kenobi and Yoda proves an unfortunate blot on the chronology. There really is little sign that the diminutive one’s testing buffoonery could lead to anything. It’s especially uneasy in the context of the prequel trilogy – this grand master’s handling of both Skywalkers is highly suspect. But those Dagobah sequences are immensely enjoyable; another example of the original trilogy’s confidence in its own simplicity. Aside from anything else, Luke cannot leave the planet until he’s mastered the force and raised its X-Wing from its damp storage.
Empire may be the Star Wars film most steeped in the force, as we discover more about this simple, spiritual, mystical power alongside our hero. Lurking in the swamplands, things couldn’t be greyer. The last of the Jedi, one transcending death, present as less than light. With uncompromising bias against the Empire, in their quiet desperation, they have an uneasy mix of piousness, control and it must be said a distinct lack of charitability in spite of their patience. But uncoincidentally those however characteristics may be found in the darkest days of many a religious movement.
Into the cave
Up there with the preposterous might of the Empire on the wastelands of Hoth
In the mists of Dagobah, Luke’s dark side encounter, dripping in slow-mo, dry-ice and extraordinarily well-voiced lizards is a gothic treat, up there with the preposterous might of the Empire on the wastelands of Hoth.
The short vampiric blade fight that leads to the heavy handed decapitation and the reveal of young Skywalker’s face beneath Vader’s helmet while Yoda’s ears droop in disappointment may be over the top, but it serves a purpose. Firstly, it’s a great aid in painting the film a shade ‘darker’, short-hand as it is for ‘more mature’. That sticks to this day. But that trip to the mysterious place strong with the Dark Side plays a real trick at effectively summing up the duel power and threat of Vader. Not so much as an onscreen presence but as a masked agent of the night: as an identifiable silhouette, as a potential future for Luke. As the wholly untrustworthy Palpatine asks, “can it be done?”
On the otherwise, Obi-Wan is warning that this is a dangerous time for Luke. And frankly the scamp barely passes his test. He certainly doesn’t convince Yoda. There a real shadow hanging over Skywalker’s night-time departure, fuelled by Yoda’s dark mood, the film pinpointing it with the chiaroscuro of the X-Wing’s take-off. As the ship departs there’s a wonderful fade to black, the wane of Kenobi’s ghost with that line “No, there is another”.
That’s the line that the Star Wars prequel trilogy was built on.
To the sky
“Cloud City is where everything changes.”
The climax of the Empire takes to the air, another one of those videogame level choices. There’s no doubt that come the remastered Special Editions that Lucas unleashed on the world in 1997, it’s the Cloud City sequences that shine the brightest. Unobtrusive, enhancing, adding hustle and bustle to mining sky port without polishing away any ‘hive of villainy’ potential like his fiddling with Mos Eisley did. Having tussled with the Empire fleet and a comedy asteroid diversion, the splitting of Luke and the Millennium Falcon crew gives Leia and Han’s relationship time to expand under Leigh Brackett’s pen. It also allows time for Star Wars to further play with the physics of space flight in a way that other screen science-fiction didn’t and doesn’t.
There’s great fabric in those clouds above Bespin and Empire never takes its foot off the gas. In a different take on that Mos Eisley atmosphere, with more confidence to juggle. There’s the difficult smuggler friendship, the old, ambiguous relationship, the mismatch of characters, the deceit, C3PO’s early loss and the undeniable fact that the Empire is in charge at every point. When Vader reveals himself, it’s the first time he’s encountered any of our heroes since capturing Leia in the previous film. And that reveal is rivetingly shot. His palm deflection of Solo’s rapid blaster fire remains a force highlight.
“I’ve just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever”
Arriving above Bespin at the 1.25 hour mark, it’s staggering that the convergence of all the wolves at the gate keep ready for the end-game feels unforced, the mix uncomplicated. Keeping the Empire undercover is laughable on its own. But it’s helped by the buoyant atmosphere of the light and airy mining colony, and the arrival of new friends. In one of the trilogy’s best capes, Lando’s rivalry turned treachery, turned help wouldn’t make asides in the large corridors of this stronghold too out of place. Having already fallen into one space trap, a worse one awaits the characters on the periphery of Skywalker’s story. But Cloud City is where everything changes. Where the unlikely friendship of Wookie and android comes to fruition, where Leia and Han eventually admit their feelings, and of course where father and son reunite. Where nothing is certain…
Wry mirth that further pulls out the Empire’s might
Empire is aided by its superior structure. It’s the twists and turns that filter through lean scenes on the way to the third act are highly watchable. It’s a vast improvement on the nervy slump then jump that segued from Death Star escape to the Rebel base plotting in A New Hope. And it keeps its humour.
Even in the midst of Han’s quite horrible torture there’s a wry mirth that further pulls out the Empire’s might with a fine slice of sadism. “They never even asked me any questions” is fine joke pay-off at an unsettling time. It sits well with Darth Vader’s earlier tête-à-tête with the bounty hunters on the deck of the Star Destroyer. Much to the disgust of his underlings in one of the film’s all too rare asides, it’s an effective pantomime – see Vader’s extravagant warning against disintegrations to Boba Fett.
