Return of the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

I am watching this one on DVD, which means I’m getting all the digital enhancements George Lucas could not resist. By the way, have I mentioned yet that I love the opening credits? It wouldn’t work for most cinema, but in Star Wars it’s like getting a Galactic newsreel before the movie starts, and means the actual characters can get straight to the action because we know what’s going on.

After the destruction of the Death Star, imperial forces have redoubled their efforts to crush the Rebellion. Darth Vader’s obsessive interest in Luke Skywalker has made him a prime target and so Luke, together with a small group of rebels, have gone to ground on the remote and inhospitably icy planet of Hoth. They use a native species called tauntauns for transport in the difficult terrain. Luke is riding one in a reconnaissance mission – he is now Commander Luke – when he sees an imperial probe land in the snow on a nearby ridge. He mistakes it for a meteorite, but goes to check it out anyway and is attacked by a huge white-furred predator called a wampa. It kills his tauntaun and hauls Luke back to its den.

Han, also out on recon, gets back to base safely. The Falcon has been damaged and Chewbacca, doing the bulk of the repair work, is prickly and frazzled. He and Han intend to leave Hoth and the entire rebellion as soon as the repairs are done; Han has a price on his head until he pays off a debt to Jabba the Hutt, and he never planned on becoming a freedom fighter anyway, but Leia is deeply disappointed in him. She gives him chilly sideways looks until he comes over to say goodbye.

He’s decided she fancies him, probably so that he can pretend he’s not crushing hard on her. She’s trying to overthrow a dictatorship and can’t believe he’s running out on her when the Rebellion needs help so badly. They yell at each other in the middle of the corridor while Rebellion personnel edge tactfully around them, clearly used to this sort of thing.

It’s possible Chewie doesn’t share Han’s desire to get away, because he’s gone and taken apart some key components of the ship behind Han’s back. Which means Han is still there when Leia sends C3-PO and R2-D2 as her go-betweens to tell Han that Luke is missing. Han immediately hits papa bear levels of anxious and goes out into the tundra to find Luke himself, despite the onset of nightfall and the rapidly dropping temperature. It’s lucky he does, because Luke is in deep trouble. He’s been hung upside down from the cavern roof in the wampa’s lair while it devours his poor tauntaun, his lightsaber stuck in a snowdrift just out of reach. Drawing on the Force, he pulls it into his hand just in time to cut himself down and disable the wampa before it tears him apart too. So he’s not going to get eaten, but the odds look good that he’ll freeze to death.

The temperature drops so low that the shield doors of the base have to be closed. Leia is quietly frantic. Chewbacca is less quietly frantic. R2-D2 and C3-PO make dire and quite unhelpful predictions. Lost out in the snow, Luke has a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who tells him to go to the Dagobah system to learn the ways of the Force from a Jedi Master called Yoda. Luke is currently a bit more interested in just staying alive, but fortunately Han shows up at that moment. Less fortunately, definitely for the tauntaun, Han’s mount keels over, killed by the cold. Han cuts the poor beast open to push the now mildly delirious Luke into its innards, which is revolting but means he’ll keep warm enough overnight to survive.

The next morning, rebel pilots go out to search for the missing men and bring them back to base. Luke is given medical treatment and gets a stream of anxious visitors, but Han and Leia predictably make the whole thing about their – whatever their relationship is and Leia tries to drive home the point that she is not interested in Han by grabbing and kissing a very surprised Luke. It’s not like Luke objects, he smirks at Han afterwards, but this is so uncomfortable to watch. When did Lucas decide to make those two siblings, before or after he decided to have them kiss?

Also, unrelated, Han’s pick-up lines are really bad. Chewie finds the whole thing hilarious.

An imperial code is picked up, transmitting from Hoth. Han goes to check it out and the probe self-destructs at his first shot. The rebels prepare to evacuate, but a fleet of Star Destroyers are already on their way, led by Darth Vader himself. It’s clear that everyone aboard the command ship is weirded out by Vader and his Force-induced hunches, but when he doesn’t agree with a general’s attack strategies he’s prone to choking them to death from the other side of a communication screen, so it’s safer to keep your opinions to yourself.

