Revisiting Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back


Spoiler alert. "No. I am your father."

The Empire Strikes Back was the first movie I actually waited for. After the original Star Wars I was that kid who was absolutely obsessed with all things Star Wars. In spring of 1978 I was overjoyed when my uncle got me a toy landspeeder with Luke and Obi-Wan. Our pantry had tons of Kenner proofs of purchase taped to the walls, good for redeeming for accessory sets, Boba Fett action figures, etc. Greatest Christmas gift ever was the Death Star playset.

December 25, 1978

In 1979 my uncle and I saw the rerelease of Star Wars, with a sneak peak of The Empire Strikes Back at the end. I was incredibly excited by those small glimpses. At last, Luke was going to be able to take out Darth Vader, the man that murdered Luke's father.

Needless to say, I was shocked by what I saw in the theaters. I seem to recall claiming that I hated the new movie, but that was clearly not the case given the number of times I saw it in the theaters and the number of Star Wars action figures I continued to accumulate. I especially liked the Luke Skywalker in his Bespin fatigues, though they still insisted on giving him a yellow lightsaber. I never really understood why they insisted on always giving him a yellow saber...

Anyway, I think with this we've done enough retro and we should dive into the actual movie. Rules for the previous films apply - I'm reviewing under the assumption that everyone has seen the films and I'm going more for an overview, not a summary - though I'll be going roughly in chronological order.

In the opening crawl we learn the Rebels have fled their base and are hiding out on Hoth. Hoth is not a place I'd want to hang out at. Though I suppose that's a good reason for putting a Rebel base there. Pretty much right away Luke gets knocked out and dragged away by a wampa. I didn't know at the time it was to explain the changes in Mark Hamill's due to his accident. In the wampa's lair poor Luke is imprisoned with his feet shoved into the ice of the ceiling. Unable to reach his lightsaber on the ground below him, we see for the first time Luke (or anyone for that matter) use the Force to move something. Awesomeness. He slashes the wampa's arm off and escapes into the icy Hoth night.

Luke running off into the night seems a poor decision. It would seem to make the most sense to finish off the wampa and spend the night in the relative shelter of the cave. Of course, Luke is probably not at his best - I would imagine he's in a state of shock at best and quite possibly suffering from a concussion.

In the Hoth night he sees the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi who instructs Luke to go the Dagobah system where he will learn from Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed Obi-Wan. Now from the vantage point of the prequels there is the clear contradiction given that Obi-Wan's teacher was Qui-Gon. It's not that Yoda had nothing to do with his education - it's clear from Attack of the Clones that one of Yoda's roles was to provide instruction to the younger students, prior to their pairing with an individual master. And while Lucas receives a lot of criticism on the prequels, I think here he can be forgiven and Obi-Wan's message can be accepted. He was, after all, speaking to a barely conscious Luke. "Luke, you will go to the Dagobah system. There you will learn from Yoda, the Jedi Master who gave me my basic training prior to my being assigned to Qui-Gon Jinn" is not really what you want to say to a figure who is barely alive at this point. Obi-Wan got the essentials across in a brief message. And he gave Yoda a reference, giving Luke a reason to trust him. 

Coming to Luke's rescue is Han Solo. He was getting ready to leave Hoth and the Rebels to pay off his debts to Jabba the Hutt. Apparently Han spent his reward money on pogs and Pokemon cards. Or he returned it. It's clear for all of Han's posturing he cares for the Rebels - not just individuals like Luke and Leia, both of whom he is clearly dedicated to (in different ways), but to the cause as a whole, as evidenced by his apologetic need to leave to pay Jabba. And despite the risk of the Hoth night he goes off in search of his friend. It's a move that I think Qui-Gon Jinn would approve of.

While Luke is recovering - and after he shares an awkward-in-retrospect kiss with Leia (I don't buy for a second the plan always was to have Luke and Leia be siblings - if so, well Jaime and Cersei approve) - an Imperial probe droid stumbles onto the Rebels. Despite Admiral Ozzel's protests to the contrary, Vader is certain this is the Rebel base - and that "Skywalker is with them". Yes, Vader is after Luke...

Darth Vader is not happy when Admiral Ozzel comes out of hyperspace too close to Hoth (I'm guessing that coming out further from Hoth would be harder to detect and the Star Destroyer fleet would then creep quietly to the planet). Clearly not liking Ozzel, Vader performs his first execution of an underling for failure, promoting Captain Piett to take his place.

