Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Posted by Joel Copling on October 11, 2015

Here we have one of the great examples of a first sequel (That would be to its immediate predecessor, of course; in the line-up of the overarching narrative, it's actually the fourth sequel). "Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" expands and, seemingly impossibly, improves upon the fourth installment of the series, 1977's "A New Hope," and does so by way of a unique decision: It doesn't feel like a sequel but, more accurately, like the literal next chapter in a story. This novelistic approach enhances the feature's space-opera bouquet, and the screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan is offered a chance to breathe new life into a universe that already felt exciting at every possible turn.

That includes our trio of main characters, who feel like different people than the ones we left last time, poised on the brink of war with a force beyond their control. His old master has perished, leaving Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to command forces in the rebellion against the Galactic Empire, spearheaded by the Emperor (Elaine Baker and the voice of Clive Revell) and his chief lieutenant Darth Vader (David Prowse and the voice of James Earl Jones). When the position of their fortress is discovered and relayed by a beacon droid, Vader comes calling, forcing the rebellion off the planet and the compatriots in resoundingly different directions.

Luke is led by the ghostly echo of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to the Dagobah system, where he finds and is trained by Yoda (voice of Frank Oz) in the ways of the Force, that spectral, quasi-spiritual presence that envelops all surrounding matter and is the makeup of its energy (The rules of this presence is explained by the green, impish Jedi Master in terms that are coherently vague, which, of course, is why the Force is so intriguing to fans of the series). Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the smuggling scoundrel who is lovable in his sardonic pragmatism, and Leia (Carrie Fisher), the headstrong princess worn down by Han's rugged charms in spite of herself, are pushed into the protection of Han's old friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), from whom Han won his clanking, beloved Millennium Falcon, only to find themselves back in the clutches of a familiar foe.

The film is an exercise in efficiency, conveying a plot that is somehow more streamlined than even its predecessor. This is the right decision on Brackett and Kasdan's part, though, because it affords the film an occasionally brutish sense of simplicity to its narrative structure. These 124 minutes whiz by on the back of action sequences that sizzle (a dizzying chase through an asteroid field, a thrilling escape from Imperial forces on the snowy, mountainous Hoth planet) and sometimes alarm (a showdown between Luke and an abominable snowman-type creature on that Hoth planet, a daring escape by Han and friends from the bowels of a space beast), thanks to director Irvin Kershner's adept sense of mise en scene.

The characters have achieved a sense of growth, too. Luke's transformation is subtle, but without a doubt, the budding Jedi is a different one by the end credits because of a series of lessons and secrets learned that shape him into a more dignified, adult person than the naive kid out for vengeance from "A New Hope." Han's transformation is more apparent, and that isn't solely because of a burgeoning romance with the princess. From disbelieving everything to do with the Force to having seen his fair share of it in action from both sides of the moral coin, he is a resoundingly different person. Others are here in the more reliable sense, such as the trifecta of comic relief (Peter Mayhew as Han's loyal Wookiee sidekick Chewbacca, Kenny Baker in a series of bleeps and boops as the dome-shaped droid unit R2-D2, and Anthony Daniels as the wise-cracking, English-voiced etiquette cyborg C-3PO) and that mouthpiece-breathing villain Vader, so vindictively voiced by Jones.

The climax presents our heroes with a genuine conundrum (ending with one in suspended captivity and the other two on a likely hopeless journey of finding and rescuing him), which comes after a duel of the fates that leads to a final twist still potent in its ability to surprise (I won't reveal it here, but by now, everyone not living under a rock likely knows the twist and curt line of dialogue by which it is revealed) because of just how late in the game it is unveiled. It shifts the dynamic of the series roughly five minutes before the cut to credits, and in the process, "Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" proves its stature as this series' best and most exciting effort.

Film Information

Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), David Prowse (Darth Vader), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett), Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi), Denis Lawson (Wedge Antilles), Elaine Baker (The Emperor), Julian Glover (General Veers), Kenneth Colley (Admiral Piett), Michael Sheard (Admiral Ozzel), Michael Culver (Captain Needa), John Ratzenberger (Major Derlin), Bruce Boa (General Rieekan), John Morton (Dak).

Featuring the voices of James Earl Jones (Darth Vader), Frank Oz (Yoda), Jason Wingreen (Boba Fett), and Clive Revill (Emperor).

Directed by Irvin Kershner and written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan.

Rated PG (sci-fi action violence).

124 minutes.

Released on June 20, 1980.