Andy Markham wraps up our 1980 week with a look back at the biggest movie of the year...
In 1980, Star Wars fever was at its height. The first film had shaken popular culture to its core. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia were household names. You couldn't move for action figures, t-shirts, and comics with the Star Wars name on them. Practically everyone in the world was trying to make their own Star Wars. The Star Wars Holiday Special had... happened. In short, when the time arrived for The Empire Strikes Back, the first sequel to Star Wars, to debut on the big screen, it had a rather tough act to follow.
And in retrospect, it's very easy to forget quite how bold, unexpected and ambitious The Empire Strikes Back is as a sequel. Indeed, it could be argued that Empire re-defined the notion of Hollywood sequels and what they were capable of. In the 60s and 70s, sequels were generally re-hashes; half-baked attempts at recapturing the success (and the money) of an original film. 99% of the time, they were simply no good - how many big sequels from before 1980 can you really think of? And so it was at first with Empire - many were sceptical that any film could match the impact of the first.
Whereas many film-makers would have shied away from this challenge and delivered a straight-up crowd-pleaser, the dream team of George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter), and Irvin Kershner (director) took the challenge head-on and decided to produce something truly new and surprising. The comforts and familiarities of the previous film were quickly ditched - instead of a plot-focussed action adventure with an explosive ending, Empire would be a character study with an emotional climax. Instead of a gradual victory over the Empire, this film would be the story of a gradual and crushing defeat. Instead of the camaraderie of the first film, the characters were separated for most of the film and thrown into unfamiliar situations.
And perhaps most importantly of all, it was decided that with the heroes of the story firmly established in the previous film, it was time for the villainous side of the galaxy to take centre stage. Darth Vader was brought forward from the ensemble cast of Star Wars and re-imagined as an unstoppable and terrifying force who can destroy you as soon as look at you. Already an iconic villain after Star Wars, Darth Vader's gut-wrenching role in The Empire Strikes Back firmly established him as the single most unforgettable villain that cinema had ever seen.
It wasn't just Vader who got special treatment this time around, though. Pretty much everyone had taken a great liking to Harrison Ford's Han Solo, and here the character was allowed to run amok, setting the screen alight in a whole series of escapades - and we also were introduced to his more emotional side, as his romance with Carrie Fisher's more developed Princess Leia first showed itself.
Of course, there was also a certain little green character who was created for this film, who ended up becoming fairly popular... but again, it's hard to emphasise just how far from left-field the idea of a backwards-talking little puppet called Yoda was, and how nervous the studio were about him. The amazing work of the production team and the perfect casting of Frank Oz, however, brought Yoda to sparkling life.
All in all, it was far from a by-the-numbers second instalment, and to conclude The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas and Kasdan decided to introduce a truly mind-bending twist: what if Darth Vader is Luke's long-lost father? It sounds crazy on paper, like something out of a soap opera, but nothing capitalised on the new direction of this film, and the scale of its ambition, as much as this moment. But more on that later...
With all the unfamiliarity and sweeping steps forward that The Empire Strikes Back took, it's quite understandable that contemporary reaction wasn't the greatest. Very few considered it superior to Star Wars and some considered it a very serious disappointment. No one knew quite what to make of the Vader twist; Yoda was like nothing anyone had ever seen; and the children watching were left with no happy ending (depending on your opinion, perhaps no ending at all).
But time has been very kind to The Empire Strikes Back - and as we look back on 1980, it seems fitting to spend the rest of this retrospective considering just how much this film has evolved in the 35 intermittent years - and how it has become such a cherished and unforgettable landmark in film history.
For there was a time when it was almost universally agreed that The Empire Strikes Back was the weakest film of the original Star Wars trilogy, and that Return of the Jedi, which brought back many elements from Star Wars, was a return to form after that slightly weird one in the middle. And this is easy to appreciate - viewers, after all, have certain expectations of Star Wars films, especially children. In the immediate sense, we crave big bangs, madcap plotting, and a triumphant finale where the good guys win. On first viewing, The Empire Strikes Back stands out as the one that doesn't do these things - and a knee-jerk reaction is therefore to consider it a failure.
But over the years, the novelty of the Star Wars films gradually wore off, and viewers came to the films with a more critical perspective, a keener eye for detail, and an appreciation for the richness of the stories these films tell. And when we all began to take a step back and look at The Empire Strikes Back as a piece of cinema, things started to change - and before long, the question arose: Is The Empire Strikes Back actually the best Star Wars film of all?
With that, vindication came for this bold and strange instalment in the Star Wars saga. People began to understand that the long, sustained Dagobah sequences where Yoda teaches Luke the ways of the force, are in fact the beating heart of Star Wars, and symbolise what the films are all about. They realised that no moment brought a tear to their eye quite as much as "I love you"..."I know". They admitted that in truth, it's actually a hell of a lot of fun to see the bad guys win for once.
This wasn't just a wind-change in fandom either. As the decades have worn on, The Empire Strikes Back has become possibly the most fondly and vividly remembered of all the Star Wars films - especially the climax. Vader's revelation to Luke is not only one of the most memorable moments in the Star Wars saga; it is probably the most famous and effective twist in cinema history. With that line, a whole galaxy opened up before us - suddenly, there was another story to tell, that of Anakin Skywalker; and with this turning point also comes our first step towards the magnificent climax of the Skywalkers' tale. Not often has one line achieved so much!
There's also the fact that, despite the passage of time, the timeless qualities of The Empire Strikes Back are those that really shine through. The relationships between the characters - even apparently unrealistic and comical ones such as C-3P0 and Chewbacca - are so real and so vivid. When Chewbacca moans in desperation as Han is put into carbon-freeze, we feel his pain, and when Admiral Piett loses the Falcon at the film's end, we feel his terror as Vader turns to face him.
It helps, of course, that the film is so immaculately put together. Irvin Kershner's direction is much more stylised, intuitive and character-focussed than George Lucas', and it adds so much new depth. The few action scenes that do make it into the film are made the most of, with the Battle of Hoth being one of the very best battles of the saga, and the Falcon's asteroid chase a truly thrilling highlight.
And special mention must go to John Williams, who produced a seemingly endless array of unforgettable music for The Empire Strikes Back. His work for this film tends to be overshadowed by the quantum leap forward that Star Wars was in film music history, but this is arguably an even better score, and certainly a richer and more confident one. There's the Imperial March of course, pretty much the Villain Music that has inspired every single other example since; Yoda's Theme, a heartfelt and magical melody that suits the character perfectly; the soaring Han Solo and the Princess; and just to show off, the one-off spectacular that is The Asteroid Field. Truly one of the greatest highlights of Williams' illustrious career.
I could go on for so many more pages. I could explain the many ways in which this film influenced so many people, and how Yoda changed the way we see movie magic forever. I could go on about how Mark Hamill's performance here is the archetype for all young movie heroes, and how Harrison Ford deserved an Oscar for this film. I could talk at length about the utter coolness of Lando Calrissian and Boba Fett, and the million and one ways in which "do or do not, there is no try" sums up Star Wars.
But really, I don't need to, because you know all this. If there's one thing you can count on in the geek world, it's that everyone - everyone - will always enjoy The Empire Strikes Back. It's Hollywood movie-making at its finest; sheer, joyful escapism; engaging drama; and a cavalcade of iconic imagery throughout every moment of its two short hours. And when you think about it, it's really little wonder that The Empire Strikes Back is not only the greatest Star Wars film, but one of the most beloved and mesmerising movie adventures of all time.
Mind you, the wampa was rubbish.
Andy is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger
glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast.
Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the
subject. Follow Andy on Twitter.