‘The Empire Strikes Back’ sparked our imaginations. Can Star Wars regain that magic? — Ultimate Movie Year
“The Empire Strikes Back”
Released May 21, 1980
Directed by Irvin Kershner
Where to Watch
It’s hard to imagine a world where there was just “Star Wars.” Not the massive galaxy-spanning franchise of movies, shows, books, comics, games, toys, and more. Just the original 1977 film.
But that was the world as it existed for three years in the late 70s. The George Lucas space adventure film became one of the biggest movies of all time, helping popularize the term “blockbuster” because people literally waited in movie theater lines that stretched around the block. There was no mythology, no midichlorians, no grand family saga. Just the heroic adventures of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) as they save the galaxy, destroy the Death Star, and send the villainous Darth Vader flying off into space.
After the original movie, there were a few threads fans could follow for more Star Wars. Marvel Comics adapted the movie at the beginning of a monthly series, then started publishing original stories without any clear idea of where the story in Lucas’ head was going. Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the first film novelization, penned a follow-up book, “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,” in 1978. And of course, there was an infamous television holiday special. When Lucas finally announced that there would be a sequel film to “Star Wars,” it was hard for fans to grasp what that could be, because the possibilities seemed endless.
But even with an unlimited potential, “The Empire Strikes Back” still managed to surprise audiences when it premiered in 1980. The sequel opens with our heroes hiding on an icy planet called Hoth. Darth Vader now commands an entire Empire fleet, intensely focused on finding the Rebel pilot who destroyed the Death Star. Meanwhile, Luke is called by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to complete his Jedi training with a mysterious master named Yoda. As Luke prepares to accept his destiny, Vader chases the Rebels across the galaxy in a maximum pressure campaign to finally confront Luke.
While his original “Star Wars” was enormously successful, Lucas decided to hand off the scriptwriting and directing duties to other individuals while he focused on building Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic, two key components that would help build the franchise.
“I knew I had a lot to do and it would be very hard because, when I direct, I really am there 24/7,” Lucas told StarWars.com last year. “And I thought I would need a little extra time to sort out Lucasfilm. And so that’s why I felt I needed to hire a director… I couldn’t run a studio, build ILM, and direct a movie at the same time.”
Lucas recruited screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (fresh off “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) to complete the script he started with the late Leigh Brackett. For director, Lucas called upon his old University of Southern California mentor Irvin Kershner.
“George was an amazing producer,” Kershner recalled in the 2010 featurette, “A Conversation with the Masters.” “He gave you freedom. I am very much an improvisational director, and so, he went along with me.”
Also returning to the series was John Williams, who composed a score for “Empire” that at least matches, if not improves upon, his work on the original “Star Wars.” For my money, Williams’ score for “Empire” is one of the best start-to-finish compositions of his career, with notable themes for the Han and Leia romance, Yoda, and Darth Vader’s memorable Imperial march.
“Empire” succeed not just because it introduced new worlds, aliens, and spaceships into the Star Wars universe, but it deeped the mythology that Lucas imagined. The first “Star Wars” is an entertaining, imaginative story about a boy becoming a hero. “Empire” expands the worldview of the hero, introducing him to ideas and history that recontextualizes who he is. “Empire” also concludes with one of the best plot twists and cliffhanger endings in film history.
Audiences who assumed they knew where the story was heading were wrong. People who expected a happy ending were rocked. “Empire” raised the stakes and defied expectations on what a sequel could be, to the point where now it’s become a cultural shorthand to describe a darker-than-expected franchise turn.
The movie was also released in a different time, which in hindsight, almost feels as alien to franchise movies as the worlds of Star Wars. In 1980 there were no social media, streaming services, or Internet discussion groups. Instead we had mounds of hot-selling merchandise to keep us in the world of Star Wars.
As a five-year-old, my vices were the toys and trading cards. I have fond memories of staring at the action figures and cards depicting the silent bounty hunters standing on the bridge of Vader’s Star Destroyer. Unlike the Rebels and the Empire, these characters all had unique looks, and viewers were left to their imaginations to parse out their personalities, histories, and abilities. In hindsight, those characters were placed in that scene to sell toys as much as it was to world-build, but I didn’t care, then and now. Nothing I’ve learned about those bounty hunters “in canon” has made them more interesting than the versions that existed in my head.
It’s a good reminder to be careful what you wish for. The expansion of the Star Wars universe is creating a schism within fandom who cannot agree on what types of stories and characters the franchise should be focusing on. I believe Star Wars works best when it pushes beyond its limits, moves the story forward, and exceeds what we thought is possible, as seen in the original movie, “Empire,” and (oh boy) “The Last Jedi.” But more than any ongoing franchise, Star Wars has spent the better part of 30 years returning to its past, telling us stories we already know the ending to. Sometimes these installments have all the joy of reading a Wikipedia article, something video essayist Patrick H. Willems discussed in 2020.
“Star Wars is more interested in its past than its future,” Williems said. “That it would rather fill in little gaps in its story than move forward.” A huge reason why the original Star Wars appealed to so many young children of the late 70s and early 80s is that the movies had so many of those little gaps that we were able to fill with our imaginations. When the powers-that-be finally circled back to explaining the gaps, the results were … unimaginative.
There’s another huge surprise in “Empire,” and it’s the introduction of Yoda. As brought to life by master puppeteer Frank Oz, Yoda is relatively immoble in his debut, but what he loses in agility, he makes up for in the sheer expressiveness of the character. But the other key to Yoda in “Empire” is his wisdom, offering lessons that reject hate and anger while preaching patience and understanding. While Yoda’s proclamations are rarely deeper than your average pop culture philosophy, they do give the audience a theme that plays out in the climax of “Empire” (and later, “Return of the Jedi”). In the decades since, a rush to talk about what happened and which notable character returned in a surprise appearance has overshadowed our understanding of the thematic idea in these stories, and the fandom culture is worse for it.
Audiences and critics loved the movie, scoring 97 and 94 percent approval ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively.
“Veteran director Irvin Kershner has kept creator George Lucas’ pop-fantasy elements, the imagery derived from countless Hollywood Saturday morning serials, science-fiction films, war movies and westerns,” wrote Jack Garner for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “But he has also enriched the characterizations of the leading performers — something one would expect from a man noted for focusing on human relationships in his previous films. ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is everything most Star Wars fans hoped it would be.”
What’s fascinating about the release of “The Empire Strikes Back” is that it had a limited debut on Memorial Day weekend of only 126 theaters. It still grossed $4.9 million, good enough to be at the top of the box office for a few weeks. The Star Wars sequel finally expanded to a wider release on June 20, reenergizing its box office run. “Empire” received another expansion on July 18, so the original release defied conventional modern wisdom by increasing its distribution for the first few months. By the end of its theatrical run, “Empire” became the biggest grossing movie of 1981 with a $209.4 haul, just about doubling the sales of the second place movie, “9 to 5.” At the time, “Empire” was one of the most successful movies of all time, and still ranks 13th in ticket sales when adjusted for today’s prices.
For better or worse, “The Empire Strikes Back” has left an enormous legacy with how we engage with our culture. Fortunately, the movie is still excellent, as fine of an example of filmmaking craft as one can produce in that era. Will Star Wars ever reclaim the magic of “Empire,” that brilliant mix of imagination and wonder that captured the hearts and minds for a lifetime?
We know they’ll try, but how that goes, we also know.
Next Week: “Finding Nemo”
Mark is a longtime communications media and marketing professional, and pop culture obsessive.
Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on May 27, 2021.