In another memorable action scene Imperial Walkers march towards the base's shield generators. It's amusing looking at some of the Rebel and Imperial Officers. We've got John Ratzenberger (aka Cliff Clavin of Cheers) for the Rebels and the Empire's General Veers is played by Julian Glover, more recently known for portraying Grand Maester Pycelle on Game of Thrones. It could be my imagination, but Veers seems the type of officer that Vader likes - very competent - he does his job. He tells Vader the shield will be down in moments, and by the Emperor it is. The Rebels have a tough time against the Imperial assault, only able to bring down the Walkers by tripping them up with cables - or by Luke slicing one open from beneath and throwing a grenade (a thermal detonator?) into the Walker. Those are among the few good points of the battle, with Luke getting shot down by a Walker. 

Han and Chewbacca get off of Hoth in the unreliable Millennium Falcon, along with Leia and C-3PO, while Luke and R2-D2 get away in an X-Wing. Neither goes to the Rebel rendezvous point.

The Falcon is unable to get away owing to a malfunctioning hyperdrive (bad time to roll a 1 on the repair check). This gets the attention of the the Imperial Fleet, with Vader being obsessed about capturing the Falcon. Wasn't he after Luke? Well yeah, but I can see why he'd want the Falcon. I'm betting he was not forgiving about nearly being destroyed by the Falcon at the end of the previous film. 

The Imperial pursuit is relentless, chasing the Falcon into a dangerous asteroid field until finally they hide in a cave to make repairs. 

We also get glimpses of what is going on in the Imperial fleet. We see the first glimpses of the ghostly white scarred head that is concealed by Vader's mask. We see the Emperor for the first time (going by release order of course). This is a little confused as Vader's dialogue with the Emperor changes a bit in later changes to the film. In the later versions, the Emperor refers to the young Rebel who destroyed the Death Star as being the offspring of Anakin Skywalker, to which Vader asks "how can this be?" It makes one wonder how much each party knows - clearly Vader knows he is chasing after Luke Skywalker from the start of the film and it stands to reason he knows Luke is his son. So why Vader's question? The most likely explanation I can think of, and one I've seen on the internet many times, is that he is trying to conceal his knowledge from the Emperor. Who tells him to search his feelings - almost a "c'mon, we both know you know who he is - aren't you the one who said 'I'm sure Skywalker is with them' earlier in the film?" Vader suggests Luke could be turned to the Dark Side. The Emperor agrees. Now supposedly there's supposed to be two Sith - a master and an apprentice. Do those rules still apply? Are they acknowledging the possibility for a reckoning between them? Disney, I'm willing to write a movie all about this!

The Falcon's repairs are cut short by the discovery that their cave is actually the insides of a space slug. It looks cool as the Falcon escapes so I suppose I'll just ask the obvious question - "Why the hell is there a giant slug in space?" (I'm sure Wookiepedia has an answer.) There is much scoundrel and princess smooching.

They are still unable to go into hyperspace so they charge right at a Star Destroyer and then vanish - as it turns out, they are hiding on the hull of the ship. Captain Needa apologizes to Vader for losing the Falcon, which Vader kindly accepts. Still kills him of course. Then as the fleet disperses, unable to find the Falcon, they dump their garbage and jump into hyperspace. The Falcon drifts away along with the garbage, limping its way to Bespin for repairs.This is where most people assume the Falcon had a backup hyperdrive, one that is presumably very slow and apparently takes a while to bring online or to activate, otherwise they'd probably have used it by now. Unfortunately for Han and company, Vader had hired bounty hunters to find the Falcon and Boba Fett aboard Slave I is also drifting in the garbage and stealthily follows it. I'm betting Boba was paying attention as to how Obi-Wan hid from his dad.

While this has been going on, Luke has been on Dagobah with Yoda. It takes him a while to learn the strange green alien is Yoda, allowing him to make a fool of himself in front of his new teacher, believing he is looking for a great warrior. Luke learns this is indeed Yoda as Yoda communes with Obi-Wan's spirit, expressing his reservations about training Luke. With his mind always on the future, never on where he was or what he was doing. Much anger in him. Like his father. Now that's ominous based on what we know. And I, like Luke, was surprised to discover this was Yoda. 

However, Luke does train under Yoda. And makes a lot of mistakes. Taking his weapons with him into a cave strong with the Dark Side, despite Yoda's admonition not to. He defeats a vision of Vader, only to see his own face under the helmet. 

When Luke's X-Wing sinks deeper into the swamp he, at Yoda's urging, attempts to use the Force to lift it out. But Luke can't, believing it to be too big. In an awe-inspiring scene, with perfect musical accompaniment, Yoda shows just what can be done with the Force, easily lifting the X-Wing out of the water.



