Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

If you blew up one of my space stations, I might be upset as well!

Like its predecessor Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back broke new ground both in cinema and within the space of genre films. It demonstrated that film sequels were not just reductive copies, but could be on par or even surpass the original work.

First Impressions

There’s so much to unpack in the trailer for The Empire Strikes Back. In a modern-context, there’s no doubt that fans would be watching this frame-by-frame to discern what was going on. But in 1979 audiences may have only been able to see this once or twice. So forgetting what the film is really about, there’s a snow planet, a re-introduction of all the heroes (including a new character named Lando), lots of aliens, Darth Vader stopping a laser blast with his hand, Han Solo getting tortured and a love triangle between Luke, Leia, and Han. They’ve also changed to a blue logo this time around. Things sound a little dire for the star warriors, so hop into hyperspace and let’s go!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

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Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back title card.

The Fiction of The Film

The opening crawl informs audiences that after the successful destruction of the Empire’s Death Star, the Rebel Forces have been driven into hiding on a remote ice world called Hoth. After a close call being attacked by a snow monster, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) sees a vision of his dead mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) who directs him to seek out the Jedi Master Yoda in the Dagobah system. Saved by smuggler turned Rebel, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the two return to base just in time to evacuate when Imperial walkers stage an assault on the power generators.

Han, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) manage to escape on the Millennium Falcon, while Luke and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) depart in Luke’s X-wing for the mysterious planet Dagobah. The Falcon encounters Imperial star destroyers during their escape, compounding a problem with the hyperdrive. Han takes refuge in an asteroid belt, which provides them some respite. Elsewhere, Luke crashes his ship into a swampy planet and wonders why he decided to come here in the first place. He is met by a small, wizened, green alien that offers to show him to the Jedi Master Yoda.

Han and Leia share a quiet moment while making repairs to the ship, just before realizing they have landed in the mouth of a giant space slug. They escape back into the asteroid field and manage to hide on the back of a star destroyer, out of harm’s way. Darth Vader (David Prowse) takes a holocall from Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid–Special Edition version only) who is concerned about the Sith Lord’s hunt for young Skywalker. Vader feels that he can turn the Rebel to the Dark Side of the Force. Back on Dagobah, the small creature reveals himself to be Yoda (Frank Oz) and begins training Luke.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Looks like Luke and the Princess have something serious going on. Too bad Han!

Vader hires several bounty hunters to find the Millennium Falcon. When the fleet goes to hyperspace, Han’s ship drifts away from the giant Imperial warships with the ejected garbage, unaware they are being followed by another ship. They limp towards a gas planet called Bespin where Han’s old friend, and previous owner of the Falcon, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) lives. Leia is dubious about this slick gambler, but they have no other choice. Luke’s training progresses as he is instructed on the nature of the Force while performing superhuman feats. Yoda tests him in a dark cave where a spectral image of Darth Vader confronts Luke, only to reveal Luke’s own face inside the helmet upon defeat.

Han and crew are escorted to dinner by Lando, where they are confronted by Vader and one of his bounty hunters (identified in supplemental materials as Boba Fett, played by Jeremy Bulloch). Vader hopes to lure Luke to Cloud City by torturing his friends. He then encases Han Solo in a block of carbonite, testing the process for capturing Luke. Han is taken by the bounty hunter who will return the smuggler to Jabba the Hutt. Luke, who has had a premonition of his friends in trouble, leaves Dagobah, even though Yoda and ghost-Ben warn him against it.

Arriving on the floating city, Luke is led into a lightsaber battle with Vader, who manages to get the upper hand against the ill-prepared youth. Vader cuts Luke’s right hand off with his lightsaber, before revealing to the boy that he is actually his father. Luke is shocked by this revelation and throws himself into an air shaft, rather than be taken by Vader–who promises they can overthrow the Emperor together. Luke is rescued by Leia and Lando, who were unsuccessful in retrieving Han. Artoo fixes the ship’s hyperdrive and the heroes escape the impending clutches of Darth Vader. The film ends with Luke receiving a new hand and Lando and Chewbacca setting off to try and find Han Solo.

