40 years ago today, Star Wars was forever changed.
The highly-anticipated sequel to the first film was released on May 21, 1980, entitled The Empire Strikes Back. It wasn’t the most well-received at the time by some fans, but it has grown to be the gold standard of Star Wars films and probably the one most commonly ranked first by fans and critics alike.
And while obviously the release of Star Wars in 1977 had changed filmmaking and established this galaxy far, far away, Empire remains almost as significant in making Star Wars what it is. And when I say making Star Wars what it is, I mean this: without the success of Empire, Star Wars would have remained a cult classic but not the sprawling franchise it now is.
Even in making the film, George Lucas was taking an awful risk. After his bad experience working with a studio on the first movie, Lucas decided to finance this one himself. But as things went over-budget and fell behind schedule-wise, the problems mounted. Lucas was trying to not only oversee this sequel but build Lucasfilm and run ILM, so he hired Irvin Kerschner as director. StarWars.com released a great interview with Lucas today as he explained the making of the film that I’d encourage you to check out.
That all was behind-the-camera, but the risks in front of it were even more substantial. Think about it: this movie takes the heroic trio and sees them apart for most of the film, it ends with the good guys thoroughly defeated, and so much of the movie depends on a little green puppet being believable as the wise Jedi Master Yoda. Instead of sitting back and resting on his laurels after the unexpected hit of Star Wars, Lucas decided to go all-in. Whereas it would’ve been easy to coast in the universe already created previously, Lucas kept pushing. Whereas it would’ve been easy to have another feel-good adventure the heroes went on together, Lucas told a dark tale of the heroes separated. The entire way, our expectations are being subverted.
Heck, even the way the film is put together is a subversion of what we’re used to: the big battle sequence in the film actually comes in the first act, not the last! In this story, Lucas actually begins with the Rebellion on Hoth, having to fight the Empire just to escape in an epic battle in the snow. But from there, the focus narrows to focus on our heroes, with little attention paid to the Rebellion. And so the final battle isn’t the climactic clash between the Rebellion and the Empire – that came near the beginning – but the emotional duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. It’s personal.
And through it all, it actually works. We are treated to so many brilliant and beloved moments – of humor, of sadness, of excitement, of dread, of happiness, of anxiety. The Battle of Hoth is one of the best battle scenes in Star Wars. The duel between Vader and Luke is one of the best lightsaber fights. The “I am your father” reveal is one of the most significant and beloved moments in movie history. This film is Darth Vader at his most menacing (at least in the original trilogy). The scenes between Yoda and Luke are monumental in our understanding of the Force. The Han and Leia dynamic is absolutely perfect. Lando Calrissian is a tremendous new addition to the cast. John Williams puts together one of his finest scores. And the list just goes on and on.
It is no surprise that, 40 years later, this film remains one of the greatest in movie history. George Lucas, Irvin Kerschner, Lawrence Kasdan, John Williams, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Frank Oz, and so many others were instrumental in making this movie the success it was, and it has stood the test of time. This is Star Wars at its very finest.