Countdown to ‘Force Awakens’ Day 15: A Look Back at ‘Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back’

By December 15, 2015
ESB - luke and vader

On May 21, 1980, The Empire Strikes Back, the sequel to the worldwide phenomenon, Star Wars, was released to the world. It would be a film that would become the benchmark when looking to develop sequel that upped the stakes for its characters. This film would define what movie fans expected and hoped for from sequels of their favorite movies. Years later a young boy saw The Empire Strikes Back introducing him to the wonders of the movies. That young boy was me.

The Empire Strikes Back was the first Star Wars movie I ever saw. For the longest time this was the only Star Wars movie I knew and to me it was the first film. In fact, I didn’t see A New Hope until years later, after I had seen Return of the Jedi. You can imagine my young mind being blown when I found out that there was film before this one.

I grew up watching Empire on an old VHS tape. It had been taped off the TV as part of a NBC Sunday Night Special. I still remember the opening that NBC had leading into the film. It was treated as the Empire had intercepted the broadcast as you heard James Earl Jones smooth baritone voice telling you that they were going to crush Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance. You actually find that intro right here!

Even though this is the second film in the original trilogy, it actually works well as a first film. Sure, you don’t get all the backstory of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia or Darth Vader and the Empire, but it quickly captures your attention and draws you in. I can fully admit that A New Hope is a solid film and sets up Empire spectacularly, but for someone who didn’t know any better I can fully attest that it works on bringing you into the world on its own merits.

This film drops you right into this universe with that first shot of the probe droids being deployed from the Star Destroyer. You are immediately immersed into this fully developed world. We see that there’s this there’s burgeoning relationship between Han and Leia, there’s a strong friendship between Han and Luke as Han is willing to go out and extreme conditions to find his friend. The bond between Han and Chewbacca is also evident in their back and forth as well as in Chewie’s reaction when they close the blast doors when Han doesn’t return. He is crushed. You even get the relationship between C-3PO and R2-D2 with their banter back and forth.

I remember asking my dad so many questions about Luke and the Force. Seeing him use this mystical power to retrieve his lightsaber from the snow and reaching out to this ghostly figure (Obi-Wan) piqued my curiosity and I desperately wanted to know more. I didn’t know (or quite understand) that there was a film before. This was before as it is today where it is almost expected that every big movie have a franchise and have to explain everything. This was just an exciting sci-fi adventure that I loved watching! The concept of a film series, sequels and prequels hadn’t even entered my consciousness yet.

Last week we ran our Top 10 Quotes of Star Wars, and while it didn’t make my list one of my favorite lines is when the Rebels are out searching for Han and Luke and Han’s voice comes over the transmission with a “Good morning. Nice of you guys to drop by”. That attitude right there showed me exactly who Han Solo was. Just like the Rebel pilot, that line puts a smile on my face every time.

The first time we see Darth Vader in Empire is aboard his Star Destroyer, the Executor, which totally dwarfs all the other Star Destroyers. If you knew nothing about Vader, like me, the fact that this is his ship tells you that this guy means business. Plus, the guy Force chokes his fleet’s admiral through a video transmission! He’s bad news.

The Battle of Hoth is one of my favorite scenes in all of Star Wars. There’s the iconic shot of the Imperial walkers descending on the Rebel base. Leia is giving orders to the Rebel pilots. Then you have Luke, Wedge and the rest of the pilots taking on the walkers in their Snowspeeders. It’s an exciting and thrilling scene as we see the Rebel Alliance desperately try to hold off the onslaught of the Empire while they escape.

After our heroes escape from Hoth, they split off taking the movie in two entirely different directions. Han, Leia, Chewie and C-3PO break off to rejoin the fleet but they encounter a group of Star Destroyers while Luke and Artoo set off to find a Jedi Master by the name of Yoda. One group goes from the proverbial frying pan and into the fire while the other is off on a quest to come to grips with Force.

We are barely allowed to catch our breath as the Millennium Falcon almost immediately comes under attack by Star Destroyers. The hyperdrive isn’t working so the only option is to lead the Empire on a thrilling chase through an asteroid field. The exciting chase is amplified by the spectacular score provided once again by John Williams.

Ah, the John Williams score. You cannot talk about Star Wars without talking about his magnificent score. Each and every piece of his music is beautiful and iconic. In fact, his new music in The Force Awakens is one of the many things that I am looking forward to experiencing. When you’re as big a Star Wars fan as I am (and I am sure as most of you are), any time you hear a piece of his Star Wars score you can instantly place yourself in that particular moment in the films. In Empire Strikes Back alone, we have the Battle of Hoth music, the Asteroid Field, the Imperial March, Han and Leia’s theme and Yoda’s theme.

