The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Directed by Irvin Kershner. With Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams.
In 1977, the cinematic world changed with the release of George Lucas’ Star Wars. Few people saw it coming, but going to the cinema was never going to be the same again. Star Wars set imaginations alight around the globe with its optimistic grandeur and sweeping, romantic themes of good vs evil. The Empire Strikes Back ripped up the ‘difficult second album syndrome’ when it was released in 1980, taking the fun of Star Wars and furthering it into a captivating tour-de-force of drama and inspired character development.
The film beautifully fleshes out the characters we fell in love with the first time around, adding depth and humanity in nearly every way. Darth Vader – arguably the greatest screen villain of all-time – is more ruthless and irritable this time, choking his generals for their incompetence, thus escalating his own frustration in tracking down those responsible for the destruction of the first Death Star. The sound of Vader’s breathing mask is alone an ominous one, and the script by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett has a shocking dramatic sting in its tale that ensured that Star Wars was to live on as much more than just a one-hit-wonder.
The lighting, editing, shot compositions, camera work and art design are exceptional, helping to make the lived-in universe of Star Wars once again feel like a tangible, real place to inhabit for two hours. While Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker begins to lose some of his naivety amid a journey of personal discovery, Harrison Ford piles on the roguish charm as Han Solo – bantering and bickering with Carrie Fisher’s spiky Princess Leia between dodging asteroids and the laser-fire of Super Star Destroyers and Tie Fighters.
Once again, John Williams’ score is a thing of sheer magnificence, introducing further romantic themes on top of the already established swashbuckling ones. The Imperial March is a resounding wallop around the ear-holes, projecting dominance and ill-intentioned power with a musical force that would blow away any heavy metal band, even with their amplifiers ‘turned up to 11’.
Then we have the Jedi Master, Yoda, a wonderfully eccentric creation and a great twist on audience expectation. For those overly familiar with Star Wars, it’s worth reminding yourself just how surprising many of the story revelations of Empire were.
So much of what makes Empire so great is in its bold dramatic revelations and its brave story choices. The film chooses character development first, yet still whacks an almighty visual punch with ambitious effects sequences, decades ahead of their time.
Empire is like the perfect middle-act, and succeeds in expanding the Star Wars galaxy as a rich and vast playground. Dramatically, it’s the most resonant of the original three, backed up by some of the richest production design in the history of cinema. To me and so many others, The Empire Strikes Back is a mark of quality that gets better every time that I see it. 5/5