tek's rating:

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (PG)
DMA; IMDb; Lucasfilm; Rotten Tomatoes; StarWars.com; TV Tropes; Wikipedia; Wookieepedia

Caution: spoilers!

The second movie released, and the fifth chronologically (if you don't count The Clone Wars), this came out in 1980, when I was four years old. So I didn't see it until years later, though I'm not sure exactly when. I must have seen it sometime in the early to mid 80s, though. And in the late 80s or early 90s, I got it on VHS. I didn't see it in a theater until the Special Edition was released in 1997. (I'm writing this review while watching the Special Edition on DVD in 2014.) The film is considered by many Star Wars fans to be the best movie in the series. Certainly I love it, but it's still always been my own least favorite movie of the original trilogy (which doesn't mean much, since the deviation is so mild that I rate all three movies with four hearts).

The story picks up three years after Episode IV, though that's something you only learn if you've read any supplemental materials. In the opening crawl, we learn that the Imperial Starfleet has driven the Rebels from their base on Yavin 4, and they've set up a new base on the ice planet Hoth. So the Empire has sent out probe droids all over the galaxy looking for them. Clearly, the Rebels have had all sorts of adventures in the intervening years, which we don't learn about. But we do know Han is eager to leave Hoth, so he can finally pay off his debt to Jabba, and get the bounty taken off his head. But it will be awhile before he can do that. Meanwhile, Luke runs into some trouble while out on patrol (riding a creature called a tauntaun). I don't want to go into all that, but at one point he uses his lightsaber to cut off the arm of a creature called a wampa, and while watching that scene, something occurred to me. In Episode IV, Obi-Wan had cut off the arm of a troublemaker in the cantina. And later in this movie, someone loses a hand (but later gets a replacement). And in Episode VI... well, I'll just say cutting off limbs with lightsabers seems to be something of a recurring motif, in these movies. Anyway... Luke is out lost in the icy night of Hoth, and he has a vision of Obi-Wan (who I didn't mention in my review of Episode IV had been killed by Darth Vader, since I didn't want to spoil it, but you need to know it now). The ghost of Obi-Wan tells Luke he must go to the Dagobah system, to be trained by Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz), the Jedi Master who had trained him. (In Episode I we'll see Obi-Wan being trained by someone else, but it's reasonable to assume he'd been trained by Yoda when he was younger.) And after the vision, Luke passes out, and is found by Han.

They both get rescued by a search party the next morning, and back at the base, Han resumes a dialog he'd been having with Leia the previous day. Um... I never really mentioned this, but in the first movie, ever since Luke first saw the hologram of Leia, he thought she was beautiful. Later it becomes clear he has a crush on her, or something. And noticing that, Han made a joking allusion to the possibility of himself having a relationship with Leia, though at the time, it really was clear to viewers (if not to Luke) that Han was joking. Because Han and Leia clearly didn't get along with each other. (Though at the same time, chances are many viewers immediately saw their antagonistic relationship as a precursor to a romantic relationship, but let's not get ahead of ourselves, okay?) Anyway, in this movie (which, remember, is after three years of adventures together), it's clear that Han does have feelings for Leia, and even if he doesn't admit that, he's annoyed that she doesn't admit to having feelings for him. (See Predatory Romance in Harrison Ford Movies.) All of which leads to Leia kissing Luke, which is obviously just to spite Han. But still... a revelation in Episode VI, which I will not spoil at this point, makes the whole thing kinda squicky, in retrospect. (But I'm okay with that, because it makes for an amusing twist at the end of a 1999 short film called George Lucas in Love.)

Anyway, the Empire finds the Hoth base, and there's a big, cool battle between the Rebels in snowspeeders and the Imperial troops, mainly in giant AT-ATs (also called Imperial Walkers, because they're machines that walk on four legs). But the battle is really just to buy time for the bulk of the Rebel forces to escape the planet. Han, Chewie, Leia, and Threepio evacuate on the Millennium Falcon, and take refuge from the enemy forces in an asteroid field. Meanwhile, Luke and Artoo head to Dagobah to look for Yoda. Luke crash lands his X-Wing in a swamp, and soon thereafter he meets a weird little old goblinish guy who makes a nuisance of himself and seems to be a comic relief character. However, it is not within my power to imagine that anyone, even without having seen the movie before, would fail to guess that he was actually Yoda. (Luke doesn't figure it out at first, because Luke is an idiot. And he is also incapable of drawing parallels, such as the similarity of this situation to the earlier occasion of learning that Ben was really Obi-Wan. But to be fair, he is from the planet that is the farthest from the bright center of the universe, so what can you expect? On the other hand, I'm fairly sure I figured it out the first time I watched this, as a little kid, and I'm from a small town that's pretty far removed from any of Earth's cultural hubs, so... whatever.)

