40 for 40 – #16. The Empire Strikes Back

Again, the 40 for 40 gives us a sequel, and again, it’s one of the best of all time.
More personal characters arcs. A burgeoning romance. An all-round darker film.
And maybe the biggest twist in movie history.
Either way, #16 is a sequel that delivers. It’s more of the same, but different…

#16. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams. Directed by Irvin Kershner.

Everybody loves Star Wars, right? And everybody especially loves The Empire Strikes Back.

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But, what makes it the best Star Wars film?

Is it the more-personal story? The improved special effects? The even wider galactic scope? Or is it not only the new characters, but the fresh take on our returning favourites?

Well, of course, it’s all of the above.

Another reason, is that George Lucas was not solely responsible.

 Okay, sure… he wrote and directed the original Star Wars, but he was heavily assisted and nitpicked by the studio, the producers and even the cast, to help make that movie the juggernaut it became.

We all know what happens when Lucas has complete control.

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Stop it.

Thankfully, George knew when to step away, and new director, Irvin Kershner was able to take the darker script by screenwriters, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, and give it the on-screen treatment it deserved.

The input of Kershner, Brackett and Kasdan is undeniable, but for me, the main reason The Empire Strikes Back shines is its ability to do what every great sequel should, and give us the same thing, only different.

Case in point: As the film opens, we get the classic tagline…

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

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We get the John Williams fanfare. We get the expository scroll. Yet as the movie starts proper, unlike the desolate desert planet of Tatooine, we find ourselves on the barren ice world of Hoth.

Star Wars saves its all-out Rebels vs. Empire scenes for the finale with the assault on the Death Star, but The Empire Strikes Back gives us the epic battle up front. Unlike the intimidating TIE Fighters and the space battle of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back showcases a ground assault, highlighted by the new and equally-as-impressive AT-ATs or Imperial Walkers.

The same, but different.

This can also be said about the plot structure of the film. Star Wars begins as a simple story about Luke Skywalker the farm boy (Mark Hamill) “taking his first steps into a larger world”, only to end up being a crucial part of the galactic conflict. The Empire Strikes Back reverses this narrative, since by the end of the story, we’ve gone to a very intimate, personal place, shattered the confidence of Luke the war hero and returned him to the naive farm boy he was when we first met him.

The same, but different.

John Williams returns, as he has done for all of the Saga-based films, to provide what is perhaps the best of all his Star Wars scores. The Imperial March makes its debut in this movie, and again, there’s something oddly familiar about it.

It’s just like the main Star Wars theme – big, audacious and instantly memorable, but also dark, ominous and intimidating. It has become synonymous with not only this movie, but the Dark Side in general and especially the character of Darth Vader (David Prowse / James Earl Jones).

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Vader’s ship gets an upgrade in this movie, too. Where he was once holed up in the Death Star, now he occupies the Executor; a ship so large, it dwarfs all others. We even get a shot where the massive spacecraft floats over a Star Destroyer to encompass it in shadow, just like the Star Destroyer overshadowed Leia’s ship in the first shot of Star Wars.

The same, but different.

The story of The Empire Strikes Back is simple enough.

Having destroyed the Death Star, Luke Skywalker has become known to not only Darth Vader but also his master, the Emperor. Under orders, Vader seeks out Luke to deliver him to the Emperor, wishing to use his friends, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) to lure the young Rebel into a trap.

Meanwhile, on the advice of a spectral Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), Luke plans to find an ancient Jedi Master, the mysterious Yoda, to complete his training.

Simple enough, right? But then things get complicated, as the characters begin to evolve.

And that’s the beauty of this film. It’s as much a character-driven story as it is an epic space opera. Despite the larger scope of its setting, it’s a much more personal story than its predecessor, or any of its successors, for that matter.

For example, the beginning of Luke’s plot-line also mirrors its end, injured by a superior foe he was unprepared for. But where the Wampa defeats him with a surprise physical attack in Act One, it is Darth Vader that bests Luke with a soul-crushing, emotional revelation in Act Three.

The Empire Strikes Back is also famous for the actualisation of the romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia.

Their feisty bickering and hints at an equal attraction from the first film are developed further and expanded upon with a much better script and far superior dialogue. While Luke’s moments on the swamps of Dagobah are quiet and introspective, the Han/Leia storyline is accompanied by an action-packed, cat-and-mouse-like chase across the galaxy, especially once they reach the asteroid field.

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These chase sequences keep up the dramatic tension as much as the burgeoning love-affair raises the romantic stakes, as the Millennium Falcon is relentlessly pursued by Vader and the Empire.

And ultimately, after professing their love for one another with one of Hollywood’s greatest improvised moments…

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…once again, our heroes find themselves fighting off Stormtroopers inside a sterile set of corridors, attempting to rescue one of their own. But this time, instead of Leia, it’s Han. Instead of the Death Star, it’s the winding passageways of Cloud City. And instead of succeeding, they fail, as Captain Solo is solemnly frozen in carbonate and abducted, ready to be delivered to the dreaded Jabba the Hutt.

 The same, but different.

New characters are a must for any trilogy, and The Empire Strikes Back introduces us to four of the very best.

Again, with each of these new additions, the familiar is skewed slightly to give us a new-and-different take on that which we already know and love.

Yoda (Y-O-D-A Yoda) is one such example.

Just like Obi-Wan, he is a former Jedi, now in hiding after Vader and his minions wiped out the once-dominant Knights of the Republic. Both are wise and powerful mentors, but their preliminary impressions of Luke are vastly dissimilar.

Unlike Obi-Wan, who was immediately eager to educate Luke, Yoda initially refuses to train him.

Obi-Wan believed in Luke’s goodness. Yoda fears his Dark Side.

Yoda also initially pretends to be something he’s not, by parading as a goofy clown, just as Obi-Wan was known by Luke as ‘Ben’, possibly for years before revealing his Jedi truths. And although Yoda does eventually start teaching Luke the ways of the Force, unlike Obi-Wan, who began training Luke physically with the lightsaber, Yoda explains that “crude matter” is nothing compared to the non-corporeal, spiritual nature of the Force.

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Even as they team up to warn Luke that he’s not ready to leave Dagobah and face Vader, Yoda is there in body, Kenobi in spirit.

The same, but different.

Legendary performer, Frank Oz is 100% responsible for making Yoda work. Just like Fozzie Bear or Miss Piggy or Animal from The Muppets, or Bert or Grover or Cookie Monster from Sesame Street, the man knows how to give life to an inanimate puppet. To the extent that, within seconds of Yoda’s first appearance, viewers have forgotten to look for the ‘strings’ and are wholly invested in the actual character.

Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is essentially another version of Han Solo. Had they taken different paths, it’s easy to see them in each other’s place. Lando could easily have been in that cantina on Tatooine, and ended up joining the Rebellion much earlier. Likewise, Han could also have found his way to Cloud City and made uneasy deals with the Empire in order to protect his people.

“Heeeeeere’s Lando!”

Lando’s story arc even mirrors Han’s from Star Wars; initially and somewhat-hesitantly looking out for himself (or in Lando’s case, the people of Bespin), only to realise that the evil of the Empire affects everyone, and that he can no longer stand idly by while good people suffer. Where Luke and Leia were the ones trying to reach the decency in Han in Star Wars, ironically, it’s Han’s fate that triggers a similar response within Lando in The Empire Strikes Back.

The same, but different.

Everyone’s favourite intergalactic bounty hunter, Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), makes his entrance into the Star Wars Universe in this movie (so long as you ignore the tacked-on digital cameo in the Star Wars Special Edition and, of course, the abomination of Attack of the Clones).

He who smelt it… dealt it.

He replaces the generic Stormtroopers, giving the film a more multifaceted secondary villain than a bunch of guys in white armour with buckets on their heads that can’t shoot straight. However, Fett’s armour and helmet are eerily similar to those of the Stormtroopers, keeping his militaristic nature in the back of our minds to remind us that this guy is the real-deal.

The same, but different.

While his insertion into the Saga now begins in the Prequels, I’m still counting the Emperor as one of the new characters I mentioned earlier. After all, he was originally introduced in this movie, just not as we know and love (or is that hate?) him.

The new scene added for the DVD / Blu-Ray releases is probably the best of Lucas’s alterations. Replacing the oddly-designed Clive Revill version with Ian McDiarmid’s now-infamous Palpatine fixes the continuity error that bugged fans like me for years.

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Some added dialogue also helps flesh out the reasoning as to why both the Emperor and Vader want to recruit Luke to the Dark Side. This interaction between Master and Apprentice can be seen as an almost-passive-aggressive interaction between two characters plotting to replace the other. They both seem to know what the other wants with Luke, yet it seems to be a case of “We both know what’s going on, and I know that you know what I know… so may the best Sith win.”

