The darkest of the original Star Wars trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back opens with a fantastic battle between the Rebels (the good guys) and Darth Vader’s Evil Empire in which rocket ships zip around armoured juggernauts resembling five-hundred-foot-tall camels on hydraulic legs with death-spitting tongues (pictured below).
The action never lags after that, and this sequel to Star Wars is more fun and more dazzling than the original.
Officially the fifth episode in a planned nine-part series, The Empire Strikes Back opens at a dark time for the Rebellion. The Death Star was destroyed, but Darth Vader survived and has committed himself to crushing the Rebellion.
Luke, Leia, Han and the rest are hiding out at a new base on the ice planet Hoth. Luke ventures out across the tundra and gets clobbered by a Yeti-like Wampa. While semi-conscious, Luke receives a message from the dead-but-not-departed Obi-Wan Kenobi, who tells Luke to seek out Jedi master Yoda in the Dagobah system.
Han rescues his young friend and gets him back to base, but an Imperial probe droid has tipped Vader off to the Rebels’ location. A wave of armoured AT-AT walkers storms the base, forcing the Rebels to flee.
Luke and R2D2 take off for Dagobah, while Han, Leia, Chewie and C3P0 deal with a broken hyperdrive motivator, which prevents them from blasting away in hyperspace. The roguish pilot takes the Millennium Falcon through a dangerous asteroid field, finding a seemingly safe haven in a large asteroid’s cave.
On Dagobah, Luke crash lands in a swamp and runs across a green, troll-like creature.
Luke tries to get rid of the pesky little fellow, but the creature reveals himself to be 900-year-old Yoda (pictured at left) – twenty-six inches high with pointy ears, sad eyes, and a Hobbit-like demeanour, brought to life by Frank Oz, creator of The Muppets.
After some convincing from the spirit of Obi-Wan, Yoda agrees to train the headstrong young apprentice.
Back in space, Han has launched back into the asteroid field, but the Imperial Tie Fighters are still on his tail. He takes off for temporary refuge in old pal Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City.
After a seeming betrayal, Han, Leia, Chewie and Threepio are led into the clutches of Vader. Luke senses their peril and leaves his training prematurely, against Yoda and Obi-Wan’s advice.
Luke arrives in Cloud City too late to save one of his friends, instead finding himself in mortal combat with Vader, from whom he learns a painful truth about his past.
The Empire Strikes Back ended on a fairly dark note, setting up the final instalment in this trilogy, Return of the Jedi (1983), three years later.
None of this unpleasantness, of course, stopped the legions of Star Wars fanatics from crowding cinemas around the world when The Empire Strikes Back opened in the summer of 1980.
It had been three years since the first instalment, and the Force was still with George Lucas’ creation, pushing the new film onto the list of all-time money-makers.
For this second (or fifth) instalment, Lucas turned over writing and directing duties to Lawrence Kasdan and Irvin Kershner, respectively, choosing instead to oversee things as story writer and executive producer.
The success of the first film also allowed his team at the newly-christened Industrial Light and Magic to create even more impressive special effects than those found in the first film. And again, sales of Star Wars merchandise skyrocketed, as AT-AT walkers and Snowspeeders topped every kid’s “must-have” toy list.
What remains truly impressive and influential about The Empire Strikes Back is Lucas’s willingness to leave so much unresolved, with Han Solo frozen in carbonite and Luke struggling with both the loss of his hand in a lightsaber battle with Darth Vader and the revelation of Luke’s fatherhood.
The 1997 Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back added a few more shots of the Wampa, threw in some windows in Cloud City and altered a few lines of dialogue, but this remained the least changed of the three films. In the minds of many, it had the least room for improvement.
Princess Leia Organa
Billy Dee Williams
Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi
Darth Vader (voice)
James Earl Jones