Retrospective | ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ Gave Star Wars Its Saga

Last year, I watched all 33-and-counting Godzilla feature films ahead of the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This year, I’ve undertaken a programming schedule that is much more manageable in scope, but even closer to my heart. This is The Road to ‘Rise of Skywalker’ Rewatch!

Previously: ‘A New Hope’ Changed Movies Forever, And Itself Continues to Change

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In last week’s installment on A New Hope, I wrote about how the 1977 film that kicked off Star Wars is perhaps best thought of as two movies: the standalone Star Wars, inspired by adventure serials of yore, and its special-edition remix Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, an important inflection point in the grander tapestry of series canon as it has developed over forty-two years. That cleavage would never have happened were it not for the narrative and thematic potency of this movie, 1980's Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back. The franchise has been in some ways chasing this movie ever since, and it’s difficult to overstate just how long its shadow looms over the fandom. As I have mentioned several times at this point, Vader’s late-game paternity reveal to Luke is the foundational touchstone upon which the rest of the series is built. Without it, Return of the Jedi lacks emotional heft, the prequels are a far less interesting proposition, and Star Wars as a whole ceases to be about the timeless struggle between self and shadow-self.

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While the original Star Wars, devoid of the context of this movie, is a feel-good coming-of-age yarn, Empire is built around the idea that nothing is ever quite so simple. In its schema, evil follows you everywhere, every one of us has as much potential to do bad as to do good, and the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The elements of tragedy, multi-generational operatic drama, and surprising interconnectedness that have come to define Star Wars as a whole originate less with A New Hope than they do with Empire.

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Nothing about Episode V’s nature was an obvious choice as a follow-up to the biggest blockbuster event picture of the previous decade. For one thing, in 1980, sequels weren’t supposed to be good. For most of Hollywood’s history, successful feature films which garnered sequels saw their second installments assigned to less-than-stellar B-teams at cut-rate budgets. Sequels were, with few exceptions, attempts to cash in on name recognition without an eye to longevity in any kind of franchise mold. The sole contemporary exception to this was the venerable James Bond franchise, which had been produced at a remove from Hollywood proper by the Broccoli family’s Eon Productions, with the films merely being distributed by United Artists. This was the model which George Lucas emulated with Star Wars post-A New Hope. In a 1977 Rolling Stone interview shortly after Star Wars’ release, Lucas explicitly invoked the James Bond franchise, and explained that in his roadmap for the series, there would be room for a variety of directors and interpretations.

While the first film had been financed by 20th Century Fox, Empire would be paid for out of pocket by Lucasfilm, with Lucas retaining total creative control. Thus the reason why Star Wars succeeded as an ongoing affair is that George Lucas took his company’s vast new fortune, built on a mountain of merchandising profits which 20th Century Fox missed out on, and sought to make a movie that was anything but a quickie cash-grab.

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Most sequels of the era might feature a twist on the setting of the first film, and stick some new faces into the ensemble, but the plot would read almost like a Mad-Libbed spin on the successful first film. From page one, The Empire Strikes Back does away with this model of regurgitation. If anything, its structure is an inversion of the first film’s. The big effects showcase sci-fi battle doesn’t happen at the film’s climax; it happens in its first third, as the Empire tracks down the Rebels after three years on the run. Technically, the snowy Battle of Hoth was a more ambitious affair than the trench run of the first movie. Optical compositing in the analog era was much easier to achieve against the inky black backgrounds of space, where matte lines could be hidden. The stark white background plates shot in Norway to represent Hoth, however, are far less forgiving. From Phil Tippet’s “go-motion” technique used to bring the tauntauns and Imperial walkers life (an evolution of the stop-motion that had been around almost as long as cinema had been), to the risky decision to cast a Muppet in a dramatic role, Empire is a tour-de-force in what was possible with movie magic in 1980, nearly a full decade before digital effects would begin to regularly integrate into Hollywood post-production.

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Director Irving Kershner working with Carrie Fisher on the dramatic Bespin carbon-freezing set.

Director Irving Kershner, who had once been a professor of Lucas’s at USC, took over on-set duties. Lucas had nearly had a heart attack from the stresses of making the first film under monetary and scheduling duress, and wouldn’t return to the director’s chair until The Phantom Menace in 1999. With Lucas shepherding top-level production back in America, and Kershner working with the actors and crew overseas, Empire is all the stronger. This picture is mercifully spared the shortcomings of Lucas’ on-set approach, while fully realizing his big-picture ambitions in pushing franchise filmmaking in new and unexpected directions.

