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Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back


After a few reviews that jumped the queue either because they were synonymous with Halloween (Poltergeist, The Mist) or currently in cinemas (Thor) we return to the backlog. And following my review of Big it's time for another old favourite I'm revisiting as I continue my never-ending work on my new favourite films list. While Big proved very popular this is a much lesser known film, a really small independent film. In fact I'll be surprised if anyone else has even seen it.


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Year of release
1980

Directed by
Irvin Kershner

Written by
Lawrence Kasdan
Leigh Brackett

Starring
Mark Hamill
Harrison Ford
Carrie Fisher
Billy Dee Williams
Anthony Daniels
Frank Oz

Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back

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Plot - After receiving a vision from Obi-Wan Kenobi and fleeing the ice world of Hoth with his friends after an Imperial attack, Luke Skywalker travels to the marsh planet of Dagobah, where he is instructed in the ways of the Force by the legendary Jedi Master Yoda. Meanwhile, Han Solo and Princess Leia make their way to planet Bespin, where they are greeted by Han's old friend, a shifty gambler named Lando Calrissian. Ambushed by the Empire shortly after their arrival, Han and his friends are imprisoned by Darth Vader. Luke leaves Dagobah to rescue his friends, and is met by Vader and a startling revelation.

Unlike the large majority of people on here I'm guessing, I didn't grow up on the Star Wars films. In fact the first film of the series that I ever saw was The Phantom Menace, and that didn't exactly make me desperate to track down the rest. As a result it wasn't until just a few years ago that I finally got round to watching the original trilogy. And while I like both Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, for me Empire Strikes Back is just on a completely different level from them. The film features so many of the series' best and most iconic moments and scenes, as well as introducing a couple of much loved characters. I mean you've got Luke's encounter with the wampa, the AT-ATs attack on the rebel base on Hoth, Han being frozen in carbonite, Luke's training under the tutelage of Yoda - and that's only the tip of the iceberg! You've also got the epic lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader, the best of the series. Set in the bowels of Cloud City it has the appearance of taking place in the depths of hell itself. Shrouded in darkness, lit by eerie, red mood lighting and buffeted by pillows of smoke and steam it makes for a wonderfully evocative backdrop for this collision between the two characters. A collision which of course culminates in the film's most famous moment, indeed it's one of the most famous moments in the history of cinema. And despite the fact that it is now one of the most known movie twists of all time, and the one of the most parodied scenes ever the moment still retains a real pop to it.

And then there are the characters that are introduced. To lesser extents you've got Billy Dee Williams' Lando Calrissian, and the bounty hunter Bobba Fett. Although I've got to say that I'm rather baffled by the huge cult following that Fett has assembled. Yes he's got quite a cool outfit and an air of mystery but not much else. However every character introduction pales in comparison to that of the little green, pint-sized Jedi master that was Yoda. I love the fašade that Yoda puts on during his initial meeting with Luke. The first impression is that he's a goofy, idiotic little bundle of energy. He kind of reminds me of Daffy, the exceptionally silly mogwai from Gremlins: The New Batch. And had he carried on this vein perhaps he would have inherited the mantle of most annoying Star Wars character long before Jar-Jar Binks was even conceived of. Afterwards however he reveals his true nature and the great wisdom that he holds within his tiny little frame. He's a great character and a wonderful little addition to the Star Wars universe. It actually feels like a bit of a risk on behalf of the filmmakers giving such prominence to a puppet, something that you imagine could easily have flopped. The character plays such a vital role in the film that had it failed the whole movie could easily have fallen down around it. So much of the character's success though is down to the legend that is Frank Oz who does an immense job at both puppeteering and voicing Yoda, with Oz himself responsible for generating the character's iconic syntax.

Film Trivia Snippets - George Lucas originally offered the role of Yoda to his friend Jim Henson. Even though he turned it down, Henson did suggest that Lucas give the job to Frank Oz. It worked out so well and Lucas was so impressed by Oz's performance that he spent thousands of dollars on an advertising campaign to try and get OZ an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The campaign ultimately failed however because it was felt that a puppeteer was not a 'proper' actor. /// If you look closely during the asteroid sequence, you'll be able to see that not all of the asteroids are actual asteroids. One of them is potato and another is actually a shoe. The rumour in regards to the latter is that George Lucas asked the SFX people to redo the scene so many times that their annoyance eventually got the best of them and one of the artists threw their own shoe into the scene. /// Part of the reason to have Han Solo frozen in carbonite at the end of Empire was down to the uncertainty over whether Harrison Ford would return for the third film or not. Back when the original Star Wars was being made Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill signed three picture deals, but Ford refused. He even requested that Lucas kill off Solo as he felt his character had fulfilled his usefulness; a request that Lucas refused as he still had a heroic part for Han Solo to play in Return of the Jedi.
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Empire Strikes Back zips along at a really quite tremendous rate with barely a moment's rest in between the lightsaber cobmat, space battles, Han and Leia on the run etc. And it obviously starts off as every Star Wars film did with the opening crawl of information which provides a massive exposition dump and allows the film to just jump right into the action. One of the reasons that I find this is a much richer film than A New Hope is down to the fact that it has the villains on top, something which proves to be just much more interesting. And while this may ensure that the film is certainly darker and with a bit more grit about it than either the preceding Star Wars or the following Return of the Jedi, surprisingly it's perhaps also funnier than either of those films. This is largely down to C3PO's involvement. This time out they seem to have really upped his level of crankiness and introduced quite a degree of disdain for the android on the part of Han Solo which was entertaining. And I love how peeved he is once he's been disassembled and then reassembled with his head on the wrong way. Though he's not the only source for humour, Yoda too also joins in when it comes to delivering the laughs.