“Bounty hunters, we don’t need that scum”. What a line. And a sentiment fans could comfortably disagree with.
Another scrap played out in a universe barely rubbing two midi-chlorians of Force together…
The first meeting of father and son comes two thirds through the trilogy. Luke impatient, Vader defining the dark side as calm and controlled. A better fight, but its deliberately a rookie versus the forceless. It’s wholly weighted against the younger Skywalker and the outcome is a mystery – far superior to the deus ex machina of the earlier film’s trench run. The fight itself remains intriguing in the CGI of the 21st century. It’s darker, moodier, heavier and lengthier than Vader and Obi-Wan’s delicate clash in A New Hope. Beyond the odd force lob and Luke’s force jump from the Carbonite chamber intended for him, it’s another scrap played out in a universe barely rubbing two midi-chlorians of Force together.
Vader though, has grown even further into his role as villain over the course of the film, finding a balance between that pantomime and calm. He needs to be at peak. It’s always darker before the dawn as they say, particularly, no doubt, on Tatooine where father and son both grew up. Still fond of pointing, and interrupting to shout, “what?” – like a proto-Stone Cold Austin – Vader’s iconic status is heavily invested in the fusion of the evil and ridiculous. Force slamming, picking objects up, throwing them around he toys with Luke like a cat. Slightly odd, chillingly reserved considering how few lightsabre scraps he must have had since his son’s birth.
Then, at the extremes, the big moment. Before Vader shows his cards, explaining “together we can rule the galaxy as father and son” Luke has taken a wodge out of Anakin’s good arm before losing his own hand in revenge. The familial cycle of fate spins closer and closer and it’s a heavy fog that little can enter. Luke appeals to Ben, but he’s forsaken any help…
“Watch that crossfire boys…”
With its second instalment, Star Wars set its intentions to be more than simple narrative. Its reach was huge, and its confident grab at references near and wide was put to good use. It’s little surprise that the religious order of the Jedi would spill out onto Census forms decades later, despite its specific inspiration.
Particularly unavoidable is the Christian analogy of Empire, something barely contained to the brewing family drama. Ford and Fisher’s stumbling shake-acting in the mouth of the giant space slug exogorth is pure Jonah and the Whale Old testament after all. Obi-Wan’s appearance and the light-attained power of Force Ghosts recall the Transfiguration.
Come the end, broken, beaten, facing the choice of certain death, Luke is suspended on a cross. Between the father and son as he learns the truth from his father. The unspoken holy spirit is the draw of the force, the dark side predominant.
“Pray I don’t alter it any further” says Vader at one point on Cloud City, insidious hypocrisy that shows this Dark Lord of the Sith is happy to band around religious anachronisms.
Like the necessarily sprawling narratives of religious epics, Empire has the confidence to leave the story at a difficult point once Luke has been saved by his broken friends. Then follows the peculiar, lengthy shot of Vader returning to his base – even odder than his spiralling departure at the end of A New Hope. On the other side, the Falcon’s light drive needlessly returns to pose an obstruction before they can escape.
“Luke, it is your destiny”
But battered, demoralised, full of secrets and resentments, the end leaves both parties ready for a third and final part. Those threads should ruin the film, but they hang irresistibly. The Empire has struck back and inflicted heavy physical and spiritual blows, but the final shot leaves the Rebel Alliance in ascendancy. The classic structure is safe despite the shocks Empire has wheeled out.
The full picture
“If only you’d attached my legs, I wouldn’t be in this ridiculous position”
Aside from the increased reach into myth, religion, classics… Empire also finds time to signal some of the franchise’s key strengths and nod to Hollywood. There’s the immense sense of humour, particularly from interaction with droids. Han and C3PO are a marvellous double-act of their own, not least the odd friendship that forms between the translator and Chewbacca when R2D2 has been removed. While Empire retains A New Hope’s simplicity, minor battles are charted on a canvas where good is never vanquished but can never truly really win. That’s the one truism left at the end of the film, and it’s a considerable achievement.
Empire also manages to build on A New Hope’s celebration of Hollywood’s glory. The Flash Gordon opening scrawl, the space dog fight, the stop-motion recalling Harryhausen, Bogart noir and Western swagger. Perhaps, in a way, Laurence Kasdan, contributing writer to The Force Awakens and Empire, had a point when he recently claimed that science fiction is too limiting a term for Star Wars. This second film of the franchise’s greatest trilogy is far more balanced at proving it than any other entry. And that is why it is the greatest.
A sumptuous achievement. Perhaps the only criticism that can be levelled at Empire in its current form, thanks to the prequels and subsequent embellishments, is that Boba Fett ever had to be granted a Kiwi accent. But then that would be churlish.
After all, it’s “Impressive, most impressive”.