Speaking of the Jedi Master, let’s talk about Yoda. It’s amazing how well Yoda worked. That pupped could have been the downfall of this movie if he wasn’t believable, but the filmmakers and Frank Oz made him work to great effect. I have to admit that as a young kid, after seeing all the excitement on Hoth and the asteroid field chase, that the slower scenes with Yoda kind of bored me. What? Blashphamey! I know, right? As I’ve gotten older and seen the films more and more I have really absorbed everything that was happening between Luke and Yoda. I’ve become more appreciative of the film as a whole I enjoy and understand the significance of those scenes. It’s an important development for Luke as a character and in his journey to becoming a Jedi.

Empire Strikes Back not only introduced us to Yoda, but we met two of the coolest characters in the series since Han Solo first graced us with his presence in the Mos Eisley cantina: Boba Fett and Lando Calrissian. Boba Fett was this mysterious bounty hunter with awesome looking armor. You knew right away this was a guy you didn’t want to mess with. Standing alongside Darth Vader didn’t hurt either. Then on the other side of the coin was Lando Calrissian played by Billy Dee Williams who’s as cool as the other side of the pillow.

Han and Leia’s relationship continues to smolder throughout the film before finally reaching that moment. You know, that one. The one where Han is being lowered into the carbonite-freezing chamber and replies to Leia’s “I love you” with the only way he knows how, with the now classic “I know”. It just makes your little geek heart melt, doesn’t it?

Then of course there is one the most classic confrontations and reveals in film history, the lightsaber battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader culminating in the revelation that Vader is in fact Luke’s father. It’s a film twist that would make Keyser Söze quake in his boots. It’s the first true lightsaber duel we see on screen. That fight between and Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope wasn’t much a duel. This was the real deal. Plus, throw in some Force powers and you’ve got yourself a real Jedi-Sith battle. Vader then drops the mic by blowing all of our collective minds that he didn’t kill Luke’s father Anakin Skywalker, he is Anakin Skywalker. Everything we thought we knew about Darth Vader and how we viewed him changed instantly. And most importantly what does this mean for Luke and his hero’s journey? That, of course, is for another time.

Unfortunately I never got the chance to see The Empire Strikes Back on the big screen back when the re-release was in theaters in 1977. Each of the original trilogy were released for just a short time before the following film took its place. I was unfortunately a few days too late to see Empire and had to settle for Jedi. Which isn’t really a bad thing, but I do regret not ever getting to see The Empire Strikes Back in a theater setting. I’ll just have to settle for my home-theater.

I remember as a young kid, being slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more added to Empire when the special editions were released. At the time I enjoyed the additions in A New Hope and The Return of the Jedi. I now know better. Some of the changes aren’t bad, but other additions detract from the magic of the original versions.

The fact not much was added or changed to The Empire Strikes Back just shows you how good this film really is. Not much was needed to be added and what little alterations there were aren’t distracting like some of the changes in the other two films. It’s essentially the same film from what it was in 1980.

There are really only two issues with the latest copies of the film. They replaced the original hologram of the Emperor with Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor look from the prequels and they changed the dialogue. Granted it helps tie in the character of the Emperor to what he looked and sounded like in Return of the Jedi and in the prequels, but for those of us who grew up on the unaltered versions it just feels wrong. Fun fact: I had thought the dialogue in the updated version was the same as it was in the original version until I double checked for this article. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve seen the unaltered versions!

The second issue is they re-dubbed Boba Fett’s voice with the Temuera Morrison who played Jango Fett in the prequels. I miss the original voice of Boba Fett and it just sounds off. Yeah, it’s explained the prequels that he is a clone son of Jango but why did the voice have to be re-dubbed other than just to do it? But if those are the only two complaints that I have with any versions of this film then I can deal with that.

The Empire Strikes Back is universally considered as the best of the Star Wars films (and rightly so). This film would define what movie fans expected from sequels going forward. How often do hear film fans describe a sequel as The Empire Strikes Back or hope that the next film of a franchise as that Empire tone. This film introduced me to the first on screen hero that I can remember, Luke Skywalker. He will always be my favorite character from the Star Wars as he defined what it meant to be hero. When Luke appears on screen in The Force Awakens I’m going to lose my mind (and probably cry). Just three short days until we all get to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens! If it’s just a fraction as good as The Empire Strikes Back I think we’ll all be in for one hell of a treat!

Christopher Skalicky
Chris, a film and television junkie, grew up on Star Wars, all things Disney, Stargate SG-1 and a healthy dose of John Wayne. When not thinking about movies he is busy being an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. He will also argue that Surf Ninjas is the greatest movie about surfing ninjas ever made. Tweet him at @Schlick51