Sunday, November 4, 2012

Movie – Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

What can be said about the movie The Empire Strikes Back that has not already been written a dozen times?  Rather than do a “normal” review where I have a short summary of the movie and point out a few things of interest, I thought I would do something different.  I’ve often wondered what my reaction to Psycho would have been if I hadn’t known about the shower scene ahead of time.  It’s pretty much impossible to not know what happens, just as it is pretty much impossible to not know what happens in The Empire Strikes Back.  Well, at one time I didn’t.  I’m going to share with you what it was like to be a teenager when the whole Star Wars phenomenon was starting, and when no one knew what was going to happen next.

First things first, there are spoilers in this post for The Empire Strikes Back, so if you have never seen it and have somehow avoided knowing what does happen, then you will find out if you continue reading.

I should probably also give a heads up to those people who have only ever known a world where The Empire Strikes Back has been generally considered the Star Wars film and where it is universally acclaimed.  Continuing to read might burst a couple bubbles for you.  (Don’t worry; I like the film a lot, but it hasn’t always been on the pedestal it currently resides on.)

I turned 13 the summer that Star Wars came out.  It lasted so long in the theater (I think all the way to the end of the year) that I was already seeing pop culture references to it on TV shows by that next fall.  My sister finally took me so we could see what all the fuss was about.  I loved it.  I even bought or was given some official spin-off novelizations using the Star Wars characters.

Some time before 1980 I heard that another Star Wars movie was coming.  I was ecstatic and so were my friends, but I remember reading a newspaper article questioning if Lucas was making a huge mistake.  He had one of the all-time classic movies; why would he want to risk ruining that by diluting it with a sequel?  As the article pointed out, after Gone with the Wind became the biggest movie of all time there was no “Back with the Wind” that followed it.

I don’t remember exactly when I went to go see The Empire Strikes Back, but I know it wasn’t opening day.  I think I was riding by a theater and saw that the movie was showing.  Remember, this was in the days before Twitter, before the Internet, before “news” programs that covered only entertainment, even before cable television.  This was also a time when no one outside of a studio cared what a movie made its opening weekend, or even at all.  There simply wasn’t the hype for a movie opening, even one as big as the Star Wars sequel, as there is today for the least little movie coming out.

I liked The Empire Strikes Back quite a bit, but not as much as Star Wars.  Part of that was the downbeat, cliffhanger ending to it – the very same thing that is now cited for why the movie is the best of the lot.  Almost everyone that now says that didn’t have to wait three friggin’ years to see what was going to happen.  They just pop in the next movie on their player to find out.  It really sucked back in 1980 because as far as we knew there wasn’t even going to be another movie.

And what about the big reveal to Luke from Darth Vader?  Wasn’t that an all-time classic movie moment?  Actually, it wasn’t.  I went to see The Empire Strikes Back twice – the first time I had ever spent my own money to see a movie more than once.  Both times I saw it, when the iconic line “No, I am your father” (not “Luke, I am your father” as so many people misquote) is uttered and Luke screams “noooooo!” the audience laughed out loud.  Everyone thought it was such a ridiculous lie that there is no way that Luke should even remotely believe it, so his reaction was just funny as hell.  Everyone was even talking afterwards about that being a stupid moment because, of course, there was no way Vader was his father.  Even James Earl Jones was later quoted as saying he assumed Vader was lying to Luke when he was brought in to voice the new lines.  It actually took articles in magazines and newspapers (still pre-Internet, remember) from Lucas himself confirming that this wasn’t a lie before people finally started to believe it.  Nowadays, there is almost no way to not know about this moment, so knowing what is coming, it makes sense to people.  At one time it didn’t, though.

As it turns out, this was just all part of Lucas constantly tinkering with the story.  He never intended for Darth Vader to be Luke’s father (or Leia’s – more on that in a bit).  That wasn’t even in the script when they started filming.  He actually brought James Earl Jones – the voice of Darth Vader – back in to overdub the line before releasing the movie.

And even at this point Lucas still never figured on Luke and Leia being siblings – hence the much discussed kiss in The Empire Strikes Back.  It wasn’t until he was doing The Return of the Jedi that he decided to make the coincidental family connections even more improbable.  (The audience I saw that one with just chuckled a little as if to ask “what next?”)

