The Empire Strikes Back at 40

The Empire Strikes Back is now available to stream, rent or buy.

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. This would ensure 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 the success of Star Wars, 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, Lucas believed in the project despite its darker story, 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 believed passionately in a character-driven directorial approach, his style rooted more in classical theatre and drama than science fiction. This initially led to considerable apprehension; however, Kershner’s drive, passion and fear would ultimately lead to 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 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 only 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. For example, The Last Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Omen II are all 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. Yet, in the years since, it is The Empire Strikes Back that has risen to the top of the saga league table—becoming a firm favourite among fans and the wider general public.

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. Ultimately, this provides a sequel that jettisons the traditional ending favouring individual journeys and personal growth. And just as Henry V would have had less significance without Hal’s younger years in Henry IV. 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 beauty became fully visible. Here its essential themes only resonated with the general public on the completion of the Lucas story, its place as the connecting bridge between darkness and light, rebellion and redemption clear. The dark middle chapter born from Henry VI and V cemented as a gold standard in movie production through Empire and, The Godfather. Of course, this is now something audiences expect in all modern trilogies as their heroes face their darkest days before the light descends.

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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 landscapes of Cloud City and the stark cold of Hoth. As a result, Empire would surpass the beauty, imagination and effects of Star Wars and, in turn, give birth to an entire saga that continues to expand and grow. This is the film that built an Empire and a fan base that continues to grow larger with each new generation.

Director:  Irvin Kershner

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