All his life he has looked away to the future. To the horizon.” – Yoda

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

The giant Imperial walkers make an assault that the Rebels cannot hope to stop. In this film, the big battle comes in the first act.

History in the Making

Sequels to science-fiction films were not anything strange by the time The Empire Strikes Back came out, three years after its hit predecessor, Star Wars. By 1980, probably the best known sci-fi sequel series was Planet of the Apes, which consisted of the original film and four sequels released between 1968 and 1973. In fact, there were many films that had sequels by 1980 which fall into two categories: story sequels and franchise sequels. These are different from film serials, which are stories “appearing in regular installments,” such as Flash Gordon (1936) or Buck Rogers (1939), both inspirations for the episodic feel of Star Wars.

By definition a sequel is a work “that continues the story of, or expands upon, some earlier work.” Since the 1930s, sequels have been an important part of sci-fi and horror releases, with popular films getting franchise sequels that contain similar themes but usually do not contain the same characters or continue plot points. Films like Dracula and House of Dracula or The Blob and Beware! The Blob allowed studios to return to the same well of ideas, using elements that audiences were familiar with and interested in. Other examples of genre franchise films include Jaws and its antecedents, and Westworld/Futureworld plus the various spin offs of this story line. Outside of sci-fi, think of series like The Pink Panther, or James Bond. Films that have the same characters, but not necessarily portrayed by the same actors, with no continuity (or maybe no strong continuity) between films.

So having The Empire Strikes Back continue the events of Star Wars was something of a novelty. Only a few films had attempted something like this since Planet of the Apes, including The Exorcist, The Godfather, The Three Musketeers, and Rocky. The trend at the time was to give the film the same name with a roman numeral after it (except in the case of Musketeers, which went with the obvious The Four Musketeers). This way audiences would know that The Godfather II is a direct sequel to The Godfather, and so on. The Empire Strikes Back broke that mold, and counted on audiences understanding that this film was in fact a sequel to the most popular sci-fi film of all time. Later it would be rebranded as Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for re-releases.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Vader gets to setup conference calls in this chapter with some of his remote workers.


As mentioned above, The Empire Strikes Back paid homage to movie serials of the past. These films, which were shot as one story, were released in weekly installments of approximately 15-20 minutes that would often end on a cliffhanger which would entice audiences to return for the following episode. Empire sets up a very similar premise, posing a number of questions audiences might want to find out about in the next chapter. Is Vader really Luke’s father? What is the final fate of Han Solo? Will Luke ever become a Jedi? The film even goes as far to identify the film as “Episode V,” as in the 5th part of a larger storyline, even though this was the second film released in the saga. Producer George Lucas had an epic story in mind when he created Star Wars, but decided to do just one portion of it. His uncertainty about the success of that film kept him from marketing it as “Episode IV,” which might confuse audiences. The addition of “Episode V” at the beginning of the film raised other questions with audiences who began to  wonder what they had missed. When Star Wars was re-released in 1981, it finally received the “Episode IV” monicker and the subtitle A New Hope, making it clear that Lucas had a larger story in mind. The only difference between this presentation and the old film serials is that the two films were not shot concurrently, with each film release being a unique production.

As a film sequel, Empire relies on audiences having seen Star Wars and knowing some of the story, but doesn’t require it. All the characters are re-introduced and fleshed out in further detail from their 1977 versions. There is strong growth in all the characters and their relationships. New characters are introduced that serve as new allies and foils. Yet, at no point does the film ever feel like a retread of the same things that made Star Wars work. Something atypical at the time. Film sequels usually worked in the following fashion: after the creature/event was stopped in the first film, something causes that creature/event to come back again, and the heroes (sometimes new ones) had to go through similar steps as they had in the first film to (again) stop it. A new shark shows up at another beach. A piece of the supposedly frozen Blob gets thawed out. Another set of astronauts crash lands on the planet of the Apes. It’s a tired and lazy avenue of storytelling (but still profitable enough from a financial perspective). Empire goes to great lengths to have a different structure and tone than its predecessor. It created the idea of “the trilogy” as a successful template for film franchises, wherein the middle chapter, much like the classical three-act storyline, ends on a down beat. As soon filmmakers saw the success of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and the final chapter Return of the Jedi, every successful film had sequels released into the mold of a trilogy of stories.

