Recently director Irvin Kershner died, the man behind The Empire Strikes Back, and it got me thinking. With so much animosity over the new trilogy and the “special editions”, it’s been awhile since anybody really examined Empire Strikes Back, though it’s easily the best of the series. Why was it that? What made it one of the best and how did Kirshner’s direction guide the film? I re-watched all three movies, focusing on what made Empire better than the first and last of the original films. After several viewings I managed to reduce it all into these ten reason, the Ten Reasons Empire Strikes Back Is The Best Film Of The Star Wars Saga.
10. Four Letters: AT-AT
While maybe not a pivotal point in the film, the AT-AT(All Terrain Armored Transport) is one of the coolest mechanical monsters in the entire Star Wars legacy. Think of the Star Wars ships in your mind and what instantly comes up? Somewhere in the top five is the AT- AT (if you deny it you’re lying). The very concept of a giant elephant looking monster that crushes things in its wake as well as fires lasers and blows shit up? That is the very definition of awesome. The Hoth battle is one of the most memorable in all of Star Wars and the AT-AT is one of the best things about it.
09. Lando Calrissian
Most of what’s been said about Lando Calrissian references him being the first black man in Star Wars, which is true. However, the real power behind Lando is the realism he brings to the movie. Not the pomp and circumstance, or actor Billy Dee Williams’ “smooth” nature, but the fact that he was the first real, non-easy heavy, in the films. Up until Lando betrays Han and Leia all of the bad guys were easily definable. The Empire was evil, anybody on their side was to be hated and feared. With Lando, Kirshner brought you into his good graces, made you like Lando and then pulled the rug out from under you. I remember the scene when Lando opened the door and Darth Vader stood there, my heart dropped. It would have been easier to just have Vader and the Empire storm Cloud City and take over but this brought some weight to the film. It also introduced the idea of forgiveness and regret, real human emotions that had been lacking in the original film.
08. Boba Fett
Yeah, Yeah I know, Boba Fett first appeared on the Star Wars Holiday Special but it was The Empire Strikes Back that introduced him as the badass to end all badasses. To put this all into perspective think about the fact that Boba Fett was only in seven scenes with only two lines in the entire movie. Something about the character touched all of us as fans, something about the enigma of who he was. A big part of that was how Kirshner directed Boba Fett, the subtle things he used to show just how much of a threat the bounty hunter could be. The best example of that was how Fett showed no fear towards Darth Vader at all, actually treating him like he was inconsequential. The sheer power of that unspoken statement generated so much conversation between my fellow geeks that Boba Fett became something bigger than even the Dark Lord Of The Sith. The crap slung on him in the new trilogy and the shitty way he was killed off all sucked but the power of who Boba Fett was in Empire Strikes Back will never die.
07. The Force
Another aspect of the Star Wars Saga that was really fleshed out in The Empire Strikes Back was The Force. Fans tend to use The Force as a blanket idea for all six films but if you really think about it, The Empire Strikes Back is where The Force came to life. In A New Hope we only knew of The Force as an idea, a theory that Obi-Wan Kenobi believed in and part of a mythical and forgotten past. The Wampa Cave scene in Empire was the first time we saw a practical use of The Force. When Luke willed his lightsaber into his hand it was the first step into seeing how powerful The Force really was. From that small scene we could all buy into the cool stuff Luke and Yoda pulled off on Dagobah. The Empire Strikes Back not only brought The Force to life but also made it real to the fans. If that hadn’t happened, if The Force hadn’t become so real, nothing from the lightsaber duel at the end of Empire, on through the remaining films would have worked.
06. The Lightsaber Duel
The epic final battle between Luke and Darth Vader is one of the greatest face offs in the history of cinema. It’s not just a great action scene, but also the thing that breaks the entire saga open by revealing the Skywalker lineage. Watching it again I was fascinated at how Kirshner, again, used little things to tell a greater story. During the battle Darth Vader controls his lightsaber with one hand, while Luke struggles using two. Right there we can see the power of Vader and what Luke must overcome. This also does a nice job of setting up the battle between the two in Return Of The Jedi and how far Luke’s abilities had developed. I also enjoyed how Kirshner had Luke using every trick he’d learned and still not even coming close to beating Vader. It spoke to how Luke should have listened to Yoda and Ben and not rushed to confront the Dark Lord. So much was wrapped up in this one battle that had it not been executed flawlessly the emotional core of the film would have fallen apart. It was also the first time we got to see a Jedi flip around, which rocked.
