Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) [Review]

Also Known As: The Empire Strikes Back
124 min May 21, 1980 | | |
 

Plot: After the destruction of the Death Star, Imperial forces continue to pursue the Rebels. After the Rebellion’s defeat on the ice planet Hoth, Luke (Hamill) journeys to the planet Dagobah to train with Jedi Master Yoda (Oz), who has lived in hiding since the fall of the Republic. In an attempt to convert Luke to the dark side, Darth Vader (Prowse) lures young Skywalker into a trap in the Cloud City of Bespin.

Reviewed

It’s been a little while (longer than expected) since our review of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), but it’s time to venture back into that universe once again for Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. After all, since I’ve decided to watch all 3 of the first trilogy (and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)) before I watch Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) (just to re-familiarize myself with them), it’s high time I got this moving.

While it’s a much darker film than it’s predecessor, the now re-named Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back is on a lot of fans’ lists as the best movie of the bunch. But, is it really? Or has nostalgia stuck reared up and captured more praise than the film deserves?

The cast from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) reunites for this sequel, and they are all easily welcomed back by the viewer. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who spent much of his screen time in the first film whining, is gradually growing into an adult version of himself. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back shows him at his awkward middle stage, where he’s still whining, but it’s much more controlled than in the first film – and therefore, much less annoying to viewers. Viewers easily welcome this change in him, and look forward to see how much more he progresses in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983).

Harrison Ford also returns as Han Solo in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, and once again showcases why he’s become such a beloved actor. Whether he’s showing his humanity and friendship by rescuing Luke (once again) near the beginning, or his calming presence while he faces near-certain death near the end of the film, he’s easily still one of the most likable characters in the film, and just plain fun to watch throughout.

Carrie Fisher returns as Leia as well, and her role becomes much more relegated to a background player for most of the film. While she shines when bantering with Han (especially during the now infamous Luke kiss scene), later on, she’s more of just Han’s foil as he brazenly does what he needs to. It’s a bit disappointing, as it seems to showcase more how outclassed Fisher is around Ford, acting-wise, than to showcase the building relationship between their two characters.

Darth Vader (still played by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) really gets his moment in the spotlight in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. It’s as if the filmmakers realized the gold they struck in Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), and centered a movie around him because of it. No longer under anyone’s direct control (aside from the never-seen Emperor), he gets to run things the way he wants to. While he may be hard on the staff (where do they go to get more of these underlings, anyway?), he fully gets to show his ruthless side in this film. Of course, at the end, as he’s hand-ily beating Luke, he also gets to utter what’s got to be one of them most famous (and misquoted) lines in movie history. So there’s that, too.

The rest of the cast, still in their cumbersome gear, are also impressive for this second go-around. Whether it’s Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, or R2 D2, C-3PO or new cast member Frank Oz as Yoda, they imbue their characters with a life of their own, and it’s hard to include a list of the major cast members without them, even though their faces are never seen.

The special effects (enhanced by Lucas years later) are still stop-notch, although some sequences with the animal mounts on the snowy planet of Hoth at the beginning of the film leave a bit to be desired. Aside from those errors at the start, the rest of the effects – including much more difficult ones later on in the film, are flawless, and keep the operatic feel of the film intact. In fact, the updated effects this time around are much harder to spot than in the original, making for a much more enjoyable experience.

While the ending of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) was a bit over-the-top cheesy, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back more than makes up for that with its darker tone. While it doesn’t seem as dark at first, the events of the film – the rebels on the run, and the bad guy(s) seeming to be winning at every turn – makes for a much darker overtone than set forth in the previous film. While this formula is now used all the time in trilogies, it was much riskier when Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back tried it, and it worked brilliantly. Still, even with its darker tone, there’s still a feeling of hope at the end, as if, even though they may be down, they definitely aren’t out of this fight yet.

With a much darker tone, more serious implications and pitfalls for our heroes, and a “bad guys win” scenario, there’s a lot that could have gone wrong with Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. But thanks to a welcome return (and growth) of the cast from the original, and an iconic supervillain finally getting his due – not to mention a plot twist for the ages – the film has transcended time and space to become a classic all future sci-fi films are measured up to.

While it wasn’t originally my personal favorite of the series, it expands and enhances the universe of STAR WARS, and does so much right, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back still manages to do something few sequels can do – be better than the original. And that’s saying a lot.

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