By John H. Foote
7. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
“I am your father” says the villain to the young hero.
You could hear the intake of air, the collective gasp of absolute shock (me included) in the packed cinema as the audience gasped, holding their breath to listen for more. No need, we knew it was true. Darth Vader was father to Luke Skywalker, altering at once the narrative of the Star Wars tale. Those four words became the most important words in film in the eighties. In speaking them, the entire narrative of the franchise was changed, becoming much more intimate, deeply personal, and radically different than the mere good guy vs. bad guy.
Like The Godfather Part II (1974), the first sequel to Star Wars (1977), made just three years later was by far a greater film than the first, proving more complex, grander in scale, and darker than ever before, unleashing the great twist at the end of the film that stills stuns new generations who screen the film.
Lucas, who had not enjoyed the job of directing either American Graffiti (1973) or Star Wars (1977) stepped away from directing this sequel, hiring his former mentor and teacher Irvin Kershner, who had helmed the box office hit Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Actors had complained that Lucas did not direct them, that he did not speak their language and was more concerned with the visual effects and sound, so vital to the film. Knowing they were correct, he hired a man who could guide the actors, while Lucas focused on the effects and production design, creating the look of new worlds to be seen in the film.
Having escaped the clutches of Darth Vader and the Empire by blowing up the Death Star, the rebels are on the ice planet Hoth, but the Empire has found them. Once again they manage to get away, with Luke who nearly dies after encounter with a snow monster going to the swamp planet Dagobah to learn from the mysterious Jedi master Yoda. The others head to the Cloud City, now run by Han Solo’s friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). The Empire, however, is hot on their trail and know exactly where they are.
Meanwhile back on Dagoboah, Luke has met Yoda, a tiny little creature with a strange way of speaking, who tries to teach him the ways of the force. Luke has undeniable power, but is so impatient, wants to act against the Empire right now, and knowing the secret of his father, Yoda believes he is not ready. Realizing his friends are in danger, he leaves the swamp planet ahead of when Yoda thinks he should, disappointing the little master.
Arriving at Cloud City, the rebels are betrayed by Calrissian and Solo is frozen in carbonite to be delivered to the mobster Jabba the Hut. Before being frozen Leia tells him “I love you” to which he replies that he knows, typical Solo to the end. And Luke is left to fight Vader. With light sabers slashing and clashing they go to battle, Vader asking him time and time again to join him, come to the Dark Side of the Force, but Luke resists. Finally Vader delivers the line of the decade, telling Luke he is his father, and Luke searched his feelings, knowing it to be true. Telepathically calling his friends to his location, he drops and Leia hears (hmmmm), rescuing him out of an air chute.
He is attended in medical aboard a ship that leaps to hyperspace, leaving Vader unable to follow, angrily walking away.
The film ends like that, the toughest job for the second film in a trilogy, but it handles it beautifully, the perfect conclusion to a wild adventure. So many images are called to mind from The Empire Strikes Back, far too many to name. The frosty snow vistas of the planet Hoth, blindingly white, the characters dressed in heavy gear to ward off the cold, the planet Dagobah, teeming with swamps and swamp life, Yoda, with his curious manner of speaking, the massive space worm, nearly swallowing up the Falcon forcing a fast escape as the jaws close and it lunges out of its crater after the ship, and looming large, Vader who becomes an even more important character in the film.
The actors by now, and with a stronger director, had settled into their roles, characters that would become iconic during the release of the film. Mark Hamill was no longer the wide-eyed farm boy in space, having become a Jedi and realizing the enormous weight upon him, made greater by the realization who he is. The look on his face when Vader tells him is one of first disbelief, but then realization that it is true. Hamill brought greater depth to Luke, as much as he could given the action heavy screenplay, as did Harrison Ford as the space pirate Han Solo. Cocky as ever but now devoted to the rebels and Princess Leia (Carri Fisher), both deeply in love by the end of this, ending a combative flirtation.
The effects are again astonishing, the look of the film wondrous, and the arc of the story suddenly became very dark. It left fans of the film salivating for part III, Return of the Jedi (1983) three years away.
Incredibly, despite being a stronger film than Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back received substantially less attention come Oscar time. Nominated for just four Academy Awards, Star Wars had 10 nominations, and ignored as Best Picture and Best Director, both well deserved, the film received nominations for Best Musical Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects, winning the last two. Nothing for cinematography, editing, costume design or sound editing in addition to Best Picture and Best Director. Why? Recognized as the finest of the Star Wars franchise, it makes no sense that the best of the lot was not treated very well by the Academy.
History has been kind to the film, audiences are still discovering the events that took place a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and gasping when Darth Vader speaks those iconic four words.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.