Han and Chewbacca are still trying to fix up the Falcon when Luke passes by underneath to say goodbye. There are enough lingering looks in this scene alone to justify the Luke/Han slash out there, and to make me doubly irritated that Luke and Leia are related because this would make a perfect OT3 (that’s fanfiction talk for a three-way relationship, incidentally). Leia is busy prepping her pilots on how to get out in one piece – the rebels have ion cannons and a powerful energy shield, but that’s not much against an imperial fleet. Whoever makes it out will meet up at the rendevous point. The first rebel transport gets away but on the ground, Vader has sent in AT-ATs, war machines so big their movement makes the ground shake. Luke is among the pilots sent out to deal with them.

Side note: the imperial commander leading the AT-AT assault? That actor played the last of the Jagaroth in the Doctor Who story City of Death. The more you know!

Leia won’t leave with the rest of the evacuees, running communications with a skeleton staff until Han comes to physically pull her away. The energy shield is hit and the base starts to collapse. Vader and his stormtroopers sweep through the tunnels and the Falcon gets airborne just in time, propelled by Han’s persistence. But the repairs were not completed; the Falcon can’t make the jump to lightspeed. There’s a fleet of tie-fighters on its trail and an asteroid field dead ahead. Given the choice of literal rocks and a hard place, Han goes with the asteroid field.

Leia is very, very unimpressed. Han’s pick-up lines remain terrible.

Meanwhile, having done all he can on the battlefield, Luke takes off on his own to follow Ghosty-Wan’s directions. He lands in the middle of a swamp on Dagobah. He won’t be getting his ship out of there again in a hurry, and now he’s soaked to the skin on a mildly inhospitable planet with swamp creatures that want to eat his droid. R2-D2 is very, very unimpressed.

Luke glumly sets up camp with what supplies he can salvage. He’s quick to pull his gun when an unexpected visitor appears. It’s a little green person in a robe who mocks everything Luke says, which is fair, because Luke is being a bit snobbish. “I’m looking for a great warrior,” he tells his visitor, who pokes around Luke’s things and aggravates R2. “I’m looking for a Jedi Master!” Luke adds, exasperated. That gets more of a reaction. He is led to a little hovel in the swamp, where he is fed stew and told to be more patient.

The Falcon is hidden in one of the larger asteroids while C3-PO talks to it, ascertaining exactly what repairs are needed for a jump to lightspeed. Han finds Leia irritably working in a nook of the ship and starts needling her again, like he just can’t help himself. “Admit it, sometimes you think I’m all right,” he tries. She grudgingly acknowledges he has his moments, but calls him a scoundrel. He takes that as a compliment, and takes her hand too. “I happen to like nice men,” she says, not sounding too sure about it, and he responds with, “I’m nice,” before kissing her. C3-PO ruins the moment by barging in with news on the repair work and Leia walks out, unwilling to add her complicated feelings for Han to the very long list of things she has to deal with.

Vader is ordered to make contact with his Master. This is the first time that the Emperor appears in person in the original trilogy and he doesn’t do idle chatter. He, too, has sensed the disturbance in the Force and is confident enough in his grip on Vader to theorise that Luke is ‘the offspring of Anakin Skywalker’. The Emperor is determined to get rid of Luke before he becomes a Jedi. Vader wants to turn him to the Dark Side, and gets permission to try.

Luke, meanwhile, is sick of his host’s giggly non-answers and throws down his bowl in exasperation. The facade of silliness suddenly drops. Yoda was testing his patience, and Luke just failed. Which is unfair, I think, because Yoda hasn’t fought in this war for a long time – Luke is a key player in the Rebellion and his time is measured in other people’s risks. Obi-Wan’s disembodied voice stands up for Luke. “For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi,” Yoda snaps, not remotely disconcerted at arguing with a ghost. He critiques Luke’s age, his reckless streak, his restlessness, while Obi-Wan inserts gentle phantasmic rebuttals to each argument. “I’m not afraid!” Luke says at last, desperate. Yoda turns a very unpleasant look on him and promises, “You will be.”

