December 20, 2014
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Grade: 92/100

Director: Irvin Kershner
Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher

What it's about. The long-awaited sequel to Star Wars, the most successful (and among the most critically acclaimed) films of 1977. The second time around, George Lucas ceded the director's chair to the fairly obscure Irvin Keshner, previously best known for the television docudrama Raid on Entebbe and the crime drama flop The Eyes of Laura Mars.

As before, our hero is Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), an excitable young man whose talents with the "Force" might allow him to conquer his arch-rival, dark-suited and deep-voiced Darth Vader (James Earl Jones). Vader runs the evil Empire, whose vast armies and fighter spacecraft attempt to control the galaxy.

The Empire is opposed by a rebel alliance, underdog forces whose key members are Luke, ill-tempered hottie Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), her daredevil mercenary would-be boyfriend Han Solo (Harrison Ford), his grunting apeman assistant Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the comic relief robots C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). A green humpbacked midget muppet, Yoda (Frank Oz), shows up to say wise things and teach Luke how to be even more powerful with the "Force."

Darth Vader wants to kidnap Luke and turn him over to the "Dark Side." Knowing Luke's loyalty to his friends, Vader arranges for Solo and Leia to be held prisoner on a criminal planet run by Lando (Billy Dee Williams). True to plan, Luke is lured to the planet and is confronted by Vader. Can Vader turn Luke? Or will one slay the other?

How others will see it. Despite enormous commercial and critical expectations, The Empire Strikes Back satisfied nearly all comers. It was the box office blockbuster of the year. Critics applauded, and the movie received four Oscar nods, although none in the most prestigious categories. Recognition from the National Film Registry had to wait until 2010.

Today at, the movie ranks #12 on the website's Top 250 list, a lofty placement albeit behind two Lords of the Rings movies and another dubious Industrial Light & Magic entry, The Dark Knight (2008). The mix of drama, action, romance, and comedy offers something for everyone, although it is true that women over 45 (who grade the movie 8.1 out of 10) are slightly less won over than young men (who grade it 8.9 out of 10).

How I felt about it. The Empire Strikes Back is slightly better than Star Wars, and significantly better than the sequels that followed. The strength of the movie begins with the well-developed and charming characters, and the actors that play them. C-3PO may be just a robot but Daniels' voice characterization is typically hilarious.

Visually, the film is impressive. One wonders whether camel-like tanks are the most efficient use of the Empire's defense budget, but they look cool, which in a movie is what matters. The special effects, the sets, the costumes, the editing, the music, all confirm outstanding production values.

In fact, the movie is so entertaining, and looks so good, that we don't care too much about the plot holes. Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) makes an appearance as a ghost to demand that Luke travel to see Yoda. The problem is, Luke is freezing to death at the time. One can imagine Luke saying, "Why can't you build a fire instead?"
Could the Millenium Falcon actually "hide" on the top of a battle station constantly surrounded by smaller fighter planes? Does a "Force" exist that will give the user telekinetic powers? Why would the evil emperor encourage Vader to find and "turn" Luke when the two could team up to kill him, as eventually happens in the third film?

But who cares. In this case, the means justify the ends, and the journey is better than the destination.