Not to dissuade anyone’s idea of The Empire Strikes Back as a sci-fi movie, but it’s really not. All of the Star Wars films are much more space-fantasy rather than science-fiction, and Empire is even more so into that realm. While A New Hope was a mythic quest for a young farmboy to rescue a beautiful princess from the clutches of an evil warlord, The Empire Strikes Back is the farmboy learning that he may be part of a clan of wizards, and seeks out a master to teach him the ways of their ‘religion.’ Lucas continued to take elements of Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero’s journey and set up a modern mythology that could inspire new generations. But that was only half the film. The other half was reminiscent of the 1940s romantic comedies of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Lawrence Kasdan’s script makes use of the same style of snappy dialogue and tough characters that personify films like Pat and Mike or Adam’s Rib. This is completely atypical of sci-fi films in general, and that is probably what makes it work so well. This new tone adds more layers of characterization to the Princess and the Scoundrel characters allowing new ideas and elements to enter into the story without repeating itself. The combination of varied elements from unrelated film types creates a film that excels on its own, while continuing a larger story of Luke Skywalker and his compatriots.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Luke is as disappointed as Yoda is in his abilities. Nothing has he learned.

Societal Commentary

The Empire Strikes Back is the most philosophical film of the original Star Wars trilogy. It furthers the mysticism and mysteries of the Force, plus introduces one of the series’ most endearing characters in Yoda, the diminutive Jedi Master. Lucas does not play the Force as a religion per se. In this film it’s presented as a universal constant that some super-special people are able to tap into for good or for evil. But since this film is seen through the lens of Campbell’s monomyth, the elements that make up the Force become the basic building blocks of various world religions. Christianity, Zen Buddhism, and Taoism can all be read as inspirations for this all powerful Force, allowing audiences from varied backgrounds and cultures to all have a unique yet shared experience with the film. It becomes more about spirituality instead of a particular doctrine of beliefs.

This is completely different from other sci-fi films that depict a religion or religious nature. Historically sci-fi films have either created their own culture and religion–possibly spoofing or basing it on something in real-world culture–such as Zardoz and Logan’s Run. These films both present deities that run the lives of the main characters, but which are in fact farcical and revealed for the false idols they are by the end of the movie. Their metaphor of “god” comes off as trite and simplistic. Other films like A Clockwork Orange and The Island of Dr. Moreau interpret Christianity through their lens for all its good and ill. They present the failings of man when it comes to matters of ethics, using religion as a shield for those lapses. The Empire Strikes Back does not tell the audience that any one particular religious structure is greater than another. It presents options and allows for personal choice and debate, which is certainly another reason the film has endured.

By focusing on the aspect of spirituality and not a particular doctrine, The Empire Strikes Back avoids the conflict of immediately clashing with an audience’s own beliefs. Yoda tells Luke of the Dark Side of the Force, which is quicker, and easier, but is also a pathway to destruction. He also tells him of the Light Side of the Force that can help and nurture. By extension, Lucas is telling the audience that being good, while it may be harder, is ultimately the best course of action. But the film never states that being good is dictated by God or some other Deity. Instead it’s a clear course of action. Luke is impatient and anxious to begin his training. His mind is unfocused and used to moving at a faster pace, so Yoda must teach Luke to slow down and be mindful, using meditation techniques involving breathing and “calming” of the mind. The Jedi Master also introduces the interconnectivity of the world, stating how the Force resides not only in the two of them, but also in the rocks and trees. This connection teaches Luke, and by proxy the audience, that there is more to one’s life experience than just oneself, and that there are more philosophical ideas in the world than one’s experiences may dictate.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Smooth talking, and had kissing are on the menu at Cloud City. Come for the hyperdrive repair, stay for the carbon freezing!