In that moment, you can see him remembering the frightened little boy who was ‘too old’ for training, and hating Luke at least a little bit for it. Yoda was never as serene as he thought he was.

Yoda’s ‘training’ involves yelling into Luke’s ear about the consuming tendencies of the Dark Side while Luke carries him around the swamp like a grumpy green backpack. “There is no why,” Yoda informs him, which explains everything that went wrong with the Jedi Temple, ever. ‘Do or do not, there is no try’ is also a really crappy philosophy. Getting fed up with Luke’s perfectly reasonable questions, Yoda sends him into a corner of the swamp where the Dark Side of the Force is very strong. Luke sees an alarmingly convincing vision of Darth Vader there, duels with it and beheads it, only to see his own face under the helmet.

In the asteroid field, Leia sees something pass outside the cockpit window and goes out into the cave with Han and Chewie to find out what they’re dealing with. The ground is wet and unstable. There are winged rodent-type things called mynocks attached to the hull, but the real problem is that they’re not in a cave at all – it’s the mouth of a giant space monster. They’re lucky to get out of there alive.

Vader has other plans for catching them, however. He calls together a gang of bounty hunters to track down the occupants of the Falcon, his only stipulation being that they are brought in alive. “No disintegrations,” he says chidingly to Boba Fett, like maybe they’ve had this talk before. This being a post-prequels edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Fett has been dubbed over to match the New Zealand accent given to his childhood self in Attack of the Clones.

Hiring the bounty hunters looks like wasted effort, since the Falcon still can’t jump to lightspeed and a Star Destroyer is right on its tail. Showing just how sneaky he really is, Han turns around and lands on the Destroyer’s hull, going undetected. Leia is a bit impressed. The Falcon floats away when the Destroyer dumps its garbage, undetected. Han decides to go to ground with an old gambling buddy, Lando Calrissian, who runs a mining colony called Cloud City.

Yoda is back to Force aerobics but Luke is more worried about his ship sinking irretrievably into the swamp. Instructed to pull it out with the Force, Luke manages to draw out part of the wing before it’s too much for him; exhausted and frustrated, he walks away from Yoda’s lecture, only to see Yoda lift the ship free of the water and bring it to land with his mastery of the Force. Well, he only has nine hundred years of experience! More experimentation gives Luke a better grasp on the ability, but his more receptive mental state brings him a vision of the future and a sudden fear for Han and Leia’s safety.

Han doesn’t get a warm welcome on Cloud City. They are escorted in to land by security spacecraft and there’s an ominous pause before Lando comes storming out wearing a jaunty blue cape and a grudge. Turns out, the Falcon was originally his before he lost it to Han in a bet. He then dismisses the whole thing with a laugh, hauling Han into a hug, greeting Chewbacca cheerfully and hitting on Leia. She’s quite amused by Han’s reaction. As they walk through the city complex, Han and Lando catch up but C3-PO wanders off and gets shot. Only Chewbacca notices his absence, because Chewbacca is the best, but the pieces of C3-PO are swiftly concealed before he can find them.

Luke is leaving Dagobah, driven by worry for his friends. Yoda tries to convince him to stay and the ghost of Obi-Wan returns to make the same argument. Both are afraid that Luke will be captured by the Emperor if he leaves now and do not believe he is strong enough to take on Vader, but Luke promises to return when he can and goes to save his friends. Yoda bitterly remarks to Obi-Wan that all Luke’s training has only made the situation worse; Obi-Wan points out the dearth of other options, but Yoda only replies, “There is another.”

This scene makes it clear that they both fully expected Luke to quietly study on Dagobah after receiving a warning that his friends, basically his family at this point, were in immediate danger. Yoda may be an extraordinary master of the Force, but he sucks at all things emotional. As for Obi-Wan, he really should have known better.

