- Movie Rating -

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

| May 21, 1980

Watching The Empire Strikes Back, I was reminded of when I read “The Lord of the Rings”. When I got the second chapter, I realized that I wasn’t just reading a recap of the first book – it was moving me deeper into the heart of the story.  It was the journey to the middle of the forest – the most vulnerable spot where anything is possible.

That, in essence, is what happens in this film.  If you’ve seen this film then it is a safe bet that you’ve seen the other one and you can easily spot that they are not one in the same.  Whereas Star Wars was a cheeky space opera, this one is darker.  It throws our heroes into the depths of despair from which they will only emerge in the final chapter.

George Lucas, working with a bigger budget, takes a lot of risks here.  The film is striking.  It loads the bulk of the action into the first few scenes so that the rest of the movie can breathe with character details.  It is antithetical to a clear-line of movie necessities.  It has a romance but it isn’t kissy kissy.  It has jokes but they never seem to be apart from the action.  It has comic relief but it doesn’t stop the picture cold.  It gambles on replacing the regal presence of Alec Guinness with a two-foot puppet from Jim Henson’s toy shop, yet somehow creates a character who was more philosophical and far less optimistic.  And it turns its hero, formerly a starry-eyed dreamer, into a broody and impetuous ball of frustrated vulnerability.

Those details throw us for a loop.  A New Hope ended with boundless optimism, a portrait of heroes who overthrew the hordes of Space Nazis, toppled their Death Star stronghold (truly, the last word in WMDs) and now the rebellion is on the run.  The movie embraces a story that is much darker.  The heroes lose, the villains lose.  In the end, no one gets what they want, and the movie ends on a note so bittersweet that you want to give our heroes a great big hug for at least trying.  Williams’ score is sad and mournful but also has a slight tinge of hope.  You can feel the question marks between the notes.

Personally, I am impressed by how the movie opens.  It is three years after A New Hope but Lawrence Kasden’s script never takes any time to re-introduce anyone.  The opening crawl orients only to the fact that the Rebellion is still on the run and that Vader, now in control, seems to be focusing all of the Empire’s efforts on finding Luke, even at the expense of letting valuable Imperial hardware crash into asteroids.

The relationship between Han and Leia, more or less, picks up in the middle of their personal romantic banter.  There’s no real introduction there – it’s not necessary.  Kasden’s script uses great cinematic short-hand to let us know that the two have been at odds with each other romantically for some time and have been tap dancing circles around each other like a finely-tuned romantic comedy, a long way from “If money is all that you love, then that’s what you’ll receive.”

The film’s narrative structure was startling too.  Wherein the previous film was a work of high adventure and minimalist world building, this film is a dark shadow.  It throws our beloved heroes into the pits of despair, lets them fail and then ends on a note so bittersweet that we aren’t even sure if they’ll survive the third installment.  Thematically, this is a movie about failure – nobody wins.  Nobody gets what they want, not even the villain.

The Empire Strikes Back works because it expands heavily on what has been introduced while paving the way for the third act.  This is the trilogy’s heart.  One of the great achievements here is the way in which Lucas deepens the Zen philosophy of The Force.  He allows us to understand the philosophical side.  The heart of the movie is Luke’s education at the hands of Yoda, whose agenda isn’t to teach Luke new powers but to get him to understand the power that he has.  It’s the lesson in all things: to overturn his mental comfort zones and find a new way of doing something.  I like that his lessons are juxtaposed with Darth Vader using his powers flippantly to dispatch anyone who displeases him, a grim alt-view of what Luke is in danger of becoming.

That expansion of the meaning of the force is indicative of this whole movie.  This is a bridge movie, a story that gets us from the introduction to the conclusion, but it is so much more than that.  It has to be more than that.  Again, it opens the universe and expands our view of it (obviously, a bigger budget helped).  This is one of the most aesthetically pleasing science fiction films that I have ever seen.  How many movies have a color palette like this: from the white and blue and grey of Hoth, to the pink and red of Cloud City to the black and dark blue of the inner sanctum where Luke meets Vader for the first time.  That adds to the structure of the film which seems to be reinventing itself with every scene.

The Empire Strikes Back is grand, fast paced and unexpected.  It has moments of great action, but also introspection.  Yoda’s monologue about the meaning of the force is one of the greatest moments in cinema history.  Luke’s education is not simply about powers, it’s about relearning what the force is and how to connect with it.  The movie twists and turns the values of what has been established into something deeper, more mythical, more magical.  It has a lot to get done in service to the trilogy but still it charts its own course.  Its journey lies along a different path.  It is exactly what is should be, and more; an epic adventure with a force all its own.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized