Well, it’s officially the day after Star Wars Day, so now what? It’s the perfect time to review the sequel to the time-honored classic, that’s what! And I did promise to cover this rare example of a movie that managed to exceed the original, didn’t I? Hell, I would even if I hadn’t, its a freaking cool movie! And the nostalgia appeal alone makes it worth revisiting, time and time again.
And as I might have mentioned last time, The Empire Strikes Back benefited from several advantages which weren’t initially available during the shooting of the first film. This included help with direction, writing, and of course he had the musical score from the get go, which really didn’t suck! But on top of all that was the fact that in the second movie, things had a much darker and more mature feel.
Lucas acknowledged this in a series of interviews and indicated that this was his intention all along. Following the conventional three act formula, Act II is always the darkest of the chapters, where things go bad for the main characters and escalates the dramatic tension. As such, he needed to turns things on their head after the first movie’s happy conclusion, and threw in some big revelations and twists just to make the ride especially fun.
The Empire Strikes Back:
The opening crawl once again tells us what we need to know, that despite the destruction of the Death Star, its a dark time for the Rebels. The Empire is still a force the dominant power in the universe, after all, and since their loss at Yavin 4, they’ve been pursuing the Rebels without fail. At the same time, Darth Vader has taken an unhealthy interest in finding Luke Skywalker.
Cut to Hoth, where we see an Imperial probe landing on the surface, and Luke and Han who are out on patrol on the back of some weird looking beasts. Luke spots what he assumes is a meteor and tells Han he is going to check it out, but is unfortunately laid out when a big furry Wampa (aka. a Yeti) sets upon him.
Next we see the Rebel base, where Han checks in and let’s Rebel General Rieekan know that he’s got to leave. Essentially, his time with the Rebels have only made things worse with Jabba and his considerable debt. Rieekan is understanding, but his farewell speech to Leia leads to a rather serious argument. Seems she’s unhappy about his decision, and he’s convinced there’s something other than professional admiration motivating her feelings.
Luke wakes up later in the Wampa’s cave, and relies on his newfound knowledge of the Force to free himself and slice off the Wampa’s arm. He escapes into the frozen wastes, but nighttime is descending and the temperature is dropping! Han realizes that Luke hasn’t checked in and decides to head out into the cold to find him. After several hours, the Rebel base is forced to seal its doors and lock them out for the night. Luke and Han are on their own, and odds of their living through the night are slim!
Out on the frozen wastes, Luke is near death and experiences a vision. Obi-Wan comes before him and tells him he must go to Dagobah to learn the ways of the Force from Master Yodah. He passes out just as Han comes over the horizon to find him, but the two are kinda stuck when Han’s Tauntaun dies from exposure. Luckily, Han gets the bright idea to cut his beast open and stick Luke inside, thus keeping him warm and alive until he can build a shelter. Come morning, Rogue squadron finds them and picks them up! The boys are saved!
Back to the base where the Rebels learn that there’s an Imperial probe droid in their midst. Yes, that little spindly thing from the beginning has not only been getting around, it’s been taking footage of their shield generator and broadcasting it to the Imps! Han and Chewi manage to take it down, but it seems that the damage has been done. The evacuation begins…
Then comes another moment in cinematic genius, the scene where the Imperial fleet is shown and the Executor (see More Cool Ships) is introduced. After seeing many massive Star Destroyers pass each other in the starry night, several of them are suddenly overtaken by a huge shadow. Naturally, the audience can’t help but wonder, what the hell is no big that it can cast a shadow capable of blacking out a whole fleet worth of Star Destroyers? A Super Star Destroyer, that’s what! We then cut to the bridge where Vader is watching the fleet, all to the tune of the evil Imperial music!
And of course, it seems the footage has reached them, and upon seeing it, Vader comes to life and orders the fleet there immediately. Admiral Ozzle, the aging stereotype of the arrogant and incompetent British officer, seems pissed at his subordinate for finding this out and gives him a hard stare. Oh we just know that’s going somewhere don’t we? Meanwhile, the Rebels are preparing to leave, and Han and Luke have an awkward moment as they once again say good-bye to each other and wish each other luck. Seems they’re always saying good-bye…
Shortly thereafter, the Imperial fleet arrives but has alerted the Rebels to their presence and have raised their planetary shields. Vader concludes that Ozzle jumped them in too close to the planet, and decides some disciplinary measures are in order. This consists of him choking him to death over a video conversation and promoting his immediate subordinate, Captain Piett, to the rank of Admiral. Here too, the scene was perfect! One man listening in, trying to ignore the fact that his superior is slowly asphyxiating and dropping to the floor, and appearing both flattered and terrified that he’s now in charge.
The first salvos begins as the Rebel ships begin to fly for deep space, X-wings and the planetary Ion cannon providing cover. Meanwhile, General Veers, commander of the Imperial troops, lands beyond the shield and begins sending his walkers into the fray. This is the first appearance of the AT-AT’s, and they were pretty chilling to behold. The Rebel troops meanwhile dig in while Rogue Squadron engages them in their attack speeders.
