STAR WARS Episode V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sci-Fi Action Violence

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Directed by: Irvin Kershner

Written by: Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan

Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, Frank Oz, Jeremy Bulloch & Clive Revill

1977’s A NEW HOPE was a massive game-changer in the world of film, but EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is where the STAR WARS series really hit its peak. Far more ambitious than the already creative fourth episode, this follow-up was set on a much bigger scale and moved faster than its predecessor. While Episode IV was an exciting origin story and introduction to a space-opera trilogy, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is the best film in the STAR WARS series thus far. The writing is better, the creativity is out the wazoo (with plenty of new worlds) and the excitement lasts from the very beginning until the final frame. This is an excellent science-fiction adventure any way you slice it.

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Following the events of Episode IV, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and company have officially joined the rebels in trying to take down the evil galactic Empire. With the Death Star destroyed, Darth Vader and crew still have plenty of weapons and dark power up their sleeves. As a result, the rebels have retreated to the ice planet Hoth. This only serves as a brief sanctuary as their cover is blown and the Empire shows up to destroy their base. While Han Solo and Leia try to hide out from the Empire in the worn-down Millennium Falcon, Luke officially begins his Jedi training under master Yoda. This might all be in vain as Darth Vader calculates a cunning trap to lure Luke to the dark side.

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As revolutionary as the first STAR WARS may have been, that film’s scope was rather limited when compared to Episode V. This fifth installment in the STAR WARS chronology spans across various worlds and I have to imagine that constructing the set design for these planets was an absolute nightmare. Miniatures were used for a lot of the chase scenes through space, but there are also a ton of locations in this story. We get the snowy mountains of Hoth, the swampy landscape of Dagobah, and the gorgeous floating Cloud City. Each of these locations carries a certain atmosphere that is instantly recognizable and unique to the series.

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While the aliens might be in a slightly shorter supply this time around, master Yoda serves as a delightful addition to the story. Though some of his puppetry may be dated, this only adds to his goofiness in my opinion. Yoda is one of the best creations in the STAR WARS series as this character mixes some very funny comic relief with genuine words of wisdom (that have since been transformed into dozens of encouraging online memes). On the darker side of things, Darth Vader isn’t a mere side player this time around. He’s the main baddie and has a fantastic, lengthy one-on-one confrontation with Luke Skywalker.

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As far as returning characters are concerned, Luke Skywalker (a more experienced Mark Hamill) was a full-blown hero at the end of Episode IV and becomes something far more important here. The character is forced to humble himself in order to become an iconic movie protagonist for the ages. Meanwhile, C-3PO (who has always been one of the most annoying characters of the series next to Jar-Jar Binks) actually delivers solid comic relief that doesn’t detract from any of the serious plot developments. I would remiss if I didn’t mention the budding romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia that comes off as wholly genuine and convincing. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have great chemistry that adds to their characters’ eventual love for one another.

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As excellent as the previous film is, Episode IV’s plot can be summed up in two short sentences: “Guy rescues a space princess,” and “guy destroys a superweapon.” Episode V’s plot is much more dense with huge stakes at hand. As a result, a lightsaber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader becomes instantly more meaningful. As fun as simple B-movies can be, I find that chases and fights are far more exciting when they’re part of a strong story populated by great characters. This is true of TERMINATOR 2, (most recently) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Episode V also concludes on what is probably the most depressing ending in the series (with REVENGE OF THE SITH as a close second). Though the plot twist has already been spoiled to death (even appearing as joke on a SIMPSONS episode), it still packs a heavy emotional blow when you’ve sat through everything that comes before the reveal.

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For tons of movie fans (myself included), EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is the best Episode that STAR WARS has to offer thus far. The story is complex and fast-paced. The characters aren’t just returning for another cash-in, but rather evolving as the plot moves forward. The stakes are insanely high and the spectacle still holds up decades later. Episode V is not only the best STAR WARS film yet, but it’s also one of the best science-fiction films of all-time!

Grade: A+

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