Well, after a week of not picking the most obvious choice for a favorite film of the year, I’m back today to begin the 1980’s with the most obvious thing I ever could have possibly chosen! We’re taking a trip back to a galaxy far, far away this week on Cinematic Century, folks, and similarly to 1977 there really was never any sort of competition. There are some great movies from 1980, movies that could easily take my top spot in any other year, but The Empire Strikes Back is one of my favorite films of all time, and my personal favorite of the whole Star Wars saga. So, it was kind of a moot point that I’d be picking it. But, there are still plenty of other films released in 1980 that I’d highly recommend. We could have stayed in a very similar, pulpy sci-fi vein with Flash Gordon, a wonderfully campy and earnest films that I love totally and completely, not in spite of its absurdity, but because of it. We could have gotten spooky and talked about what is probably my favorite horror film of all time, Stanely Kubrick’s the Shining, a film that takes a fantastic book and adapts it in a way that’s not just a cookie-cutter adaptation, but tries to do something different, and pays it off wonderfully. Or, we could have gotten silly as all hell and talked about the weird one-two punch of Airplane! and Caddyshack, two of the most infinity quotable films of all time, both of which have a tremendous amount of nostalgia for me, remembering watching them with my folks as a child probably too young to watch them. And, in a similar vein, we could have talked about the Blues Brothers, one of the oddest films I’ve ever seen that somehow perfectly balances a story that alternates between musical numbers and carchases, and makes that a film that’s actually enjoyable. We also could have gotten monochromatic and prestigious by talking about two of the big Awards contenders of the year, both of which I really enjoy, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, which is not one of my favorites of his films, and David Lynch’s the Elephant Man, which may be my favorite thing Lynch has ever done. It was a great year for movies, but there’s no way I couldn’t pick the Empire Strikes Back as my favorite film of 1980. It’s a little hackneyed, but the heart wants what the heart wants.
As we discussed a few weeks ago when I talked about Star Wars, very few people thought that Star Wars was going to be successful. So, when it was released and quickly became a cultural phenomena, becoming one of the most popular and successful films of all time, it became clear that a sequel was in order. And, since Star Wars was designed as an homage to the type of episodic serials of George Lucas’ youth, it made sense to expand the story into an ongoing saga. However, after the hellacious experience of making Star Wars, Lucas quickly decided he wasn’t going to be as hands on involved this time. He decided to fund the film himself so he wouldn’t be beholden to studio interference, and hired a former professor of his, Irvin Kerschner to direct the film for him. Which left Lucas free to focus on the story, which he began crafting with science fiction author Leigh Brackett. Together they fleshed out the basics of the story, and after Brackett’s untimely death Lucas began pushing the story further, adding in several aspects that would forever change the trajectory of the franchise, primarily revolving around Darth Vader’s true identity, which gave Lucas the option to expand the series in both directions, establishing that this new film would be the fifth episode in a larger narrative. They then got to work on the film itself, continuing along where they’d left off in Star Wars, wrangling together the same principal cast, and continuing to push the world of special effects even further with Industrial Light and Magic, including some work from famed puppeteer Frank Oz. The film generally wasn’t quite as much of a mess to shoot as the first one, since it was generally understood that it could actually work this time, but it did lead to some huge drama with the director’s guild, because of Lucas’ insistence on putting the credits at the end of the film. But, despite any drama that occurred, the film was finished and released in 1980, and immediately set the world ablaze once again, becoming just as successful as its predecessor. Except that is critically, because in an absolutely shocking turn of events, the critical reception of the film was considerably more tepid than the original. But, over time that assessment has all but washed away, and the Empire Strikes Back has been generally accepted as a classic, and is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best, entry into the entire franchise. And, I can’t help but agree. It’s a marvel to behold.
The film picks up several years after the first film, with Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and the rest of the gang continuing to work with the Rebel Alliance, who have become emboldened after the destruction of the Death Star, and are currently hiding out on an icy planet known as Hoth. Unfortunately, the Empire has not taken kindly to the surprising destruction of their ultimate weapon, and have been hunting down the Rebels ferociously, finally discovering proof of their location on Hoth. But, before the Rebels can deal with that, they’re forced to deal with Luke Skywalker, who has recently been lost out in the snowy wastes of the planet, and who has been visited by a spectral vision of his former mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi who instructs Luke to seek out his former Master, a great Jedi named Yoda. And, shortly after Han rescues Luke, the Empire land a war party on the planet, hoping to stamp out the Rebels once and for all. They begin fleeing the planet while a force led by Luke fight off the Empire, but eventually it’s time for everyone to get off Hoth as quickly as possible. Luke and R2-D2 board his ship and head off to find Yoda, while Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO get aboard the Millennium Falcon and attempt to flee.
However, the Falcon is having some troubles with its hyperdrive engine, and it’s unable to escape the Empire, who begin chasing the ship at the personal insistence of Darth Vader. Eventually Solo is able to hide their ship inside of an asteroid field, hoping that the Empire will be unable to follow them while they make necessary repairs and seek out their next course of action. Meanwhile, Luke has found the swampy planet of Dagobah, the home of the mysterious Yoda. But, while attempting to land on the planet his ship sinks into a swamp, stranding Luke and R2 until they come across an eccentric little creature that offers to help them. They follow the little being back to its home, and quickly become annoyed with him, until he finally reveals that he is actually the Yoda they seek. Yoda isn’t very impressed with Luke, but after being visited by the spirit of Obi-Wan he agrees to instruct Luke in the ways of the Force, training him to become a true Jedi. And, while Luke is busy on Dagobah, training and coming to terms with his own fears and limitations, the crew aboard the Millennium Falcon have finally found a destination. An old acquaintance of Han’s named Lando Calrissian is operating a mining colony on a planet called Bespin, and they decide to head there for sanctuary, not realizing that Darth Vader has reached out to an assortment of bounty hunter to help him track down the Falcon.
