Irvin Kershner's The Empire Strikes Back, the continuation of George Lucas' Star Wars, is a classic fantasy in its own right. I vastly prefer it to the first film. Its textures are richer, its emotions deeper, and it's an honest-to-Jedi movie--not a dozen jammed-together entries of a serial. On its own space-opera terms, you can rank it with The Godfather Part II and Kershner's little-known The Return of a Man Called Horse as a sequel that magnificently expands on the original. Although The Empire Strikes Back never ceases to be a swift and luxuriant sci-fi spectacle, it's more than a bubbly cinematic fun house. In collaboration with executive producer Lucas' team of magicians, Kershner provides visual music for the soul, streaked with anguish as well as humor and a volatile comic-book lyricism. Full of the manic-depressive highs and lows of characters on the brink of maturity, it's Growing Up Absurd in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.
From the sight of a camel/kangaroo/ram called the Tauntaun racing across the snow planet Hoth, to the climactic light-saber battle in the cloud city of Bespin, this film features the most piquant critters, gadgets, locales and set-tos in the Star Wars trilogy. The Empire Strikes Back proves that even gimmickry gets elevated when actors settle into character and a director arranges ingredients for emotional variety and grace. Kershner's film is two-fisted and poetic--a space extravaganza about the getting of wisdom.
In this movie, young Luke Skywalker and Mark Hamill hit an airy stride. In Star Wars, when Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) tells Luke of the energy that binds the universe--the Force--it comes off as Marin mysticism for a Sunday afternoon. But here, when Luke actually has to learn the Force's discipline under the guidance of Yoda, the super-elf and Jedi master, it hits home as an American, can-do form of Zen. Yoda tries to teach Luke how to be a Jedi knight--to live intensely in the moment, so he can act in the present with great potency. One small step in the plot becomes one giant step for Luke, and for Hamill. He looks different--more intriguing--in The Empire Strikes Back. Skywalker is still a juvenile, but a ravaged one, cut up by a fearsome snow beast in the opening minutes. Hamill develops instant character lines and a new edginess. The improvement in his performance is one reason The Empire Strikes Back wins hearts as it blows minds.
Because The Empire Strikes Back centers on Skywalker's maturity, you might expect it to be heartwarming. But the imagery and the narrative twists and turns are bracingly stormy. It begins in a titanic icy battle between white-clad rebels and the evil Empire. The Empire's space dreadnought is like an enormous incubus giving birth to a nightmarish arsenal of spidery probes and elephantine tanks. The rebels must counterattack with harpoons, like old Nantucket seamen going after whales. Kershner unleashes this unforgettable armory in the first half-hour. The peak of thrills comes later, in a whirlwind chase through an asteroid field, but those battle scenes stay fixed in our minds as the background to the entire film. And Luke's friends--Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels)--continue to spar with the Empire while Skywalker and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) go into spiritual retreat with Yoda. We know that a conflagration could ignite any second.
At the start, Hamill's Skywalker and another green recruit, his gunner, feel as if they could conquer the Empire by themselves. But when Luke meets Yoda, he discovers how inadequate he is. Yoda is green, too--but only in color. He's a wise and wonderful creation, as tiny and spry as a Hobbit, but with an omniscient Eastern face like Akira Kurosawa's. As operated and vocalized by master puppeteer Frank Oz, Yoda dispenses knowledge gleefully instead of dropping it like weights. Though the Force apparently impels all creatures great and small to speak in boring abstractions, Yoda's teaching is sensible: He urges Luke to be patient and objective, to rid himself of the evil pettiness and jealousies that could warp the power of the Force, and to believe that if he struggles in good faith, the Force will burgeon within him. It takes confidence for an actor to hold his own with a hard-to-resist puppet like Yoda chattering by his side. Hamill has to do a scene standing on one hand, with Yoda balanced on one of his feet, while the camera watches him concentrate on lifting a rock telekinetically. And Hamill doesn't choke under the pressure. In the Yoda sequence, Kershner forsakes nonstop action for sly metaphysical ballet; it's refreshing that this film (unlike Star Wars) gives us a chance to catch our breath and watch the characters grow.
