Following the worldwide smash that was Star Wars, George Lucas decides not to rest on his laurels and go even further into his newly-unveiled universe with a movie that is even better than the first. Not bad for a rookie director.
Director: Irvin Kershner
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, David Prowse, Alec Guinness, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels
Run Time: 124 Minutes
Release Date: 20 June 1980
Yes, a rookie director. With Lucas stepping away from the director’s chair, Irvin Kershner – a man who had never before directed a movie – strode into the hotseat and became responsible for the sequel to one of the biggest movies of all-time. No pressure then.
And that’s the thing; if Kershner did feel any pressure overseeing this movie, it certainly doesn’t show it in the finished article. A far more polished and sophisticated movie than it’s predecessor, aided by a superb cast doing even more superb work, Empire is not so much a sequel inasmuch as a continuation of a growing story. Characters were established in Episode 4, characters that now had room to breathe, room to grow, and it as Kershner who created that room and allowed those characters to grow. However, whilst the characters were further established, the story and tone had to leave behind the cheery space epic from A New Hope and go dark. As in, dark and despair. For where the debut film in the series was about good conquering evil, the follow-up had to be about evil coming back. Take, for instance, the scene in which Luke ‘confronts’ Darth Vader during his training; when he sees his own face behind the dark one’s mask, there’s your confirmation. This isn’t a fun, robots-in-space afternoon movie. This is dark.
If anyone wanted to accuse Lucas of cutting corners in A New Hope, it has been ensured that the same accusation cannot be thrown at Kershner (or Lucas) here. Armed with previous conirmation that Star Wars was the biggest film of all-time following its release three years earlier, all the stops were pulled out here. The budget was increased, up at least $7 million on Episode 4’s cost, and it shows; the sets and effects look more polished, you can sense that everyone involved was operating on a grander scale, buoyed by the enormity of the production, coming on the heels of the previous film’s success. If A New Hope broke technological ground and started a genre, then Empire fixed the ground and built a monument showing off how good things could be.
After showing off strange new lands previously, Kershner, Lucas and co. decide to unveil more amazing sights here, though not in the form of locations. Yes, we visit Dagobah and Cloud City for the first time, but the places themselves are merely the garnish, for its the inhabitants that form the main meal. The AT-ATs make their big-screen debuts, gloriously-awesome machines marching upon Hoth’s rebel base. And crucially, we meet Yoda for the first time (depending on your order of viewing), a warrior who has banished himself to the swamps of the Dagobah system following a battle with Darth Sidious. Immediately you know that this is someone of importance, his iconic speaking style just one of the things that sets him apart from everyone else. His scenes with a Luke Skywalker, teaching the youngster the ways of the force and how to overcome evil in favour good. It is here where the movie lays down it’s most valuable lesson; surrounded by moral shades of grey, it is a battle of good vs evil. In similar respects to A New Hope, that’s the story on display here. And Hamill plays it perfectly. In actual fact, the whole cast are perfect. Clearly buoyed by the knowledge this was not a one-and-done space epic, and instead part of a much bigger universe and series, we get actors putting everything into their roles. Harrison Ford is on top form as the wisecracking Han Solo, while Fisher’s Leia is decidedly more confident and authoritative.
The film’s – and Kershner’s – ace in the hole, the one definitive thing that helps set it apart from everything else in the Star Wars universe is it’s most famous scene. Everyone knows it; Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, perched high on a ledge high, discussing parental responsibility – and probably not Luke’s Christmas list – and that line. An iconic scene, a truly great movie moment and a lifetime success for Kershner. Masterfully shot, you can actually picture the scene visualised on a storyboard and then wonderfully acted out on the set in front of a proud director, and even prouder writer.
Because Kershner and Lucas should be proud. They not only followed a worldwide smash like A New Hope, they actually bettered it. Yes, the original is a classic, able to be watched over and over and will forever go down as an all-time great. But The Empire Strikes Back is better.
Indeed, nothing before – or since – betters this.