Film review: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Contains spoilers. Empire is one of those classic sci-fi films that has no boring moments, is so well-balanced, introducing new characters such as Yoda, and having enough action to please action fans, and enough romance, spiritualty and philosophy to please those interested in something a little deeper.

George Lucas:
“The first three films were done in a thirties style in terms of aesthetic and acting. The snappy comebacks are out of The Thin Man; it wasn't that contemporary. I wasn't just using the Saturday matinee serial but all of the B-films-not the A-films.”

The film is set three years after Star Wars (1977). Many have claimed that Empire has superior characterization, and better performances, and is the best Star wars film. The script serves not only a young audience, but also an adult one. Perhaps in a psychological sense Luke as a son has to sleigh his father to become a man.

In the documentary, The People Vs. George Lucas (2010), they discuss how George Lucas’ career is like the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader. Particularly the first film seems autobiographical. Luke Skywalker being the lonely adolescent kid who yearns to get out and explore. Perhaps George Lucas has had that nightmare of going into the tree where he sees a version of himself turn into Vader. For a lot of geeks, George Lucas did become the version of that guy in the tree that is in Vader's mask.

“I was sort of fighting the corporate system, which I didn’t like, and I’m not happy with the fact that corporations have taken over the film industry, but I found myself being the head of a corporation, so there is a certain irony there, I have become the very thing I was trying to avoid, that is Darth Vader, he becomes the very thing he is trying to protect himself against”

Most crucially, Luke must accept and redeem his own shadow self, himself when he is at his worst. In this case, that shadow is the father, both as what made us and what we fear to become: in this case, Darth Vader ("Dark Father"). Evil and guilt are inescapable in all of us, and we have to acknowledge that. Luke realizes he is part of a family and he mustn’t carry on the sins of his father.

George Lucas:
"What these films (episode 4-6) deal with is that we all have good and evil inside of us, and that we can choose which way we want the balance to go. Star wars is made up of many themes, it's not just a single theme. One is our relationship to machines, which is fearful, but also benign, they are an extension of the human, not mean in themselves. The issue of friendship, your obligation to your fellow man, to other people who are around you. That you have control over your destiny, that you HAVE a destiny, that you have many paths to walk down, and you may have a great destiny if you decide not to walk down that path. Your life might be satisfying, if you wake up and listen to your inner feelings and realize what it is you have a particular talent for and what contributions you can make to society."

What the force is was never really explained (until the prequels came along). For me, the force was always just about believing in yourself, being able to do more than we initially thought possible, and was only something superhuman in the context of the films.

George Lucas on the force:
"I put the force into the movies in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people. More a belief in God than in any particular religious system. (…) I think there is a God, no question. What we know about that God, or what that God is, I'm not sure"

In the making of Star Wars, George Lucas talks about the force:
“It’s sort of boiling down religion to a very basic concept. The idea that there is some power, or force that controls are destiny. Or works for good, and also works for evil, has always been very basic in mankind”

George Lucas on star wars as part of religion and mythology:
"if it’s a tool that can be used to make old stories be new, and relate to young people, that's what the whole point was"

So why was the Star Wars trilogy so special, that 20 years later it could be re-released and still be a box office attraction?

George Lucas, creator, writer and occasional director of the series, has the answer:
“Special effects don’t make a movie (…) The story makes the movie, and all the special effects do is allow you to tell a particular story”

The fact that so little was changed for the special edition 20th anniversary edition stands as a testimony to the quality of The Empire Strikes Back.

G. Lucas on why the Star Wars films appeal to audiences all over the world:
"One of the main themes in the films is having organisms realize that they must live together, and they must live together for mutual advantage, not just humans, but all living things. Everything in the galaxy is part of a greater whole."

The Star Wars trilogy was an attempt to bring back hope to a nation when it seemed in short supply in 1977. Lucas' vision was to resurrect the myths and legends that had once defined society but had since been forgotten because people had more pressing social problems to deal with: the economy was at an all-time low, the Vietnam War had just finished with no clear victor, and Watergate caused scandal within a government that had already lost public confidence. America was in definite need of a cultural tonic that would inspire people and speak to their concerns and at the same time offer some timeless wisdom.

According to Dale Pollock, author of a biography on G Lucas, the film's return to family entertainment and traditional morality was a conscious decision by its writer-director.
“Lucas wanted to present positive values to the audience. In the 1970s traditional religion was out of fashion and the family structure was disintegrating. There was no moral anchor. Lucas remembered how protected he had felt growing up in the cocoon like culture of the 1950s, a feeling he wanted to communicate in Star Wars.”