The Falcon arrives as the floating city of Bespin, where they’re welcomed by Lando, who appears to have some lingering hostility towards Han. But, things seem like they’re going to be okay, until C-3PO is mysteriously destroyed, leading the rest of the group to become very concerned. And, that concern turns out to be very well earned, because it turns out that one of the bounty hunters, Boba Fett has tracked them down, and brought Darth Vader to Cloud City. He takes them prisoner, and gives Solo to Fett, who plans to give him to a notorious gangster known as Jabba the Hutt who has been looking for Solo. Vader doesn’t really care about that though, because he’s only kidnapping them in order to act as bait for Luke, who he has recently learned is the child of Anakin Skywalker. And, on Dagobah, Luke begins getting visions of his friends in pain, and disobeying Yoda’s wishes, leaves the planet early to go save them. He arrives shortly after Solo has been put in suspended animation and is given to Boba Fett, and quickly finds himself drawn into a duel with Vader. The two fight viciously while Vader tries to convince Luke to give up and join him and the evil Emperor. Luke fights back to the best of his ability, but eventually Vader is able to sever Luke’s hand, losing his lightsaber. And, in a position of weakness, Vader drops the bombshell that he is in fact Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father. Luke is destroyed by this information, but attempts to sacrifice himself, plummeting out of the Cloud City. However, before he can die he’s able to communicate with Leia, who is now working with Lando to escape the city. They save Luke and are able to flee Bespin and the Empire, regrouping with the rest of the Rebellion so they can lick their wounds, deal with the new information they’ve been given, and try to figure out what to do next.
It can be incredibly hard to talk about some of the movies I feature on Cinematic Century. Because I’m talking about some of my favorite movies of all time, which can be hard to intellectually reckon with, but occasionally I’m also talking about some of the biggest films of all time, which have been talked about for decades, full of praise, backlash, and reevaluations. Which can make it hard to think about a movie divorced from its legacy. But, I feel like even while standing in the massive shadow that this film casts, it’s impossible to deny just how much I love the Empire Strikes Back. I talked about this during my Star Wars article, but the Empire Strikes Back was one of my earliest favorite films, and I spent a tremendous amount of my youth pouring over it, learning how the film was made, and gaining and appreciation for the entire film-making process. And, for basically my whole life, the Empire Strikes Back has been my favorite Star Wars movie of all time. I know that that’s not a particularly shocking statement, because I feel like it usually ends up topping most people’s lists, but this film is basically perfect in my eyes. It takes what Star Wars built, a wonderful mythology that easily could have remained a stand-alone story or a sprawling epic, and is what proved that it could basically live forever. It took one of the most solid foundations ever built in storytelling and launched into an incredible new space, evolving and becoming the story that we know and love, and sometimes hate, today. The film is beautiful, both in terms of scope and narrative, and successfully takes the characters we came to love in the first film and pushed them into weirder directions, while also giving us a handful of new characters that are brilliantly woven into the ongoing fabric of this saga.
Usually when people talk about this film, the running bit of praise is that it’s the best Star Wars movie because it’s the “darkest.” Which, I guess is accurate. I mean, later films kill children and feature genocide, but all of that was handled incredibly poorly, and none of it emotionally lands, while the darker moments in this movie hit beautifully. But, the darkness of this movie has never been its selling point for me. It’s the second act in what suddenly became a larger story, so of course it had to feature the characters at their lowest in order for them to redeem themselves and save the day, which ends up lending to that darkness. But, what I love about this movie, and the real reason that it has become my favorite of the entire franchise, comes from the part of the movie that as a kid I probably found the least engaging, but has become some of the most fascinating stuff that this entire series has given us. I love the Force, I love Yoda, and I love all of the training aspects of this film. I’m not a religious man, and never have been. And I know that the idea of a grown man about to say that the closest thing he has to religion is the Force is the lamest thing in the world, and I don’t think I’d quite go that far, but over time I’ve found the simple, parable-esque musings that Yoda gives about the nature of the Force to be extremely impacting, and very foundational in my own personal brand of spirituality. Because, it ends up being about the fact that everything is connected, and while there’s thankfully no deity in control of the world, it’s all just based on how in tune to your own feelings you are. This concept gets polished in later entries, and I’m hoping that eventually we’ll get to the place where anyone can gain access to that connection just as long as they’re willing to look inward and accept themselves. You don’t get superpowers in these movies because of some accident, it’s because you were able to come to terms with your own being, and have accepted who you are. It’s maybe a little simplistic, and is wildly open to interpretation, but so are most religious works. We’re all built from a lifetime of experiences and different sources we find throughout our lives, and these simple scenes gave me a lot.
The Empire Strikes Back was written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, directed by Irvin Kershner, and released by 20th Century Fox, 1980.
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