However, things don’t go so well. The AT-AT’s are too heavily armored to destroy with blasters, and the dug-in defenders weapons are similarly ineffective. Luke comes up with the bright idea to trip up the walkers using their tow cables, but this too begins to falter after the majority of Rogue Squadron gets shot down.
Luke himself is shot down and is forced to bail, taking out a second walker with a grenade from the underside. However, in time, General Veers walker gets in range of the shield generator and delivers the death blow to it. The Imperial forces move in and begin attacking the command center itself.
Back at said center, Vader and an Imperial garrison walk in virtually unopposed, and all forces are ordered to being a full retreat. Han grabs Leia, who is still at her post, and compels her to join him, Chewi and the droids aboard the Millennium Falcon. As the last ship to leave, they are barely out of the bay as Vader walks in. Luke similarly gets to his X-wing out on the wastes and dusts off from the planet. The Imperials have won, but the good guys have once again lived to fight another day.
Luke meanwhile tells R2 that they are not going to rendezvous with the fleet. Seems he’s got another destination in mind, the planet Obi-Wan told him to go to in his vision. Arriving at Dagobah, Luke’s ship is disabled by a storm and he crashes into a fetid swamp. He and R2 are unharmed – well R2 almost gets eaten! – but his ship is marooned and he now seems stuck on this new planet. In the course of setting up camp, he is snuck up on by a tiny little green man, an annoying little creature who seems to know who Yoda is. He promises to take Luke to see him, but only after they’ve had supper!
Meanwhile, it seems that the Imperial fleet has zeroed in on the Millennium Falcon. Han and crew try to escape them, but it seems that ongoing mechanical issues are preventing them from jumping into hyperspace. They pull a trick by pulling into an asteroid field and hiding on one of the larger rocks. Pulling into a cave, they set down to make their repairs.
Back on Dagobah, Luke discovers that the little green man is Yoda, and that his constant pestering was a way of testing his patience, a test he failed. However, Obi-Wan’s disembodied voice insists that he has confidence in the boy, but Yoda is unimpressed by Luke’s insistence that he’s not afraid. He insists, in a very chilling line, “You will be… you will be.” They begin his training, running through the woods as Yoda explains the mysteries of the force and the danger of the dark side.
Luke confronts his first test when he senses a cave filled with dark energy nearby. Yoda tells him he must go inside, and that the only thing in there is “only what you take with you”. After crawling through creepy lizards, snakes and slimy walls, Luke comes face to face with his nemesis – Vader! They exchange blows with their lightsabers and Luke is victorious, cutting off Vader’s head and watching it roll to the ground. However, he is dismayed when the helmet blows open to reveal… Lukes own face! Dun, dun, dunnnnnn! Foreshadowing!
While in hiding, Han and Leia finally come to terms with their feelings for each other. After sensing that there was something going on there, only to see the sparks fly with fight after fight, the two realize that they actually love each other and have themselves a passionate kiss. Unfortunately, the moment is interrupted when a very rude droid announces that he’s found the problem with the hyperdrive and they can get it working again!
Meanwhile, Vader orders the fleet into the asteroids to pursue. Despite taking severe losses, he presses his commanders to keep on them. However, the Executor must pull out of the field when Vader is alerted that the Emperor himself is making contact. In the course of talking with the massive hologram of the Emperor’s hooded face, he learns the Luke Skywalker is officially a threat. The Emperor insists he must be dealt with, but Vader assures him he could be turned. He will do so, or kill him in the process, Vader insists.
Back in the cave, repairs are proceeding, but things get a little odd when they realize that their hiding place doesn’t react too well to blaster fire. They board again and make it out seconds before the “cave”, which appears to have teeth, closes on them. Back on the Executor, Vader has called in some added help, a slew of bounty hunters which includes Boba Fett. The Falcon pops out of the asteroid field and is once more pursued and can’t withdraw, so Han decides to pull a daring maneuver by charging the pursuing Star Destroyer. After slipping over the bridge, the Falcon “disappears”.
The Captain of the pursuing Star Destroyer goes to apologize to Vader, and is killed. Vader orders the fleet to break up and track every possible trajectory. However, seems the Falcon is actually mounted on the back the Star Destroyer’s bridge where its been hiding the whole time. Han plans to float off as soon as their host dumps its garbage before going into hyperspace, which is apparently standard Imperial procedure (not so environmentally conscious that!) They begin to float off with the junk, but it seems they have a tail… Boba Fett in his ship, The Bounty!
They set coarse for Bespin, to a place known as “Cloud City” – a floating metropolis built around a gas mining platform, where Han has a friend who he thinks will shelter them. This “friend”, who goes by the name of Lando Calrissian (whom he won the Falcon from years back) appears to be running the place now. And despite their bumpy past, Lando seems happy to see him. Leia, however, has a hard time putting her trust in him.