Pollock lists the values of the film as:
"Hard work, self-sacrifice, friendship, loyalty, and a commitment to a higher purpose."

Lucas himself comments,
"I mean, there's a reason this film is so popular. It's not that I'm giving out propaganda nobody wants to hear."

What George Lucas has done in Star Wars is to communicate that the younger self resides somewhere inside even the oldest person. Star Wars advocates a return to heroism and traditional morality. Those who criticize the Star Wars merchandise sometimes don’t realize that it was, and still is, supply and demand.

Star Wars fanboy and director Kevin Smith has during his film career shared his opinions about the Star Wars trilogy. For example a clip in his film Clerks (1994), the death star is discussed, they wonder what happens to all the innocent contractors who are rebuilding it?

I’ll skip reviewing Return of the Jedi (1983), it has its moments of originality, the speeder bike chases in the forest, the ewoks are cute, but the story of the death star and battling the empire is essentially repeating Star Wars (1977). I won’t review the prequels (1999-2005) either, because to me they focused more on special effects than story.

My rating 8.0

Readers, was my review useful? Any thoughts on The Empire Strikes Back ?

Did you miss last week's review of Star Wars (1977) ? Here's a link.


The Genius of the System / Gavin Smith / Film Comment 38.4 (July-August 2002): p31-32

Creating and Comparing Myth in Twentieth-Century Science Fiction: Star Trek and Star Wars / Lincoln Geraghty / Literature Film Quarterly 33.3 (2005): p191-200

Whose Future? Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner / Peter Lev / Literature Film Quarterly 26.1 (1998): p30-37.

The People Vs. George Lucas (2010)
Clerks (1994)
History Channel - Star Wars the legacy revealed (2007)
The Mythology of Star Wars documentary (2000)
Star Wars MTV Movie Special (1997)
Film Review Special - Star Wars 20th Anniversary
Empire of Dreams - The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy (2004) (the least interesting of the docs I watched)


  1. Really good review. "Empire" has always been my favorite of the Star Wars saga - but seeing all the things Lucas has to say about this movie and the series in generals has really opened my eyes to new interpretations of the film.

  2. Alex Jowski: Thanks! and glad to have opened your eyes to different Star Wars interpretations. If you dig a little deeper, the trilogy does contain more than just special effects ( :

  3. I always loved the mystery surrounding the Force, like a Jedi secret that only they could understand. I think this is my favourite of the original trilogy (I watched them all obsessively when I was younger - thanks to Dad for introducing me to them!)
    This was a superb write up! :D

  4. @Ruth: Yes, the mystery of the force really holds your attention, and the technical explanation in the prequel took away some of the enigma.
    I agree the 1977-1983 trilogy is fun to rewatch, and that Empire is as good if not better than the original. Thanks Ruth!

  5. Nice post Chris, my favorite Star Wars film, maybe because Lucas did not write the screenplay or direct the film. :-)

    That opening battle on Hoth is epic

  6. : Thanks! The battle on the ice planet certainly is a great action sequence, and unusual that it for a change was near the beginning.

  7. A great look back at a great film. Easily my favourite out of all of the Star Wars films (to tell the truth I haven't even seen Revenge of the Sith, I'm not missing anything am I? The only good thing about the first two prequels is Natalie Portman). As the middle film it's in the envious position of being able to have a downbeat ending. Obviously not as bleak as something like The Wicker Man but it's strange for a big Hollywood film to have such a downer of an ending. Even though it's not just a special effects film, the effects are still stunning even now.

  8. A very interesting piece. It was nice to read about George Lucas comments about the films. Empire is a great addition to the Star Wars universe, possibly the best although my personal favourite is Episode 4.

  9. @keith: Revenge of the Sith is regarded as the strongest of the 3 prequels, though the air of predictability really takes the bite out of the new stars wars films for me. Plus, the prequels build up to Darth Vader being in full costume during E1-E3, and then all he did in E3 was stare out the window, and not say a word..!
    Agreed, the special effects hold up surprisingly well considering made in 70s and 80s. I've said this before, I miss the imaginative sets and art direction in Alien, Blade Runner, and old Star Wars trilogy, digital cgi effects today are not the same.

    @Dan: Yes, I enjoyed delving into the history, and making of the trilogy, I linked to those docs at the end of my review. George Lucas was indeed very creative back then.


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