Meanwhile, on Cloud City, Lando continues to flirt with Leia via a fresh and elegant new outfit (I assume he gave it to her, it’s not like she’s had time to go shopping) and has his people complete the Falcon’s repairs. Han is in a great mood. Leia isn’t.

“Something’s wrong here,” she says angrily the second Han comes near her. “No one has seen or knows anything about 3PO. He’s been gone too long to have gotten lost.” Leia is also the best. Han attempts to calm her down with a kiss on the forehead and assures her he’ll talk to Lando before they leave, but she does not trust Lando and when they do leave, Leia is returning to the Rebellion – and Han isn’t.

While this conversation is happening, Chewbacca is ransacking a scrapyard and finds C3-PO’s dismembered body on a conveyer belt. He bundles all the pieces up, despite the proprieter’s objections, and takes them back to the others. Lando arrives while Leia is fuming; he gets her chilly politician face, but she’s too polite to refuse his invitation to refreshments. Or maybe she’s just hungry. Who knows what the kitchen on the Falcon is like.

On the way, Lando explains that Cloud City is too small to attract the interest of the Empire and is not a part of the Mining Guild, flying under the radar as much as it can. So all that about him being a stable and responsible citizen these days is a total front. “I’ve just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever,” he tells Han. The next pair of doors they go through lead into a banquet hall, where Darth Vader is waiting.

Han shoots him. Well, tries. Vader Force-yanks the gun out of his hands and Boba Fett emerges along with a squad of stormtroopers to surrounded the rebels. Lando admits, bleakly, that the imperial forces arrived just before Han did. While it’s a terrible betrayal, Lando has a lot of people to protect – an old gambling buddy and a group of strangers are the sacrifice he’s prepared to make. Han understands that. He takes Leia’s hand and they face Vader together.

Chewbacca is imprisoned in a cage thing with the bits of C3-PO and he distracts himself by starting repairs. I love him so much. Han receives nastier treatment; he’s tortured while Lando paces unhappily outside. Boba Fett, also listening to the screams, wants to take Han to Tattooine, where Jabba the Hutt still has a bounty on him, and he’s unconvinced Han will still be alive once Vader is done with him. It’s the first Lando’s heard of that arrangement, but honestly, what was he expecting to happen? That Vader would have everyone sit down for an actual civilised lunch? Though Lando is angry and ashamed, he knows better than to confront Vader directly.

When the torturers are finished with him, Han is thrown into the cell with Chewbacca and Leia is pushed in behind him. “They never even asked me any questions,” Han says dazedly, while the other two hover over him anxiously. Lando comes in to pass on the deal he’s made: though Han will be taken by Boba Fett, Leia and Chewbacca will stay on Cloud City under arrest. He’s heard that Vader is really after ‘someone called Skywalker’. Han’s torture was just bait to draw Luke in. That knowledge is enough to shift Han from grim resignation to hazy rage and he punches Lando, whose security immediately lay into him. Lando calls them off and leaves.

Vader is preparing a carbon freezing chamber with the intention of incapacitating Luke for transport back to the Emperor. It’s an unexpectedly level-headed plan from him; a human statue can’t pull unexpected tricks, the way Luke always does. To be sure that the basic facility available on Cloud City won’t damage Luke permanently, Vader even organises a test run first…on Han. Boba Fett is assured compensation if it doesn’t work out.

Chewbacca tries to fight back. Han shouts him down, begging him to stop, to save his fight for protecting Leia. She moves to Chewie’s side and gives Han one last kiss before he’s dragged away. “I love you,” she tells him. “I know,” he tells her sadly, and keeps his eyes on her as he’s lowered into the freezing chamber. Chewie howls his despair as the fumes rise. When Han emerges from the chamber, he is frozen in carbonite like the effigy on a tomb. He’s survived the process and is in hibernation; there is nothing anyone can do as Boba Fett takes him away. Hearing that Luke has just landed, Vader orders the chamber be reset and breaks his deal with Lando, demanding that Leia and Chewbacca be taken to his own ship.

