Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back [1980]

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back [1980] bursts with psychology and narrative madness three years after its predecessor commandeered cinema like a stolen horse. Armed with a bevy of archetypal characters and a fundamentally human story, it gleefully shot-puts its material into the deepest trenches of artistry, thrashing commercial expectations and taking the reins of not only its medium but its very craft. George Lucas’s story, fleshed out deliriously by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, is guided precisely by Director Irvin Kershner. The cast does not return so much as fully arrive: Mark Hamill as the tenuous but ambitious warrior Luke Skywalker; Carrie Fisher as the sharp-witted and hard-nosed Leia Organa; Harrison Ford as the vulnerable hardass sass-master Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon… if only she would run.

Star Wars? My goodness, you’ve grown! It is, as film critic Darren Franich so seminally stated, “the small one,” even more so than the grounded original, stripping away trite action-violence and token grandeur until only pure hard storytelling and seamless spectacle remains. Like Huck Finn following Tom Sawyer, The Empire Strikes Back renders its classic source material a mere template: a hangar for which to blast off gloriously into realization. There’s a reason Jason Reitman hosted a table read with modern recasting: the film’s screenplay, unrelenting and unpredictable, is literature by itself (at least for those able to stomach Shakespearean putdowns like “stuck-up half-witted scruffy-looking nerfherder”).

They’re like characters, and I wrote them like characters! The film’s conflict is this: the protagonist’s transportation has broken down. Almost everything else comes from that central premise, and how the characters react to and are affected by it. Every good story is, at its core, mundane: audiences can only truly appreciate mundane things because that’s what mundanity is. And the simplistic engine of The Empire Strikes Back is what gives the film its dense, essential feeling: if it doesn’t pertain to or is caused by, the core, then it quite frankly has no place in the film.

I’m not afraid to lie. I’ve been watching it each day since it came into my life. It’s important to note that in the original Star Wars, the hero, and the villain never squared off, except in anonymous starships that never even faced each other. Han Solo took more swings at Darth Vader (with David Prowse’s menacing form and James Earl Jones’ commanding timbre) than Luke Skywalker did. Here, however, the climax is one of an isolated confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, who had been pitted against each other in playgrounds and backyards all over America for the past three years before the real thing was actually first projected to a public audience. In ways such as this, and in the ways that the characters grow into their own skins and stumble upon their inevitable and form-fitting destinies, the sequel is just as essential as the original is.

A dark, brilliant masterpiece