On May 21, 1980, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back made its theatrical debut. To celebrate the classic film’s landmark 40th anniversary, StarWars.com presents “Empire at 40,” a special series of interviews, editorial features, and listicles.
It’s hard to imagine that when audiences first crowded into theaters to watch the sequel to Star Wars, they were just meeting Master Yoda, Lando Calrissian, and Boba Fett. Fans would emerge with three years to wait for the final film, which was plenty of time to ponder whether or not that Darth Vader twist was the truth or a lie, and wonder if Han Solo would ever be freed from that carbonite. Four decades later, the questions we were left with have long been answered, but there’s still an enduring appeal to the middle chapter of the original trilogy. In fact, many fans still name it as their favorite Star Wars film.
To honor the 40th anniversary of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, which was released in the United States back on May 21, 1980, we asked some of StarWars.com’s contributing writers to explain why they adore Episode V.
It deepens our understanding of the Force. – Kristin Baver
Yoda’s speech on the power of the Force and belief itself is an extension of the message of hope that permeates the saga. Yet it’s Yoda’s wise words that first gave us a greater understanding of the core tenets of this mysterious, invisible energy, and had us believing in the Force and our own abilities to do whatever we put our minds to before he even began to lift that X-wing. Alongside Luke Skywalker, this is the moment where we learned about the Force and its virtues.
Plus, does it get any better than Yoda himself? With his peels of laughter and flashlight-thieving antics, the Yoda we first meet subverts all expectations of what a wise and powerful Jedi should be. And yet, he’s perfect. Yoda proves that you can be accomplished but still silly, and that we should never judge someone by our first impression.
It changed my taste in film. – Dan Brooks
So much has been said about Empire‘s greatness, and it’s all deserving. As a film, it’s challenging, it’s thrilling, it’s dark, it’s filled with emotion, it’s shocking, it’s hilarious. It’s everything. And it is, without question, one of the best movies ever made, let alone the best Star Wars film. But when I think about why I love it on a personal level, it’s because it’s the movie that made me love Star Wars and opened my eyes to what filmmaking could be.
I was a Star Wars fan when I was very young (we’re talking four years old), but left it behind at some point, as one tends to do when you get older and discover new things. As the years went on, I had no real memory of the story or the films. When I was 12, however, I saw a commercial on a cable station promoting that they were playing Empire one night, Return of the Jedi the next. This would have been 1991, and I remember it was something of a big deal. I thought, “Yeah, I’ll check that out.” And I did not realize what I was in for.
The Battle of Hoth…with the good guys losing! Han’s unmatched coolness and heart. Leia’s strength and smarts and willingness to go right back at Solo and anyone else. Luke’s vulnerability and journey. The duel. The unbelievable reveal. And just the way it looked and the way the story was told. It was beautiful.
I loved movies, but I had never seen one like that before. I liken it to the first time you hear the Beatles’ Abbey Road. It’s just shocking that human beings could come together to make something so powerful and so good. It changed my tastes and what I thought was possible in storytelling, and it just touched my heart. In the end, there’s my life before Empire and after Empire. And that’s why I love it.
Luke Skywalker faces his fears. – Megan Crouse
Luke Skywalker has trained, sweated, and followed his feelings far into the smoky, dim underworld of Cloud City’s working spaces. Bright lights flash and flicker, and Darth Vader waits somewhere in the shadows. Empire’s famous final fight is claustrophobic and soaring, triumphant and dismal. Luke learns that reality is even worse than his fears. Vader is his father. When the worst passes, he comes out the other side scalded and scarred, but not stopped. The low point of Luke’s journey is also essential to the cathartic victory in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. In each thump of feet and snap-hiss of lightsabers, Vader tries to frighten him, and Luke Skywalker says go no farther as long as he can.
Chewie’s sad lament. – James Floyd
In my mind, Chewbacca is one of the most heroic of all the characters in Star Wars because of a scene in The Empire Strikes Back. When Han is being frozen in carbonite, I feel the most for Chewie. He is forced to attend Han’s freezing in carbonite, essentially an execution. The Wookiee starts a brawl with the stormtroopers to save Han, to give him a chance to go down fighting, or at least take some of the Empire with him as a final vengeance. And Han tells him to stop, and watch over Leia. Here he is, watching the man who saved his life time and again, his best friend, his brother in arms, a man he’s sworn his life to protect, being essentially put to death only to be carted off as a trophy by a bounty hunter. You have to feel for this guy — his heroic action is to do what goes against every instinct in his being and live to fight another day. In a saga that focuses on the importance of friendship, this is one of those story beats where being a friend counts most — when it hurts. See the scene through Chewie’s eyes, and you’ll shed a tear or two. That is the power of the storytelling in this film.