The Science in The Fiction

While Empire is more of a space-fantasy as mentioned above, science and technology is still an important element to the films. The world in which the characters live in has fantastical devices including spaceships that defy physics, robots that interact with humans in service capacity, large robotic-tank-like machines of war, and floating cities in the clouds. Medical techniques in the galaxy far, far away have the ability to replace limbs that have been removed by laser swords. Limbs that feel and react like their organic counterparts, but made entirely of mechanical elements. Luke’s robotic hand is one of the few technological aspects of the Star Wars films that is similar to existing real-world technology. Prosthetic limbs have made a huge leap in the last 40 years since the film was released, moving from metal armatures, to more realistic “fleshy” looking appendages. They may not provide the same sensations as the organic version, but they can definitely be made to look more realistic than they used to be. It’s an example of art imitating life, with life then being inspired by the art to create something even better.

With all this technology abounding, it’s no surprise that the characters have come to rely on those same machines for daily activities. Just as Star Wars showed that reliance on oneself is greater than the reliance on technology (in Luke’s attack on the Death Star), Empire presents some similar themes. Han Solo spends most of the film working to repair the hyperdrive of his ship, the Millennium Falcon. But as with Murphy’s Law, it continues to fail him at the most inopportune times, leading the smuggler to have to improvise. First he navigates into an asteroid field, and then pretends to race away, only to hide himself on the superstructure of one of the Imperial ships. It seems as if the theme is that technology is, again, not to be relied on. Human ingenuity continues to win out! But by the end of the film, when Threepio tells the crew that the hyperdrive is fixed–because he was told so, and he is not the kind of droid that asks questions–it turns out it is still broken. Luckily Artoo, who has communicated with the city’s central computer, knows differently and ends up making a repair and fixing the hyperdrive allowing the heroes to escape in time. In this case, the theme seems to change. Technology is not presented as bad or untrustworthy. The filmmaker’s are showing that some tech is helpful, like Artoo. And that helpful technology can be a boon, instead of a burden.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

This episode Luke battles Darth Vader with a lightsaber, but has he progressed enough in his training to battle a Dark Lord of the Sith?

The Final Frontier

It’s been 40 years since The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters, and there’s no sign of the Star Wars universe disappearing anytime soon. There have been many tributes and special publications this year in celebration of the anniversary, but the one that is probably the most fun is a collection of 40 stories about behind-the-scenes instances in the film. Entitled “The Empire Strikes Back: From a Certain Point of View,” this book of stories by 40 different authors explores serious or funny moments with other characters that only received small bits of screen time, like the Wampa snow monster, or the diminutive Ugnaughts serving in Cloud City. Even after four decades the film continues to inspire artists and fans

The Empire Strikes Back proved several things in 1980. First, it was possible, and profitable, to create a big budget sci-fi sequel. Studios and filmmakers paid close attention to this fact, as the 1980s produced some of the largest crop of sci-fi sequels ever. Older films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Mad Max received new sequels. The Star Trek franchise grew with four more sequels including two of the franchises most acclaimed works. New series were born and produced trilogies (for good or ill) like Back to the Future and Robocop. It was further proof that the genre was growing and evolving. Of course, Star Wars continued with its third and apparently final installment, Return of the Jedi. But as fans know, that was not the end of the franchise.

The influence of Empire was not just limited to the genre films and its fanbase. Other film types saw the benefit of sequels and used the Lucasian model to deploy films to the waiting public. It also reinvigorated the merchandising of the film, which proved that the fervor over all things Star Wars was not just limited to the original movie. Video games, fast-food tie-ins, as well as toys and comics continued to promote the film outside the theaters. There’s much more that could be said about The Empire Strikes Back, including its non-traditional romance (and potential love triangle), the introduction of Billy Dee Williams, or the increased and complex readings on Darth Vader’s character. Some of these topics may be covered in a couple months when Sci-Fi Saturdays makes its way into 1983 and looks at Return of the Jedi. Thanks for reading, and may the Force be with you, always.

Coming Next

The Final Countdown

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