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On May 21, 1980, George Lucas brought to theaters his sequel to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review, days before the release, is below (including a passage that confuses the names of Yoda and Boba Fett, both of which were new to the series).
It’s almost too much to expect that a sequel can ever top the success of the original, and I suspect that this will prove the case with The Empire Strikes Back, the continuation of George Lucas’ enormously popular Star Wars. Lucas has promised — and drafted — no less than nine episodes to complete his project. Empire is labeled “Part V” — the second part of the second series (of three) that will accommodate his overall vision. And let’s put all doubts to rest right now. While Empire doesn’t quite measure up to Star Wars in the freshness and originality of its script, and the plethora of space operas that has been jamming the screens ever since Star Wars has somewhat lessened the novelty of city-sized ships sailing the stratosphere, nevertheless this 20th Century-Fox release remains a rattling good entertainment, a worthy successor to the original — and far and away the best of its kind since Star Wars itself.
Although Lucas wrote the story (with a screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan) and served as executive producer, he has turned the directorial reins over to Irvin Kershner, thus freeing himself to supervise the film’s spectacular special effects, produced by his own Industrial Light and Magic company. It’s a switch that works strongly in the film’s behalf. Not only are the models, matte shots and other technical trickeries virtually flawless, but under Kershner’s able handling, the already familiar characters become more human, less like animated figures from the comic strips.
On the story side as well, Lucas has strengthened his hand by providing a plot motivation for Darth Vader (that I don’t think I should reveal here since it comes as part of the film’s surprise finale). Suffice it to say that it’s a twist straight out of Greek mythology, and should serve Lucas well in the episodes that lie ahead.
As to the present episode, despite a couple of phoned in messages from Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) which, collected, must last all of 40 seconds, most of Luke Skywalker’s good advice comes from a fascinating green-hued character named Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) — and I’m still not certain whether he’s a skillfully animated puppet or a real live human being. Whichever, he’s one of Lucas’ strongest assets in this Star Wars incarnation.
Also effective is a visit to a small planet presided over by Billy Dee Williams, who has all the easy camaraderie — and the unswerving loyalty to higher command — of a Las Vegas pit boss (which, in effect, he is). Kershner has a marvelous way of pulling his characters out of their environment and making them function on their own. I liked especially his handling of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in this outing; by making him a more responsible free-swinger, Han not only grows in stature, but his romantic passages with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) seem more urgent and heartfelt in the earlier chapter. Even Mark Hamill’s Skywalker has matured — less the fresh-faced innocent, more the self-reliant and determined youth serving the cause of justice for his people.
On the other hand, Darth Vader (David Prowse) remains, of course, Darth Vader, as do C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) — and who else would have them otherwise? This time around, all three seem to have been granted more extended footage. Unfortunately, this is not an unmixed blessing, especially in the final third of the film when our doughty band of rebels divides up and the story rather awkwardly shifts between three different locations. I know it’s supposed to be like the old Saturday afternoon serials (a resemblance emphasized by the use of old-fashioned wipes to cut from one place to the other), but it has the effect of slowing down the action just when it all should be mounting toward a climax.
Even so, The Empire Strikes Back comes so loaded with ingenious effects and characters, so filled with hairbreadth escapes from devilishly devised perils, and is played out against some spectacular settings (some real, some studio-built) that only the most churlish ticket-buyer could complain that he wasn’t getting his money’s worth. Peter Suschitzky’s camera work dazzles the eye (particularly in the climactic duel between Skywalker and Darth Vader on slender scaffolding over a yawning pit); and John Williams has once again supplied an appropriately ear-filling score.
The Empire may not top Star Wars, but it certainly makes one look forward to whatever new surprises George Lucas and his band of cinematic wizards can conjure up for us. — Arthur Knight, originally published on May 12, 1980.
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