Being able to see new planets. – Jenn Fujikawa
The Empire Strikes Back gave us our first look into the variety of ecosystems that exist in the Star Wars universe. Being able to see new planets of completely different atmospheres was astounding. The wintry ice of Hoth made us feel chilled to the bone. The stickiness of the marshy swamp of Dagobah almost oozed through the screen. Then to experience to the ethereal lightness of Bespin made us want to truly belong among the clouds. It was an eye-opener to a variety of environments that made me want to pack my bags and travel to a galaxy far, far away.
It gave us so many cool toys. – Jamie Greene
As much as I love the classic Kenner action figures, vehicles, and playsets, I’ll always have a soft spot for their Micro Collection line of teeny tiny die-cast toys. There were only a few sets, but the Hoth and Bespin worlds were utterly amazing, and the Hoth Wampa Cave was by far the best. You could hang Luke upside down, you could make the probe droid “explode,” and the little metal Wampa is beyond compare. This was the best toy of 1982, hands down. In fact, this was the pinnacle of all Star Wars toys. Don’t @ me.
It’s the most hopeful Star Wars movie. – Kelly Knox
Yes, Empire has the best music and the most memorable lines, but more than anything I love its message of hope. The film is typically described as the “dark” Star Wars movie in the original trilogy. There’s even that famous speech in the movie Clerks declaring, “It ends on such a down note!” But I see it as the most hopeful of them all as the movie comes to a close. Our heroes are gathered among the rebel fleet. Luke Skywalker learned a horrible truth and lost the biggest fight of his life, but he stands up with new resolve. Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca are confident they’ll find and save Han Solo. And Princess Leia’s smile… oh, that smile could light up an entire galaxy. They will keep fighting together.
The Organa-Solo hallway shenanigans. – Bria LaVorgna
The Empire Strikes Back is definitely one of those Star Wars films that I grew to love and appreciate more as an adult, but even as a kid, I always loved Han and Leia’s tension-filled bickering. There’s plenty of it throughout the movie but my favorite scene will always be their hallway argument. Not only is their fast-paced banter fun, it also tells us a lot about the evolution of their dynamic into one that’s teetering on the brink of romance… if they could just admit it. It’s also iconic enough (in a movie filled with iconic scenes) to be something that Rebels would one day pay homage to with a poor rebel passing between an arguing Hera and Kanan. Above all, it’s the scene that never fails to make me grin.
It gave us Boba Fett and a whole line-up of bounty hunters. – Mark Newbold
A New Hope introduced us to the complicated profession of bounty hunting in the form of the hapless Greedo, but The Empire Strikes Back took it to the next level. Han Solo’s reference to a bounty hunter on Ord Mantell tracking them down reminded us that despite throwing his lot in with the rebellion, his professional problems remained. And the introduction of a rogues gallery of bounty hunters — brought in by Darth Vader to hunt down the crew of the Millennium Falcon and lure Luke to be captured and taken to the Emperor — saw Solo encased in carbonite and taken back to Tatooine aboard Slave I to the court of Jabba the Hutt.
Without the introduction of bounty hunters in Empire, would we have The Mandalorian, which takes much of its DNA from Empire? We certainly wouldn’t have the enduring legend of Boba Fett and his motley associates, the formation of the Mando Mercs or the countless books, games and comics, all spun-off from these iconic scenes; we should be thankful Han dumped his cargo at the first sign of an Imperial cruiser.
It connects us to nature. – Amy Ratcliffe
Being around nature has such a strong impact on my spirit. It’s a realization I’ve only come to in recent years, and with it, I’ve come to appreciate Dagobah more. What I once viewed as weird planet for Yoda to choose for exile, I’ve come to see as a place of lush green quiet and peace. A place that must constantly bolster Yoda’s connection to the Force and calm his mind despite everything happening in the galaxy. I love seeing that with such life teeming all around him, Yoda’s never really alone.
My appreciation for Yoda has grown over the years. – Amy Richau
As an adult, I feel like I always learn something new watching Yoda and Luke in the Dagobah sequences. It’s comforting to listen to Yoda and experience more introspective moments between the action on display in Hoth and Bespin. But as a 7-year-old in the theater seeing The Empire Strikes Back for the first time, I remember being terrified of these scenes. The cave, the creature in the swamp, even Yoda who I was convinced was going to hurt Luke. My dad assured me Luke would be fine, Yoda was a good guy! And now as a parent, I love watching my kids interpret these same scenes.
The potency of the tragic ending. – Dan Zehr
The end of The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect example of what makes this film so poignant: it subverts the traditional storytelling narrative by denying the protagonist victory. Luke Skywalker does not defeat Darth Vader; he loses his hand and his lightsaber, and can barely make sense of his place in the galaxy. To make matters worse, he’s also lost his best friend, who’s entombed in carbonite and has been whisked away by Boba Fett. And, for those of us who saw it back in 1980, we had to wait THREE YEARS to find out if Han Solo would ever be rescued. Even by today’s standards, this just isn’t done. All the credit goes to George Lucas for having the courage to tell a story with this kind of impact and gravitas.
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