Everyone has an opinion on what the greatest Star Wars movie is, but come on, there’s only one correct opinion here. The Empire Strikes Back is the most mature, engaging, and rewatchable Star Wars movie of them all. And for once, I have the critics to back up my swollen ego; many laud it as the crowning achievement of the series. In retrospect, Empire can even look set up for success: it was following up the most massively successful blockbuster up to that point and everyone was dying for more Star Wars like no movie before.
It wasn’t all that simple, though. To start, George Lucas wanted to own the film outright and make Fox only distributors. That meant putting up almost every cent Star Wars had made in the first place so he could fund a sequel onto the screen, and therefore, if Empire crashed, the budding Lucasfilm empire would too. Not anxious to write and direct after the intense stress Star Wars gave him, he found new collaborators in his old USC professor Irvin Kershner, and experienced writer Leigh Brackett. Both were very experienced and older storytellers, from the era of movies Star Wars paid homage to.
Kershner was able to tap into the connections that tied Star Wars so intimately to the American myth. The Imperial officers, who spoke in various accents in A New Hope, were unified as a cold and stern English force the Rebels were righteously battling. They were also shown to be elitist and racist in character, while the Rebellion gained more of a multicultural grassroots feel. The story of Luke, Leia, and Han became the story of America’s greatest successes.
Unfortunately, Brackett’s contributions are harder to trace, since she died after delivering an unsatisfying first draft. Lucas then brought on Lawrence Kasdan, who finished subsequent drafts. Kasdan was a much younger writer, but an earnest and talented one, who brought a sparkling and witty reality to the dialogue that A New Hope lacked at times. Things started rolling in 1979 in Norway and immediately came to a halt. Weather was so severe that planned special effects fell apart and the camera literally froze up at times. The scene where Luke runs out of the Wampa cave was shot just feet from the doorway of the hotel where the crew was staying.
Things didn’t get much better on the soundstages. While filming on the Dagobah sets, Mark Hamill had to rely on a pocket radio to hear both Yoda’s performer Frank Oz and Kershner, and was bitten more than once by a live snake. Fortunately for the movie’s quality, Kershner and producer Gary Kurtz gave cast and crew the time to get everything just right. (Most famously through a long and combative discussion about Han Solo’s final line of dialogue!) Unfortunately, this meant the film went way overbudget and over schedule. Lucas and Kurtz had to make a plea to Bank of America and take out a massive loan to finish the movie.
When Empire made it out in May 1980, it was indeed a financial smash and loved by the fans. It came in under expectations, though, and many critics had mixed things to say at first. These days, we’re used to trilogies and theatrical cliffhangers, but at the time, it was considered a cheap and unsatisfying tactic to leave an open ending for a new installment. Over time, though, minds changed, and Empire became the most beloved child in the Star Wars canon. Perhaps the highest praise comes from science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who apparently shouted “Start the next one!” as soon as Empire‘s credits started to roll.
Empire still stands as a high watermark in sequel history, in many ways surpassing what came before. It also made the world of Star Wars larger, more codified, and more rich. The Imperial March, the immortal insult of nerf-herder, “I have a bad feeling about this”, “do or do not”, the idea of the Force being connected to nature and being able to move objects: they all come from Empire. That’s not even mentioning the introduction of Lando, Boba Fett, and Yoda, some of our favorite Star Wars characters.
And like any good sequel, it surprised us by putting our supposedly untouchable heroes in real peril. We saw their pain as they were outgunned and trapped at every corner and their friendships were ripped apart. We also got the most badass and frightening Darth Vader of all, not tied down to any Death Star or superior commander, free to pursue his strange obsession with young Skywalker. And that final twist, while spoiled to death today, was by all accounts a massive shock in 1980.
It was A New Hope that engaged the audience, excited them, showed them how amazing the world of the movies could be. But it was Empire that touched them and made them feel connected to that world. I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to say that without the love and care put into Empire, Star Wars could have been a flash in the pan, gone and forgotten by now. It’s thanks to Kershner, and Kasdan, and Brackett, and Kurtz, and Lucas, and Ford, and Hamill, and Oz, and Fisher, and many many many others that we’ve all gotten to play in a galaxy far, far away for 38 years. With The Force Awakens, it looks like we’ll get to play in that world for a very long time to come.
All images credit of: Lucasfilm Ltd.
“Through The Projector Lens” is a feature celebrating classic, unforgettable movies that have stood the test of time. If you would like to see a film featured, let us know in the comments! Tell us about your Empire memories too!