The Empire Strikes Back (1980)


After deciding directing wasn’t his favorite thing to do, George Lucas enticed his former professor Irvin Kershner (Eyes of Laura Mars, Return of a Man Called Horse) to helm the dark second act of the famous trilogy. The Empire Strikes Back is essentially one long chase movie, as Darth Vader pursues Luke (Mark Hamill), Han (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the rest of the rebel fleet across the universe — from their secret base on a planet of ice to a hovering city in the clouds. The story also gives Luke a chance to visit the swamp planet of Dagobah, where he finds the diminutive Jedi Master Yoda (puppeteered and voiced by Frank Oz), who begins Luke’s training to become a Jedi. The film ends with a famous dramatic revelation and a cliffhanger ending that made the three years preceding Return of the Jedi a rough slog for Star Wars fans back in the early ’80s.

Empire is gorgeous to behold. Few movies are as lovingly evoked, which makes repeat viewings especially rewarding. Kershner lavished a great deal of time and attention to detail on the sequel’s aesthetics. As a result, Empire is a much more polished film than the first Star Wars, most notably in its cinematography and performances. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill) mined the dramatic potential from Lucas’ story, weaving an economy of character development through a fast-paced plot. Lucas’ characters have never been more appealing than they are in Empire. Han and Leia’s bantering represents the most engaging relationship in the entire saga.

One of the film’s highlights is the declaration of their love, which comes only as Han is lowered into the Carbon Freezing chamber at Cloud City.  Leia says, “I love you.”  Han answers, “I know.”  The economy of the dialogue is serviced by John William’s most spectacular film score and the director’s mise-en-scene, which frames the tragedy in steam and high contrast red and blue lighting.

This is also an important movie to me on a personal level.  I was only six years old when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back, and it was one of my most significant childhood experiences, instilling in me a desire that has fueled my life ever since — the desire to make movies.  Empire remains an ideal for me.  A synthesis of art and entertainment, an accessible but richly layered story, character-driven, thematically potent, beautifully executed.  In my long relationship with the movies, Empire was my first love, the one that will always be with me.

Academy Awards: Best Sound, Special Achievement in Visual Effects

Oscar Nominations: Best Music Score (John Williams), Best Art Direction