05. The Cliffhanger
I don’t know about the rest of the Star Wars loving populace but the very end of The Empire Strikes Back was one of my first real experiences with true disappointment. I’ll never forget when the final credits came up over Luke, Leia and the droids looking out into outer space. I couldn’t believe it; I was shocked. What about Han? What would Yoda say about Luke’s robot hand? Was Vader really Luke’s dad? I was outraged (well as outraged as I could get at nine) that all of these questions went unanswered. What I didn’t realize until I got older was that the cliffhanger drove the series to it’s conclusion. Imagine if Han had been rescued and Luke left at the end to go finish his training or if the truth about Vader had been proven. Sure we would all have gone to see Return Of The Jedi but not with the same fervor, and what became a legendary trilogy would have only been three movies about the same characters. You don’t build a legacy that way.
04. Luke’s Not A Bitch, Leia’s Not A Damsel and Han’s Not A Scumbag.
One of Kirshner’s biggest triumphs in Empire Strikes Back was how he grew the three main characters on screen. Luke was a whining little bitch in A New Hope but in Empire he became a Rebel leader who we believed could face Darth Vader. Leia started out as a damsel in distress but by the end of Empire she was kicking ass, saving Luke, and warming up to Han. The best of the bunch was Han Solo, who went from mercenary scumbag to the true hero. I’ve always loved how Kirshner let actor Harrison Ford improv the line “I know” after Leia said, “I love you”. It not only gave the carbon freeze scene some punch but also cemented whom the character of Han Solo really was and how cool he could stay under fire.
03. The Faith In Frank Oz
Here’s an interesting conundrum for a director in charge of one of the most anticipated sequels in movie history. Shall I allow one of the major characters to be a puppet? This was before digital technology, or even decent animatronics, and yet Kirshner (and Lucas) let puppeteer Frank Oz do his thing. The result is one of the greatest characters in any genre of film ever, Yoda. Wise, funny, and incredibly powerful, if Yoda had failed on screen the entirety of Empire Strikes Back would have collapsed. Instead we bought every minute of it. Yoda was a Jedi master, an incredibly powerful being with wisdom to spare. Kirshner not only allowed this to go on but also directed Frank Oz and his green puppet on set. To have that kind of faith in Frank Oz and in your own abilities proves why Kirshner was the perfect man for the job.
02. I’m Darth Vader, Bitch.
Darth Vader is the center of the Star Wars universe and it’s in The Empire Strikes Back where he becomes the true villain of the saga. In the first film Vader was more of an enforcer, a guy Grand Moff Tarkin kept around to scare people. We had no idea of his relationship to the Emperor or really who the Emperor was. In Empire Strikes Back Vader was the one in charge, consumed with a need to find his son and killing people off left and right. What started off as a mean looking robot suit became a three dimensional character. The scene where Vader bowed before the Emperor was so great because it let us know how powerful the Emperor really was. How much of a bad ass must you be to make Darth Vader bow before you? I also enjoyed how, after killing so many men for failing him, Vader let Admiral Piett live because he was so shaken up about seeing his son. All of this made Vader a much richer and deeper character.
01. The Dark Entry
Probably the thing that really gives The Empire Strikes Back its legs is how dark it is. Not just because A New Hope ended on such a high note but also because this movie was dark throughout even though it was a highly anticipated sequel. Other than some brief moments of brevity every second of The Empire Strikes Back is dark or sinister. The look, the colors, the action, nothing is really loose and fun. Our heroes are constantly on the run; Luke is always filled with fear or anger, even the Rebel Alliance is not sure what the future will hold. It would have been easier to end it badly, or have the film be dark and end on a high note, but to have an entire film based around supposed sci-fi nonsense, be so dark throughout was a real gamble. It’s that kind of effort and dedication to real storytelling that allowed The Empire Strikes Back to be so far above its peers.
So there you have it, the ten reasons I feel The Empire Strikes Back was the best of the entire series. Watching it again really drives home how good it was and how horribly Lucas treated this legacy with the new movies. Seeing how Lucas handled those films, it’s clearer to me now how important Irvin Kershner was to the success off the movie.
This one is for him.