Even though his character became one of the most famous fictional creations of all time, I wouldn't say that Mark Hamill exactly gives an excellent performance as Luke Skywalker. I find him to be really quite wooden and awkward, however in an odd way that works. It helps to convince us of the character's wide-eyed naivety and 'aw shucks' nature. His deer caught in the headlights expression works for this young kid thrust into such an insane, daunting situation. A stronger performance can be found in the presence of Harrison Ford as Han Solo, playing him with a great charisma and arrogance. Ford also gets to really play with the sexual chemistry and level of bickering between himself and Carrie Fisher's Leia which is amped up in this instalment. In fact all of the characters are better handled and developed in this film. If you really wanted to criticise Star Wars you could perhaps look at the characters. In it Luke was a bit of a whiny bitch, Han a narcissistic mercenary and Leia reduced to a damsel in distress. Here in Empire however they all grow and develop to a stage where they can save the day in the concluding Return of the Jedi. Luke grows up and becomes the leader of the Rebel Alliance, Han develops into a noble hero and Leia becomes quite the kick-ass heroine who can hold her own in any situation. The only real disappointment in regards to the cast, and one of the very few areas I'd give Star Wars the upper hand, is the real lack of Alec Guinness who brought such great gravitas to the role of Obi Wan Kenobi.

In terms of the characters the Star Wars films actually act like a series of classic double acts. To start with you've got the master/student relationship between Luke and Obi-Wan, the classic buddy relationship between Han and Chewbacca and the odd-couple like pairing between R2-D2 and C3PO. That last one in particular is a lot of fun as we watch them squabble and antagonise each other, even if we understand only what one of them is saying. I love the contrast in their designs which highlights the polar opposites of robot design ever since they were first conceived. You've got the completely robotic piece of machinery that is R2-D2 coupled with the android C3PO, an attempt to mimic as closely as possible the appearance of a human being. Once these three disparate groups come together they then break off into other double acts such as the bickering/sexual chemistry/innuendo relationship of Han and Leia

Film Trivia Snippets - Even though The Empire Strikes Back is generally regarded as the darkest entry in the Star Wars series, with just 30 deaths it actually has the lowest body count of any film in the saga. /// Early on in the film's production Paul Verhoeven was one of the men in line to direct it, based on his work on Soldier of Orange. When he was invited to a meeting with the producers he took along a copy of his newest film, Spetters, to screen for them. After that screening he never heard from them again. /// Before Star Wars had even been released, Mark Hammill was nearly killed in an automobile accident and as a result, had to have reconstructive surgery on his face. George Lucas used the Wampa attack to explain Luke's altered appearance. When Hamill asked Lucas what he would have done if Hamill had been killed in the accident, Lucas told him that he would not have recast the part of Luke. Instead, a new character would have been introduced that would be linked genetically, in some way, to Luke. This link would also explain the new character's strength in the Force
And when talking about the Star Wars films it would be impossible (or at least it should be) to overlook the massive contribution made by John William's highly celebrated score. It carries on the great work laid out in Star Wars but also builds on it by introducing probably the most famous piece of music from the series, and one of the most recognised in all of cinematic history; The Imperial March. As soon as it kicks in (“dun dun da-dun, dun dun da-dun”) you just get shivers down your spine, such an ominous and brilliant piece of music. It would come to be simply known by the shorthand of Darth Vader's theme, and that theme, just as much as anything else, really goes to creating and defining the character of Vader. Watching him stride through the Death Star just wouldn't be the same without that theme at his back. Speaking of good old Darth it's in this sequel that he is really allowed to grow into one of the all time great movie villains. In Star Wars he was working in co-operation with Grand Moff Tarkin and felt kind of like his henchman, while in Return of the Jedi we see him in reverence to Emperor Palpatine. With Empire however this is Darth's show. The character is unleashed and given free reign to dominate proceedings. And what a character he is. To be honest it's actually achieved in quite simple terms but it's just done so damn well. Alongside the aforementioned musical cues you've got the outfit, the helmet and the voice. Oh yes, that voice! Oh what a voice. What a tremendous and inspired casting decision it was to bring in James Earl Jones to provide the foreboding ones of Vader. A voice that just carries so much weight and authority. When that man is saying something, you make damn sure that you're listening.

It's not just in the creation of Vader that a lot of creativity can be found. Some of the art design in Empire and indeed throughout all of the original trilogy is fantastic. The costume design for Vader and the Stormtroopers is excellent and truly iconic, while as I said earlier the design of the little android duo is likewise stellar. A lot of impressive work also went in to creating the wider world of weaponry, ships, locations etc. The only slight let-down is perhaps the apparel of the human characters outwith the Empire. That aside though the film is a credit to the craft and ability of all those involved with costuming the characters, building the sets, giving life to all the puppets etc. There is a lot of fine craftsmanship on show here. And a whole load of fun.

Conclusion - The Empire Strikes Back is just a terrifically entertaining and rollicking slice of space-faring adventure. I've attempted to point out some of the reasons why I see this as being the absolute pinnacle of George Lucas' creation, but perhaps the most impressive aspect of all this success is that it all comes about despite being the second movie in a trilogy. So often the middle movie of a series suffers just because its very nature dictates that nothing is really going to be resolved, that it's going to end on a bit of a cliffhanger. Empire is so good however that is able to sidestep even this problem. Had I seen these films as a kid and really grown up with them I could see myself loving this even more than I do.