The Emperor is also somewhat like Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) from Star Wars. He’s another evil-doer in a position of power, only seen inside an Empire vessel, who is in command of Darth Vader. But unlike Tarkin, the Emperor has almost lost control of the leash that keeps Vader at bay.


The same, but different.

In the end, The Empire Strikes Back really does belong to Darth Vader. He gets a new theme, a new ship, a new suit; we even get our first peek at the disfigurement beneath his helmet.

Vader might not be the film’s hero, but the movie does centre on him and his motivations.

It all boils down to the climatic lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader. The setting of the carbonate chamber and its lighting evoke feelings of Hell and the Underworld. Fitting that it’s where Luke will soon face his most terrifying demons.

Interestingly enough, after being warned by both Yoda and Obi-Wan not to give in to anger and hatred, it is Luke that initiates the duel by igniting his saber first.

It doesn’t take long to realise Luke is outmatched, though. Thanks to Kershner’s direction, there’s a sense of dire inevitability about the fight, right from the beginning. While Luke is desperately swinging his blade with both hands for leverage, Vader is merely toying with the boy, swatting away his attacks with one (mechanical) hand.

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Funnily enough, Vader actually helps prove Yoda’s point. Using the Force is not about size or strength, as Vader hurls parts of the room at Luke to injure him using only his mind.

And above all else, Vader’s words hurt the most.


No one in 1980 saw it coming. The twist of all twists.

The often misquoted line… “No, I am your father…” is now as famous as the movie that spawned it. Even those who’ve never even seen a Star Wars movie know (some version of) that line.

The movie sets up this devastating twist with the Dagobah cave scene. On first viewing, it’s a wonderfully vague and mysterious scene. But on repeat viewings, it becomes one of the best metaphorical warnings of all time.

Partner this scene with the moment from Return of the Jedi when, after defeating Vader, Luke looks down to see the wires stemming from his father’s wrist, then looks to his own robotic hand. Together, both moments reveal that Luke could easily have turned to the Dark Side and become like his father, in more ways than one.

The battle with Luke and ultimately, the failure to lure him to the Dark Side, weighs heavily on Vader almost immediately. From that scene onward, he’s a changed man… machine, whatever…

This can be seen by Vader’s final reaction to the failures of his subordinates. Earlier, he kills his Imperial officers at the slightest wrongdoing; however, after the battle with Luke, when the Millennium Falcon escapes, Vader does not kill Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley) as we assume he will.

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This shows just how pre-occupied Vader has become by his thoughts concerning Luke. What started out as nothing more than a plot to gain an ally and overthrow the Emperor has quickly turned into a genuine longing for his son. For the first time in decades, Vader is feeling human emotions other than anger and hatred.

These are his first steps back towards the Light, even if he doesn’t realise it yet.

He’s still the evil and powerful Dark Lord from Star Wars, but now he has been given a more fleshed-out character. Humanised, if you will.

The same, but different.

Lastly, Kevin Smith and his 1994 movie, Clerks certainly did a lot of press for The Empire Strikes Back, mentioning how the so-called ‘downer’ ending is the most ‘realistic’ of the Original Trilogy. Yes, as Luke finds out Vader is his father and has his hand cut off, Han gets frozen in carbonite and it seems everything has truly gone to Hell.

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But it works. Unlike Star Wars, which ends with a victorious celebration, The Empire Strikes Back closes on an unhappy note and the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next.

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Remember, R2 totally knows they’re brother and sister.

It leads into Return of the Jedi, which is my second favourite Star Wars movie; mostly because it carries on the tradition of this one, in that it’s… you guessed it…

The same, but different.

Also, it has Ewoks. Lots and lots of Ewoks.

Just kidding.

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Rating: 4 out of 5 Scruffy Nerf Herders.

Favourite Moment: Vader’s game-changing revelation.

Honourable Mention: “I know…”

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Next week: #15 – “They’re not Swedish, Mac. They’re Norwegian….”

If there was ever an entry in the 40 for 40 to make you need an Unfunny Nerd Tangent shirt , then it’s this one! Re-watch The Empire Strikes Back with Mon Milfma by your side! She is definitely NOT your father…Unfunny Nerd Tangent Mon Milfma shirt

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