There’s a dreamlike, surreal quality to this chapter, whether it be Luke’s descent into a hallucinogenic Force cave on Dagobah, or the quiet menace of Cloud City’s genial splendor hiding a cold nastiness deep in its industrial bowels. Star Wars hasn’t hit the same heights of off-kilter, unsettling vibes since.

John Wililiam’s score soars throughout ‘Empire.’

John Williams delivered his greatest contribution to the Star Wars series with his score here. While many sequels had historically ejected the first film’s composer and, in turn, their music, Lucas wisely retained Williams’ indelible sound for Empire, confirming that going forward, the maestro’s touch would be the lifeblood of the series as much as any character might be. The Star Wars main theme is back for the opening scroll, of course, as are many of the leitmotifs Williams developed in the first film, like the Force Theme. However, he also expands the musical lexicon of the series. It’s easy to forget that the Imperial March, familiar to almost anyone touched by popular culture whether they’ve seen a Star Wars movie or not, originated not with A New Hope, but with this movie. The Battle of Hoth is a wild loop-de-loop of clashing motifs. Yoda’s Theme is a frisson-inducing bit of melody, and the desperate, high-tension strains of the score in the film’s Bespin portion, as the heroes’ plans fall apart one by one, propels Empire to emotional heights beyond its predecessor.

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Nearly four decades since its release, this movie is almost universally considered the high point of the franchise, and yet it had the lowest first-run box office take of the six Lucas-era Star Wars pictures. Upon its release, critical reception was split, with The New York Times’ Vincent Canby calling it a “a big, expensive, time-consuming, essentially mechanical operation. The Empire Strikes Back is about as personal as a Christmas card from a bank.” Anecdotally, I’ve heard a few friends observe the generational divide on this point, saying that their parents who saw it upon its initial release didn’t love it, and still vaguely recall it being the weakest of the three. To which I can only reply with an admittedly played-out OK, Boomer. Empire was unmatched when it first hit the scene, and forty years later, there still hasn’t been anything quite like it.

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George Lucas, Irving Kershner, and producer Gary Kurtz watch an early cut of the film.

But Lucas was frustrated during its making, feeling Kershner & Co. were frittering away his blank check beyond his reach on another production that was behind schedule and running into cost overruns. While that desire to get it right might’ve led to the best movie in the series, it also led to Lucas’ desire to bring things even more in-house on the next film. Creative differences on the next movie would see the loss of original producer Gary Kurtz and the replacement of Kershner with the relatively milquetoast directorial style of Richard Marquand. The far-flung, exotic hostility of Hoth would beget the suspiciously Californian redwoods of Endor, which for Lucas meant an opportunity to bring production into his own backyard. The next time out would be safer, more controlled, and a little less interesting for it.

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It’s reductive to simply call Episode V the “dark one” in the original trilogy, or to say that it’s grim and gritty. It retains the playful sense of fantasy and weirdness that A New Hope established for this universe, and is never above a good comic gag. Empire isn’t dark because Luke gets his hand cut off, or because the Rebels lose the battle this time, or because Han ends up Jimmy Hoffa’d in a slab of carbonite. It masterfully modulates its tone, which means it’s weighty even when nothing particularly grim is happening. It’s like a musical refrain, now familiar to the audience, suddenly being played in a minor key. There’s a sense that this time out, the fantasy is leading you down a darker part of the forest, one where the trees become gradually more gnarled, and the ambient sounds of unseen wildlife ever-more menacing. It suggests that after any coming-of-age story there must be a chapter of disabusing, where old assumptions and foundations will inevitably be torn down, and our freshly-minted heroes will be forced to ask tough questions of themselves and the people in which they’ve put their trust. In the real world, as in the galaxy far, far away, life swings on a pendulum. After a period of victory will come a period of difficulty; withstand that difficulty, and you may come out the other side better for it. Or you may simply end up broken. There are no guarantees in life, and The Empire Strikes Back had the confidence to leave a global audience hanging on the unresolved refrain of a familiar tune for three long years.

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Next week: The story of father and son comes full circle in Return of the Jedi!

And if you liked this, check out my video essay on the Galaxy Far, Far Away, Let’s Get Drunk and Talk About ‘Star Wars’:

Media producer, director of the movie "West Coast Gothic," and author of the Bridgetown series. Sans-serif fonts have ruined my last name.

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