While Vader's people search the asteroid field for the Falcon, he gets a holographic call from the Emperor, who informs Vader that Luke Skywalker is the son of Anakin Skywalker. This surprises Vader, but the Emperor tells him to search his feelings, and he will know it to be true. I have absolutely no recollection of him saying that, so it totally surprised me, because it's something everyone remembers Vader saying to someone else, later in this movie. So... that's interesting. Anyway, the Emperor knows Luke could become a threat to the Empire, and wants Vader to find and kill him before he can become a Jedi. But Vader convinces the Emperor that Luke could be a powerful ally, if he could be turned to the Dark Side.

Once Luke finally finds out that Yoda is Yoda, he begins training (though Yoda is reluctant to teach him). But we learn that Yoda is much more serious and wise than he seemed at first, and provides a plethora of the franchise's most famous lines. (Of course, I must mention that Yoda is also famous for his twisty syntax, though that probably seems odder to English-speaking audiences than to speakers of some other languages. Which makes me wonder if his lines were re-twisted when translated into languages where they'd sound natural, or left as they were.) Meanwhile, the Falcon gang eventually get away from the asteroids and the Empire. However, Vader has hired a bunch of bounty hunters to look for the Falcon. Most of them are of no importance (though one of those is a Trandoshan named Bossk, whose action figure I had for years... I wish I knew what happened to that thing). The important one, though, is a guy named Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), who wears incredibly cool Mandalorian armor, and became a fan favorite in spite of having little screen time and few lines in this movie and Episode VI. Anyway... during his training, Luke has a vision of his friends in danger. He chooses to go help them, over the objections of Yoda and Obi-Wan's ghost. They're afraid he could be tempted by the Dark Side. After Luke leaves, Obi-Wan says Luke is the last hope (of the Jedi Order, presumably), but Yoda says there is another. (It's weird that Yoda would know that and Obi-Wan would not, considering the way Episode III ends, but that's getting simultaneously ahead of and behind myself.)

Meanwhile, the Falcon lands at Cloud City, on the planet Bespin. Han is reunited with his old friend and fellow scoundrel, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), who now runs a mining facility on Bespin. Alas, Boba Fett has apparently tracked them there, and brought Vader and a bunch of stormtroopers. So our heroes are captured and used as bait for Luke. Vader has promised Boba Fett he can take Han to Jabba the Hutt to collect that bounty, but first Han is used as a guinea pig in a process that freezes him in carbonite, which basically means he's now asleep inside a sort of statue of himself. (Vader wanted to be sure the process wouldn't kill a person, because he plans to use it on Luke.) Incidentally, just before Han is frozen, Leia finally tells him she loves him, and his response... seems like it's meant to be cool, but I don't think it is, considering that what he says could have been his last words to her ever. But I let it slide because it sets up one of my favorite things about Episode VI.

When Vader orders Leia and Chewie taken to his ship rather than leaving them in Cloud City as he'd originally promised, Lando helps them escape, and they try to rescue Han, but it's too late. Boba Fett has already loaded the hibernating Han onto his ship, the Slave I, and takes off. So Leia, Chewie, and Lando make their way to the Falcon, along with Artoo and Threepio. Meanwhile, Luke engages in a badass lightsaber duel against Vader. In his attempt to turn Luke to the Dark Side, Vader makes a major revelation, but that's a plot twist I'm not going to spoil in this review (though I suppose I will in my review of Episode VI). It's... not something that I think ever hit me as hard as it may hit some people. Which might explain why I don't love this movie quite as much as most fans do. (Curse my stoicism!) But I still always found it completely understandable that it upset Luke as much as it did.

In any event, Luke manages to escape from Vader, and makes a telepathic connection with Leia (hmmm, that couldn't be foreshadowing something important, could it?), and she tells Chewie and Lando they have to go back and rescue Luke. So they do, and then they rendezvous with the Rebel fleet (at a position that looks like it's outside the galaxy, but I tend to doubt that; I can't help thinking the thing that looked like a galaxy must have been something else). Meanwhile, Lando and Chewie take off on the Falcon, planning to follow Boba Fett to Tatooine, where he'll be delivering Han to Jabba. So... I guess another reason people love this movie is because it basically ends with a defeat for the good guys, and I appreciate that, myself. But at least no important characters died, this time, and there's always hope for the future. (And I must point out that I have left out a lot of neat plot points.)

Oh yeah, and since I mentioned a Weird Al Yankovic song about Episode I, I should also mention that well before that (in fact, before I'd ever heard of him), he'd done a song about Yoda, to the tune of the Kinks' "Lola."


Star Wars index
favorite movies
tek's nostalgia
Star Wars
official website; TV Tropes; Wikipedia; Wookieepedia

Prequel trilogy: The Phantom Menace * Attack of the Clones * The Clone Wars * Revenge of the Sith
Original trilogy: A New Hope * The Empire Strikes Back * Return of the Jedi
Sequel trilogy: The Force Awakens * The Last Jedi
Anthology films: Rogue One

TV: Caravan of Courage * The Battle for Endor * Droids * Ewoks * Clone Wars * The Clone Wars * Rebels * Resistance
Web: Forces of Destiny