The Empire Strikes Back (1980)


The Empire Strikes Back is 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 a saga. The Empire Strikes Back would build upon the imagination and energy of the first Star Wars instalment while injecting the newly born franchise with character development, humour and darkness, creating much more than a mere sequel as it gave birth to the Star Wars universe we now know. However, The Empire Strikes Back did not come into being without significant risks for the young George Lucas, who would choose to fund the film himself rather than raise money through the studio system. This would give Lucas the complete creative control he felt was missing in Star Wars while allowing him to focus on the world-building effects needed to ensure Empire surpassed the technical wizardry of the 1977 film. But it also meant that the very future of his fledgeling Lucasfilm company was placed at significant risk if Empire was to fail.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) ©Lucasfilm

Following the success of Star Wars in 1977, audience expectations were riding high, as was the potential for further merchandising and the creation of a new studio structure. But to deliver, The Empire Strikes Back would need to push the special effects born in Star Wars even further while also allowing space for Luke, Han, Leia, and Vader to find their own unique stories. This was no easy feat, and something few sequels had achieved, with one notable exception, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II. It is, therefore, no wonder that Lucas would opt like Coppola for a darker tone of empire versus rebellion, one that would see our heroes tested to their limits.

Lucas would pass the directorial responsibilities to Irvin Kershner to achieve this while concentrating on developing Industrial Light and Magic and the film’s financing. It was a smart move from Lucas, as Kershner was a character-driven director, his style rooted in classical theatre and drama rather than science fiction. In Kershner’s hands, Lucas’ screenplay would be plunged into darkness and despair before hope was reborn in a movie with Shakespearean themes of family, betrayal and rebellion.

However, on its release, The Empire Strikes Back would divide opinion with universal praise for the special effects work and concerns at its dark twist and sombre finale. Exploring the beauty of Empire forty years later, it’s hard to believe there was any dissent in its critical appraisal. Still, we all know middle pictures in trilogies often suffer a backlash. For example, The Last Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Omen II all continue to divide opinion. When Return of the Jedi hit screens a few years after Empire, many critics praised the return to form. Yet, in the years since, The Empire Strikes Back has risen to the top—becoming a firm favourite among fans and the wider general public. So, why did Empire divide public opinion? And why is it now universally hailed as the best Star Wars film?

The answer lay in the brave decision to focus Empire on tragedy and loss, enabling the characters to grow and build the resilience and hope needed to defeat the empire in the last instalment. The Empire Strikes Back would give birth to the tragic story of Anakin Skywalker and the Skywalker family saga that would define the Star Wars Universe. Look closely, and you will find a Shakespearean tragedy at the heart of The Empire Strikes Back. Here, Luke is tested by the dark side, with themes that play to both Othello and The Tempest. At the same time, the revelation that Vader is his father reflects Shakespeare’s love of family conflict and tragedy, particularly between fathers and sons.


Meanwhile, themes of oppression, colonialism and fear find a clear voice. Here the Empire embraces a nazi state similar to that found in the pages of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle while using imagery that reflects the photos and videos of the 1936 Nuremberg rally. Meanwhile, the rebellion shifts to become a reflection of the allies of WWII. Lucas and Kershner knew that for the Star Wars saga to grow, there would have to be loss, defeat and separation in building unity, resilience and hope. This interest in history as a template for action in Star Wars would return with the prequels, where the fall of Ancient Rome was reflected alongside the story of Macbeth in Anakin’s fall.

But aside from the theoretical and historical reasons for Empire’s success, this was also the film that created ILM and the template for visual effects for the next twenty-five years. The Empire Strikes Back was visually stunning in 1980 and remains so today. It’s easy now to forget its role in modern filmmaking but place the films of 1980 alongside Empire, and you quickly realise just how groundbreaking it was. Here Empire would not only surpass the beauty, imagination and effects of Star Wars but give birth to an entire saga that continues to expand and grow. The Empire Strikes Back built an Empire and a fan base that grows 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

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