By Sam Moore
Directed: Irvin Keshner
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams
Directed by Irvin Keshner – who until then had not touched the science-fiction genre – the film immediately strikes a far darker tone than its predecessor. The walker assault at the beginning of the film is exhilarating and for the first time the impression of there being a war of any kind is displayed in earnest.
George Lucas decided that a battle on an ice planet was necessary because he felt that it was easy to “cheat” in space, the black background meaning editors could hide errors easily. With a white background the effects crews would have to work much harder and the effects would need to be much more impressive.
And they are; everything from the superior set design, convincing costumes and exceptional visual effects say so. It also had triple the budget of A New Hope, all $33 million of it bankrolled by Lucas himself so as not to share creative writes. This stringent direction is the reason why The Empire Strikes Back is perhaps the most technically proficient of all three original movies. Episode V, like A New Hope, also introduces several elements which later become staples of the franchise; the planet-hopping narrative, multiple battle sequences happening simultaneously, R2D2 fixing things so as to make good the heroes’ escape.
It also preserves several elements introduced by A New Hope, cementing them in tradition and reminding the viewer that, yes, this is a Star Wars movie. Lucas fought hard to keep the opening crawl to preserve the dramatic opening, reserving all the credits for the end of the movie (something only permitted in A New Hope because it was not expected to be commercially successful).
The majority of the plot revolves around Luke Skywalker coming to grips with his new Force abilities. After the Rebels disperse following the Empire’s assault on Hoth, Luke travels to the Dagobah system to find the diminutive Yoda, an ex-Jedi Counsel leader whose taxonomic origin has forever remained a mystery. For the second time the old Jedi Master – who has become a little eccentric in his infirmity – finds himself training yet another Skywalker who is supposedly too old.
However, where Hayden Christensen generally failed in playing a human being with any form of relatable human emotions other than chronic anger, Mark Hamill does a wonderful job of playing the morally-torn Luke. He felt compelled to leave Dagobah in order to rescue Han Solo and Princess Leia from empirical clutches on Bespin, knowing full well that it was a trap in order to coax him out. Leaving his training would also put him at a great disadvantage to the superior Darth Vader and open to suggestion from the Dark Side.
These are good examples of how Keshner’s direction and Lucas’ story strengthened Luke’s human nature in this film, making him – perhaps for the first time a mature and likeable character. Of course this is also the first time the audience were made aware of Luke’s relation to Vader, a bombshell which at the time of filming was not even known by the cast and crew.
With so much happening throughout the first and second acts, by the time final third comes to a close the ending leaves the viewer a little cold. Following their escape from the Empire’s Super Star Destroyer – thanks to R2D2 conveniently fixing their sabotaged hyperdrive in the flick of a switch – the Rebel fleet rides off into a stellar sunset.
As we watch the Millennium Falcon heading in pursuit of Han Solo – frozen in carbonate aboard Slave I – there is no real promise of anything much coming from the third instalment other than finding out whether Luke and Leia are related and if Boba Fett has hung Solo above his mantelpiece. Despite the soft ending, however, The Empire Strikes Back succeeds at being one of the most technically and creatively sound instalments of the Star Wars franchise to-date.