Earlier I mentioned reading some official Star Wars novels between the first two movies.  Those played up the big romance between Luke and Leia, including one titled Splinter of the Mind’s Eye where the two almost had sex.  Do you really think Lucas would have signed off on these novels if he had any thought of making them siblings?  No, he wouldn’t.  The Star Wars movies are not the carefully crafted stories that people regard them as today; they are actually the result of some good instincts along the way on what would be popular, plot inconsistencies be damned.

Another piece of evidence for this: the Han is frozen in carbonite ending that everybody now loves.  That wasn’t ever intended to be the big emotional ending that it is today.  It was simply the result of Harrison Ford not being under contract for a third movie (unlike Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher), so they had to do something where he could be killed off so that his character didn’t appear in the third film.  As it turns out, he did agree to a new contract and the rest is history.

Other than the ending the biggest thing that we all talked about after seeing it was not the “I am your father” moment – for the reasons mentioned above – but rather the tantalizing shot of what might be under Darth Vader’s helmet.  Right after the first movie that was one of the biggest topics – what was the helmet concealing?  For me personally, the funny looking man that we finally see in the third movie was a big disappointment, but by that point nothing could have lived up to that moment.

Another thing we talked about was how “funny” Mark Hamill looked.  We felt there was something different about him, but we didn’t know what.  In fact, we weren’t completely sure that he did look different because this was also in the days before home video took off.  We couldn’t just pop the first movie into our player to see Hamill as he looked in Star Wars and then compare it to The Empire Strikes Back.  What we didn’t know (again, pre-internet and 24 hour entertainment news cycles) was that Hamill had been in a bad car accident and had received some facial injuries.  In later years people would say that the attack on his character in the beginning of the movie was an attempt to explain his facial differences, but this is just an urban legend that has appeared over the years.  Early drafts of the script from before his accident already had that scene in it.

Something that I learned many years later that was true was that Lucas bet the farm on this movie.  He didn’t want to turn control of it over to a studio, so he put up his own money and took out some loans and managed to finance it himself.  If it had tanked he would have been ruined.  It didn’t, and he got the money to make the rest of the films.  Of course the big news recently is how he has now sold all the Star Wars properties to Disney for $4 billion and change (which he has said he will donate to educational efforts, so good for him.)

Even though it made him rich, and even though many people today consider it to be the best of the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back was actually the one that did the worst at the box office.  Even with the late 1990s re-releases of the films it never passed $300 million dollars – the only Star Wars movie to not do so.

And what version do I prefer?  I like the original version – now-cheesy special effects and all.  I don’t have a problem with Lucas adding to them, or changing them around, though.  As I mentioned above, he was constantly tinkering with them even as he was making them, so the idea that he would not continue to do that even afterwards is a little naïve.  I was a little bugged when at first he only released the changed versions, but once he released the original ones I was okay.

If you’ve somehow never seen The Empire Strikes Back then I highly recommend you do so.  Make sure to watch Star Wars first, though, so that you will know what is going on.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



  1. O.K., if you were 13 in the summer of 1980, we're the same age. :-) I loved this trilogy when they first came out, too. I just could never get into the new trilogy (the prequels). But there's a lot of good storytelling in those first 3 movies. Though I agree that they weren't carefully thought out in advance. I'm certain they just made up these plot twists as they went along.

    1. Actually, I was 13 the summer of 1977 when Star Wars came out. I turned 16 the summer The Empire Strikes Back came out, so I must be three years older than you.

  2. I love all your anecdotes about audience reaction when it originally came out. Great read! And I looooooooooooooooove this movie. I love all the (original) Star Wars movies.

  3. I too had that response to the Darth Vader daddy line. I literally threw up my hands and went "pffft." I must have been about 14 when I saw it in the theater. The only one I own or care to watch is the first one, original release on VHS. The kids have all the others I think.

    1. Thanks for sharing. I'm glad someone else remembers what it was like.

      I do own all six films on DVD. I hung onto the original trilogy on VHS for quite some time until Lucas finally released the unchanged movies on DVD.