In time, she realizes just how right she was not to! After C3P0 disappears and turns up in pieces, Lando invites them to a dinner banquet, and Vader appears to be the guest of honor! Turns out Boba Fett tracked them there and alerted Vader, who showed up just before they did and threatened to destroy the place unless Lando turned them over. The torturing begins! But it seems that Vader has a larger agenda than extracting information or punishing a few rebels. The real aim of this little “deal” is to prepare a trap for Luke, whom he knows will not be able to resist.
Back on Dagobah, Luke has a vision of the future in which Han, Leia and Chewi are suffering. He is unable to shake the vision and decides to leave. Yoda and Obi-Wan plead with him not to go, telling him he’s not ready and that he cannot hope to defeat Vader. But Luke is intransigent, insists he will come back, and that he won’t fall to the Dark Side. Once Luke leaves, Obi-Wan laments that they might lose their only hope, but Yoda reveals that there is another… hinteddy, hint, hint!
Meanwhile, Han is put into carbon freezing, a way of testing the process Vader intends to use to capture Luke. He is then handed over to Boba Fett to take back to Jabba. Having had all he can take of Vader’s treachery, Lando pulls a double cross and springs Leia and Chewi from capture. Chewi tries to take Lando’s head off, but stops when he tells them they can still save Han. They arrive too late, and Fett gets away… Luke has also arrived and Leia tries to warn him, but they are separated by too much blaster fire.
Luke continues to search the city, and finds his way to Vader. The two draw and begin dueling, and Vader is impressed by Luke’s growing abilities. However, before long, he wears Luke down and eventually takes his hand off. Beaten and helpless, Luke crawls to the end of a catwalk overlooking Bespin’s central mining shaft. Here, after much time and waiting, he learns the truth of what happened to his father and why Vader has been obsessed with finding him…
Vader did not murder his father, you see. Vader IS his father. More than that, he doesn’t want to destroy Luke, but to recruit him. Together, he believes they can destroy the Emperor and “rule the galaxy as father and son.” Luke is overwhelmed and possibly even tempted, but chooses death rather than surrender and capture. Jumping into the shaft, he falls but is pulled into a side passageway which dumps him outside. Hanging on for dear life on the edge of an antenna, Luke begs Obi-Wan for help. However, Obi-Wan already told him he wouldn’t be able to interfere if he confronted Vader. With no one else to call to, he reaches out to Leia, who appears to hear him. She order the Falcon to turn around and picks Luke up. They blast for orbit and prepare to make a daring escape.
However, the Executor is pulling into position and Vader reveals that the Falcon’s hyperdrive was disabled. They need only close in and board them now. However, R2 already found out about the hyperdrive from the station’s computer and zooms in to make a hasty field repair. He managed to put things back in order just in time, and the Falcon blasts off! Admiral Piett watches in horror as he sees them escape, and waits for Vader’s vengeance. But Vader, solemn and saddened, merely wanders back to his quarters…
Back at the fleet, Luke and Leia are tending to his lost hand. Lando and Chewi have meanwhile hopped back onto the Falcon and are going off to find Han. The movie closes with a hopeful scene of Luke, Leia and the droids watching the Falcon leave against a backdrop of the Galactic Core. The shot widens to show the rest of the fleet as it drifts away. Though they’ve suffered a beating and many set backs, the good guys are still alive, and hope remains…
What Made This Movie Even Better!:
As every fan of Star Wars and classic cinema is no doubt aware, this movie is considered one of the few sequels that actually surpassed the original. The reasons for this are pretty plain and I’ve already gone over them, so I think I’ll skip them and get right to the specifics.
For starters, the cinematography was masterful. Again and again in this movie, the music, camera angles and dialogue all coincided to create the perfect atmosphere of tension and impending doom. The opening scene where the Executor is introduced, the build-up to the battle on Hoth, the sense of defeat as the Rebels are forced to retreat, the terror Luke feels as he confronts the Dark Side, the fearful moments as we wait for the trap to close around the main characters on Bespin, and the growing desperation as Luke fights Vader… All of it culminated in the massive revelation that Luke was in fact Vader’s on. It was one of the biggest twists in movie history, and it was absolutely awesome! Years later and I still get the willies just thinking about it.
And in the end, this movie really captured the essence of dark second act. After the introduction and brief victory of good over evil in the first movie, we get a dose of hopelessness and soul-shattering revelation in movie two. Not only did it chill the bones and impress audiences with its mature themes, it also made us wonder just how the good guys were going to turns things around in the end. And it was only because the two movies were so character driven that we cared about what happened so much. Luke’s coming of age, Han and Leia’s budding romance, Chewi’s fierce loyalty, and even the droids quirky antics; we all felt a sense of attachment to these characters and wanted to see them come out okay.
Little wonder then why audiences were on the edge of their seats for the next three years. And granted, the third and final installment had its share of weaknesses, by then the momentum and following had become so strong that it seemed like nothing Lucas did could be perceived as wrong. And honestly, the third and final movie was so climactic and emotionally involved that they really just disappeared didn’t they? But more on that next time.
Happy Star Ways Day Weekend everybody! Enjoy yourselves and… well, you know the rest 😉