Star Wars introduced a JFK-style idealism to Luke Skywalker's odyssey--an ask-what-you-can-do-for-your-country slant that underlays the farm boy's urge to rocket away from Tattooine and mix things up with the Empire. In The Empire Strikes Back, Skywalker may, for a while, find a separate peace, but he's itching to wade into battle. Yoda urges calm; Luke can't stand still while he knows his pals are in danger. The need to find equilibrium--to land on psychic dry land--permeates the movie and gives it a coming-of-age-in-the-'60s atmosphere, though the visuals are more tropical than topical. Yoda's bog planet Dagobah is clammy and Gothic, like Gustave Dore drawings or Skull Island in the 1933 King Kong; reptiles slither through its caves, and its roiling, fogbound swamp hides a huge, dorsal-finned water mammal that recalls Spielberg's shark. When Han's ship, the Millennium Falcon, drops into an oversize asteroid to escape the Empire's forces, fungoid forms flap against the fuselage and windows; the ship turns out to be resting in the belly of a gargantuan space slug. Kershner brews these primal images of menace into eerie visions of emotional dislocation. At his peak of self-doubt, Luke discovers his unsuspected link with the Empire and plummets through an endless spiral tunnel. Order and identity disintegrate; physical and psychic gravity pull him down.
Hamill is not the only one who changes. If Harrison Ford play-acted Bogart in the first film, here he genuinely resurrects him, jostling the Millennium Falcon to life like Charley Allnutt beating on the engines of the African Queen. In The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo, the bluff gambler-adventurer, and Leia, the spunky princess, finally bring out their romance into open space. If Fisher still isn't much of a performer, her petulance does strike sparks with Ford's unbreachable bravado. They conjure an air of sexual frustration that catalyzes flirtatious bickerings and infectious sidelong glances. The movie needs this mating dance--it completes Kershner's imaginative evocation of adolescence. Concupiscence is one area where Yoda can't serve as a guide.
Under Kershner's direction, the characters who scored in the first film veer ever closer toward the bull's eye--Darth Vader's dark armor seems to capture more suggestive reflections and cast more striking shadows, while C-3PO's nervous dithering and R2-D2's blips and belches explore a fastidious-versus-slovenly chemistry that presages Ren and Stimpy. And the new characters add spice. Billy Dee Williams makes slick elusiveness alluring as Lando Calrissian (the saga's first black character), the boss of the cloud city and its not-quite-legal gas mines; he keeps you guessing whether he's antihero or antivillain. He has a bald aide, Lobot, who wears a computer headset that resembles a laurel wreath. And we see a bit more of Boba Fett, the bounty hunter introduced in Star Wars: The Special Edition, who looks as bold and battered as a knight from Alexander Nevsky who hasn't changed his armor for centuries.
Working with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, Kershner goes after otherworldly textures and gets them right--he ensures that a "carbon-freeze chamber" shimmers eerily, that the eggshell tones of the cloud city are blissfully (if deceptively) lulling, that Vader emerges from a mechanical-clam meditation room in a burst of light. Working with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote the final script off earlier drafts by Leigh Brackett and Lucas), Kershner gives the characters more solidity and more opportunities to exploit their quirky humor. (Every time Chewbacca howls, he's canine longing writ large.) Even when Kershner and his craftsmen pay homage to classic screen images, they instill them with raw immediacy. When Han Solo guts a Tauntaun, the image recalls the gutted buffalo in Jan Troell's The New Land--and equals it in docu-poetry. Kershner's sometimes masochistic visceral thrust separates high adventure from kids' stuff, the men from the boys, The Empire Strikes Back from Star Wars. It puts across the pain and the cost of physical heroism.
Lucasfilm Ltd. and 20th Century-Fox didn't pre-screen The Empire Strikes Back: The Special Edition in time for weekly deadlines; I re-viewed the 1980 version off the splendid THX laserdiscs in the "Widescreen Collectors' Edition." According to the revised collection of The Art of "The Empire Strikes Back" (Del Rey/Ballantine Books), the 160 revised shots in The Empire Strikes Back: The Special Edition augment the backgrounds of the cloud city, remove the matte lines once visible in the fighting on Hoth, and beef up Luke's encounter with a feral snow creature (done again with an "old-fashioned man-in-a-creature suit"). The text promises that "even though the lumbering walkers, those four-legged Imperial combat vehicles seen in the Battle of Hoth, had originally been created with stop-motion animation, and sometimes betrayed the occasional pop or jitter endemic to the medium, the effect still represented the state-of-the-art of the day and would not be replaced by computer graphics re-creations." At the time of the film's original release, Kershner remarked, "I hate slick films, because to me slick means polished with all the bumps and seams taken out. I think Empire is not slick because it's bumpy in places, and a little ragged, and terribly real." Kershner's feeling for the reality within fantasy makes The Empire Strikes Back unique. In the years since its premiere, critics have dubbed movies like Excalibur "pop Wagner"; The Empire Strikes Back is something just as epic but more accessible and touching: Let's call it pop Mahler.
The Empire Strikes Back: The Special Edition
Directed by Irvin Kershner; with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.