Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
After the destruction of the Imperial Death Star, the Empire launches a devastating assault on the Rebel Alliance, while Darth Vader hunts down Han, Leia, and Luke.
2 hour 4 minutes
June 20, 1980
Director: Irvin Kershner
Writers: Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas
Composer: John Williams
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford
Frequently referred to as the best movie of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back has deeply ingrained its characters in popular culture with a bevy of snappy quotable lines as well as compelling character dynamics that range from intense to delightful. For those with vivid memories of the original Star Wars cast, chances are this is the movie that formed them.
Violence/Scary Images: The main plot involves two major factions at war, which means there are plenty of space and ground battles, all fought with laser blasters and artillery. One character is tortured, mostly offscreen, though his screams are heard. A character’s hand is cut off. However, there is very little blood and no graphic images are shown. One character strangles another almost to death, while the main villain uses his powers to suffocate several of his subordinates after they fail their tasks.
Language/Crude Humor: There are some in-universe phrases that the characters seem to use as profanities. Insults are frequent.
Drug/Alcohol Content: None.
Sexual Content: Characters kiss several times and there is some suggestive banter.
Spiritual Content: The Force and the Jedi could be viewed as being religious, though they aren’t explicitly portrayed this way.
Other Negative Content: Lando is a gambler who runs an illegal mining operation. Han has a questionable past, questionable motives despite being someone the audience is meant to love and cheer for. Luke often acts childish.
Positive Content: All of the main characters are willing to sacrifice themselves in order to help one another. Luke refuses to give in to anger and hate, even when it seems like it will lead to his death.
I must admit that it’s been a long time since I dipped back into the original Star Wars trilogy. As a result, I’d forgotten just how fun and endearing its characters are: the ever-bickering Han Solo and Princess Leia are one of the best duos to ever take us on a journey, while watching Luke try to deal with the goofy yet mysterious Master Yoda seems to only have gotten more entertaining with time.
While it sports a relatively simple plot, The Empire Strikes Back is so memorable because it shifts these character dynamics into hyperdrive. In the trilogy’s first film, which Trey already reviewed here, these heroes were little more than a cobbled together band of underdogs who just happened to find themselves aligned with one another against a common threat. Now, though, we get to see how they interact after becoming familiar with each other when they’re together by choice rather than mere circumstance.
Some of their core traits are played up here: we get even more generous helpings of Han’s cocky witticisms, Luke’s heroism, and Leia’s fierce independence and biting stubbornness. These, after all, are what make them interesting heroes in the first place and are the reason they’re remembered so fondly. But Empire also does something that A New Hope does not: it gives us a deep glance into each of their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and lets us empathize with them rather than idolize them, thus turning what could have been another shoot-‘em-up sci-fi flick into a truly compelling story.
Paired with these excellent character portrayals is the movie’s constantly shifting tone. Comedic banter is beautifully balanced with intense scenes, but this balance begins to fade as the plot darkens. This gradual decline makes the grim events leading up to the climax pierce all the deeper, as we see the personalities we’ve come to love fade into the growing sadness and despair.
It’s impossible to talk about all this, of course, without giving due credit to the acting. Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in particular play brilliantly off one another, and their chemistry alone is worth taking a trip into the past to witness.
Moving away from our delightful heroes for a moment, we get to take a look at their prime enemy, the infamous and much-beloved Darth Vader. A movie like this can only be as good as its villains, and Vader certainly sets the bar high. While he spent much of the first movie as a looming background presence, his role in Empire gives him much more time in the spotlight as he leads the hunt for the escaped rebels. As a leader, he’s dangerous, unpredictable, and clever, and we’re constantly reminded of just how fearsome a threat he truly is.
In an age where movies are largely defined by anti-heroes and grittiness, it’s also incredibly refreshing to go back to a simple tale of good versus evil. The heroes in Star Wars are distinguished by their willingness to risk their lives and make sacrifices for the sake of their friends while giving in to selfish feelings is a temptation that is painfully alluring but can also be overcome. Even Lando, the most morally grey character in the film, has to choose between preserving himself and helping others, and it’s both vexing and cathartic to watch him try to navigate his moral dilemmas as the middle ground keeps crumbling underneath him.
I’ve used a lot of words to say what most people reading this already knew–that there are plenty of reasons to look back fondly on the most well-liked Star Wars movie–but for me, personally, it was quite a rejuvenating trek. The latest installments in the saga left me rather apathetic toward the whole franchise. It’s good to remember that the stories that started it all are still just as entertaining, endearing, and inspiring as ever.
Conversely, though, seeing the quality of the originals has also made me a bit more pessimistic about the new releases. The new Han Solo movie comes out this month, and actor Alden Ehrenreich will have the task of trying to revive the spirit of the original scruffy-looking smuggler captain.
I wonder what his odds are.
+ Fantastic acting & character dynamics
+ Skillful use of atmosphere and tone
- Some story contrivances/unexplained plot points
- A few points drag due to long runtime