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40 Years Later: The Empire Strikes Back

4 May 20 words: George White

It has been four decades since the most iconic Star Wars movie came out in cinemas across the world. George White takes a look at why it remains so popular all these years later...

Director: Irvin Kershner
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Running time: 124 minutes

It has somehow been four decades since the release of The Empire Strikes Back, a film which brought us dissected tauntauns, a crazy alien hermit and one of the most misquoted lines in cinema (I hate to be that guy, but it’s actually, “No, I am your father.”). Episode V remains a favourite of fans and critics alike - boasting a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the highest in the series - and it is clear to see why. The high-stakes action, audacious narrative twists and incredible character work make this one of the most well-polished titles in blockbuster history, and continue to entertain audiences around the globe even 40 years later. 

Empire opens on the blizzardous planet of Hoth, which has been home to the Rebel Alliance's Echo Base since the end of Episode IV, and it takes all of 45 minutes for our main characters to move on from this location - with imperial drones, AT-ATs and one Darth Vader (David Prowse) attempting to block their escape. The film starts as it means to go on, immersing the audience in tension from the very beginning, and keeps a strong sense of suspense for the entirety of its runtime. 

On Hoth alone there are several action-packed sequences that are now ingrained into popular culture, including Luke’s decision to topple the walkers using grapple lines - which has since been referenced in massive movies such as 2016’s Captain America: Civil WarAudiences also get their first proper look at lightsaber duels as Vader and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) battle it out on the cloud city of Bespin. Empire's fight scenes provide more entertainment than those in A New Hope, which ultimately feel like the lightsaber equivalent of walking football. 

What truly makes the film so dramatic, though, is that the good guys don’t win. By the end of the two hours the Rebellion is scattered, with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) frozen in carbonite and Luke a hand lighter, with the hope that was established in the previous movie seemingly long gone. For blockbuster filmmaking this presented an unprecedented approach to storytelling, and showed the bravery of this trailblazing franchise. 

This defeat, of course, is compounded by one of the most famous twists in cinema, as Luke finds out that the ill-tempered, genocidal maniac in the bucket hat is, in fact, his father. To use the old cliche, this is a soap opera in space, and still provides chills to this day.

This spirited space adventure highlights exactly why Star Wars has proven so popular for so many

Yet among the action and drama, one of the film’s most memorable sequences is its most understated, as Luke is taught by Master Yoda (Frank Oz) on the swamp-ridden planet of Dagobah. Getting the chance to see the training of one of the most well-known characters in sci-fi remains a real treat even upon repeat viewings. 

The mentor-mentee dynamic between the inexperienced, impatient Luke and the wise, philosophical - if slightly irritating - Yoda provides moments of both amusement and intelligence, as the trainee Jedi begins to fully experience the ways of the Force. It is testament to Empire that many movies have attempted to emulate this relationship since, including Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, to no avail. This is the original and the best. 

Luke’s character development is fantastic to witness as he becomes more measured and skillful as a result of his training. However, the development of Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who grows from Princess to General, is even more delightful. Where in A New Hope she needs rescuing by the oh-so-brave men, here she is able to show her true leadership skills, providing a source of courage and bravery as the Rebellion is torn apart by the Imperials. 

Han Solo is also given extra emotional depth as he wrestles with his feelings towards the Princess, with Ford combining his usual intoxicating charisma (and luscious hair) with a greater sense of vulnerability - before playing it super cool with the whole “I know” line. Some of his dialogue is admittedly a little dicey in this day and age, but aside from that the scruffy-looking nerf herder is in fantastically fine form from start to finish. 

These superb characters are front-and-centre in one of the most popular, and most impressive, blockbusters ever released. Four decades on The Empire Strikes Back remains a thrilling experience for viewers, with this brave, spirited space adventure highlighting exactly why Star Wars has proven so popular for so many. The Force is definitely strong with this one.

Did you know? Mark Hamill had to bang his head sixteen times on the ceiling of Yoda's hut before director Irvin Kershner was satisfied.

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