Playing a little loose with the movie's chronology, Luke senses his friends in danger on Bespin and decides to leave to help them, despite Yoda's and Obi-Wan's warning not to do so. They are suffering to draw Luke out. It is not surprising Vader used this method - it was premonitions of his mother's death and later that of his wife's that sent him on the road to the Dark Side of the Force.

On Bespin, Han is greeted by his old friend Lando, now in charge of Bespin. Though he plays nice, Lando has already sold them out to the Empire - having had "no choice" since they arrived at Bespin first - revealing Vader, Boba Fett, and a bunch of stormtroopers. I have to confess it took me a long time to forgive Lando. I'm with Leia and Chewie on the whole "trust Lando" thing. Vader has fun with the whole "torture the guy who tried to shoot me down" thing which likely is sensed by Luke on Dagobah.

Be that as it may, they've got a nice freezing chamber for Luke to ship him to the Emperor. But when Lando warns Vader it might kill him they test it on Han. This was all very traumatic for me as an 8-year old. Though I did grow to appreciate the "I love you" "I know" sequence.

To be fair to Lando, he clearly was in over his head. He didn't want to betray his friend. They were after some guy called "Skywalker". Then the plan was changed to give Han to Boba Fett but Leia and Chewbacca would be left with Lando in Cloud City. Then Vader told Lando he was altering the deal again and they were to be sent to his ship. That proves too much for Lando, who goes on to free the prisoners (nearly getting choked to death in the process). However, they are too late to stop Boba Fett from leaving with Han so they fight their way back to the Falcon, now joined by R2-D2, who has been separated from Luke.

Poor Luke. Before Lando frees Leia and Chewbacca, Luke gets glimpses of Boba Fett with a frozen Han, Lando, Leia, and stormtroopers. Leia tries to warn him off but to no avail. Luke finds himself directed to the carbon freezing chamber and Vader. 

I'd wanted this fight as a kid but not the way it turned out. Reality ensues. The man who helped destroy the Jedi order is more than a match for the partially trained Luke Skywalker. Vader toys with Luke in the saber battle, easily disarming him and forcing him into the freezing pit. Though Vader is impressed when Luke is able to leap out of the pit and use the pipes to wound him. Luke is actually able to retrieve his lightsaber and force Vader out of the freezing chamber - though it is likely this is what Vader wanted, as Vader proceeds to pelt Luke with various objects and eventually send him flying into a giant shaft, clinging to a gantry for dear life. Pulling himself up, Vader attacks him and the swordplay continues, with Luke being forced further and further back towards the end of the gantry. It does not go well for Luke, who is knocked on his back but doesn't give up, slashing his way back up. Luke finally gets a blow in on Vader's shoulder, one Vader clearly did not allow to happen. But Luke's victory is small and brief, with Vader next severing his hand.

And then things get worse, with Vader trying to get the maimed Luke to join him. "Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father." "He told me enough. He told me you killed him." "No. I am your father." They can defeat the Emperor, end the destructive conflict, bring order to the galaxy. A pitch he made to Luke's mother, once upon a time. Luke sees one way out - he leaps off the edge of the gantry into the bottomless pit. He gets pulled into a smaller shaft and eventually dumped to the underside of Cloud City, clinging to an antenna or weather vane. He is able to make mental contact with Leia on the Falcon who has Chewie turn the ship around to rescue Luke. After Lando gets Luke on board they flee into space and try to jump into hyperspace - only to discover it still doesn't work, as Vader had his men disable the hyperdrive. When all looks lost, R2-D2 repairs the hyperdrive, finally allowing them to escape. 


At the Rebel fleet, Luke receives a mechanical hand as Lando and Chewbacca take off in the Falcon to look for Han. Luke promises to meet them on Tatooine. But that is another film.


I can see why this was a difficult movie to love as a kid, especially with a three year wait to learn if Vader really was Luke's father. And despite the Rebels previous victory, we really do see just how powerful the Empire was - the only victory Luke and his friends can claim is survival - but even that is at a cost, with Han in the clutches of Boba Fett en route to Jabba, Luke maimed and traumatized, the Rebellion reeling from their defeat at Hoth. But as an adult I grew, like many others, to see this as the best of the Star Wars films. It is packed with action,  desperation,  thrilling escapes, and  ever-escalating stakes.

Greatest Moments: Almost the entire film, but some moments do stand out. Vader's Super Star Destroyer overshadowing the other Star Destroyers while the Imperial March plays for the first time. Yoda's gentle but powerful theme as he lifts the X-Wing up. Han Solo going out with cockiness. Luke leaping into the abyss and to a near-certain death rather than join Vader. R2 repairing the hyperdrive allowing our heroes to finally escape.

Cringeworthy Moments: Very few. "You stuck up, scruffy looking... nerf herder!" Incestuous smooching. 


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