Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back at 40

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If Star Wars: A New Hope led to a resurgence of science fiction storytelling in Hollywood, The Empire Strikes Back created the saga. Empire built upon the imagination and energy of the first instalment while injecting character, love and diversity. In turn, creating so much more than a sequel as it expanded the Star Wars universe. While also enriching the Skywalker story in creating a whole saga. Therefore, without Empire, there may have never been the universe of films, TV and media we now take for granted. However, The Empire Strikes Back did not come into being without significant risk to George Lucas. Who chose to fund the film himself rather than use the usual studio system. Ensuring he maintained complete creative control in the process of filmmaking. While in turn placing the very future of his fledgeling Lucasfilm on the chopping block.

After Star Wars success, audience expectations of a sequel were riding high, as was the potential for further merchandising. But to deliver against these expectations, The Empire Strikes Back would need to push the boundaries of special effects even further. While also building the story of Luke, Han, Leia and Vader into something truly epic. This was no easy feat and something few movies before had achieved, with The Godfather Part II a notable exception. However, despite its darker story, Lucas believed in the project, including its focus on empire above rebellion. And in deciding to concentrate on Industrial Light and Magic’s development, Lucas passed directing duties to Irvin Kershner.

Kershner was a character-driven director who believed in the need for The Empire Strikes Back to stand alone as a movie while remaining a connecting block. His drive, passion and fear of the project ensuring a marked difference in style to the first outing; a distinct second act in an ongoing play. In Kushner and Lucas’ hands, the audience would be plunged into darkness before the light of a potential third act. A Shakespearean structure surrounding the epic space-bound adventure.

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The resulting movie would divide public opinion on its release in 1980, with universal praise for the special effects work dampened by several mediocre critical reviews. Of course, this is hard to believe when you look at Kershner and Lucas’ masterpiece forty years later but highlights an ongoing challenge of middle pictures in trilogies. The Last Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Omen II prime examples of middle pictures that continue to divide opinion.

When Return of the Jedi hit screens a few years after Empire, many praised the return to form of the third chapter. Almost choosing to forget that The Empire Strikes Back had ever been released. Something that equally translated to the growing VHS video market here in the UK, where both Star Wars and Return of the Jedi were made available long before Empire. And yet, in the proceeding years, it is The Empire Strikes Back that has risen to the top of the saga—becoming a firm favourite among fans and the wider general public. Its darker focus and character-building narrative finally receiving the praise it so duly deserved. Of course, that does not mean Empire flopped at the box office; in fact, adjusting for inflation, it is still the second highest-grossing sequel of all time.

But why did Empire divide public opinion? And why is it now universally hailed as the best Star Wars film?

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The answer to these questions lay in the brave decision to focus Empire on tragedy and loss, enabling the characters to build resilience and hope. While in turn giving birth to the tragic story of Anakin Skywalker. As mentioned earlier, Empire echoes William Shakespeares Henry IV Part One and Two by allowing space for our young heroes to explore the darkness held within. At the same time, reflecting the family ties that either feed this internal darkness or extinguish it. Ultimately providing us with a sequel that jettisons the traditional ending favouring individual journey and personal growth. And just as Henry V would have had less significance without Hal’s younger years preceding it. The Star Wars saga would have suffered without giving space to explore loss, defeat and separation in achieving unity and hope.

Mark Hamill on set The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Therefore, it was not until the conclusion of Return of the Jedi that The Empire Strikes Back’s pure beauty became fully visible. Its important themes only resonating with the general public on the completion of the overarching story. Where its place as the connecting bridge between darkness and light, rebellion and redemption was clear.

The Empire Strikes Back followed a similar path to The Godfather Part II by embracing Shakespeare on screen. Ensuring the darker character focussed middle film in a trilogy or saga became a gold standard in movie production, with modern audiences now expecting this path in films ranging from The Dark Knight to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Avengers Infinity War.

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But aside from the theoretical reasons for Empire becoming the definitive Star Wars movie, it is also a genuinely epic film in scale and vision. Here Lucas pushed the boundaries of special effects even further than its predecessor, making Empire a groundbreaking step forward in visual effects that would continue to grow in the 1980s. Meanwhile, new iconic characters and worlds helped further embed Star Wars in the public imagination. From the iconic Yoda to Bobba Fett and the modernist landscape of Cloud City, John Williams sublime score bringing creatures and places to life like never before. The resulting film surpasses the beauty, imagination and effects of Star Wars giving birth to an entire saga. This is the film that built an Empire, and in turn, built a fan base like no other.

Director:  Irvin Kershner

Cast: Mark HamillHarrison FordCarrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness

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