When Luke makes his way into Cloud City and a battle is staged to lure him in, Leia screams “it’s a trap!” as she’s dragged away. He proceeds with caution. Vader appears before him in the carbon freezing chamber and Luke faces him, lightsaber drawn. Vader’s first attack is more experimental than anything, testing Luke’s abilities. After all, Vader is a master of this weapon. But he has one huge weakness: he’s a terrible judge of people. Lando is a deal-making, rule-breaking, loophole-finding type of a man, and he bends his morals where necessary, but after seeing the atrocities of the Empire up close and personal, he won’t be a party to this any more. He arranges an ambush with his personal security, whisking away Leia and Chewbacca before they reach Vader’s ship.

The second Chewbacca’s restraints are removed, he attempts to throttle Lando and Leia all but cheers him on. Lando manages to choke out directions, offering a chance at stopping Boba Fett before he leaves with Han, and Chewbacca reluctantly releases him. On the frantic dash across the city, the Falcon crew are joined by R2, who got left behind when Luke met with Vader. C3-PO, strapped to Chewie’s back, rapidly catches R2 up on recent events.

They do not arrive in time to rescue Han; now all they can do is rescue themselves. Lando sends out a warning across the city, advising his people to get out before the Empire takes full control, then he leads the way to where the Falcon is docked. R2 accesses city security to engineer an escape route. Pursued by stormtroopers, they take off.

Luke is losing his duel. The lightsaber skitters out of his hand and he’s edged into the carbon freezing chamber, but he’s learned a few useful tricks from Yoda and levitates straight out again, retrieving his weapon. Vader goads him, telling him to release his anger. He uses the Force to hurl heavy debris at Luke and by the time they return to hand-to-hand fighting, Luke is in very bad shape. They have moved onto a walkway, a precarious place for a sword fight. Vader corners Luke and in one easy stroke, slices off his hand.

He thinks this is an appropriate time to remind Luke of his potential and the awesome career he could have with the Dark Side, like a sadistic guidance counsellor. He offers to complete Luke’s training so that they can bring order to the galaxy together. “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father,” he says, deceptively mild. “I am your father.” Luke is devastated. Vader pushes his advantage. If Luke joins with him, they could take down the Emperor together. The perfect family bonding activity!

Luke chooses to fall instead, down the endless chute at the centre of the city. He winds up hanging off a weather vane, seriously wounded, bitterly cold, emotionally wrecked and alone. In his extremity, he reaches out to Leia with the Force. She asks Chewbacca to turn back and search, disregarding the danger; Chewbacca snarls at Lando when he protests and follows Leia’s directions. They collect Luke just before he falls.

Leia takes him to the Falcon’s somewhat crude medical bay and returns to the cockpit, where Chewbacca and Lando have just discovered that the hyperdrive still isn’t working. Lando yells that it’s not his fault. Chewbacca bellows what’s probably a really foul-mouthed insult in Wookiee. Leia is beyond fed up. It genuinely isn’t Lando’s fault, though, Vader’s people disabled the hyperdrive as a precaution and the Falcon tells R2-D2 so. I love that scrappy, argumentative little R2 gets along better with Han’s ship than C3-PO.

Luke staggers into the cockpit, looking like the walking dead. Vader is talking to him through the Force, insisting that it is DESTINY for them to work together. The Falcon is almost in range of Vader’s tractor beam, but R2 reactivates the hypderdrive in time and the Falcon disappears. Everyone on board the imperial Star Destroyer cringes as the thwarted Vader stalks away.

From there, the Falcon heads for a proper medical facility where Luke’s injuries can be treated. Leia stays with him. Lando changes into what looks like Han’s second favourite outfit and arranges with Luke and Leia to rendevous on Tattooine. Chewie appears to have got over Lando’s betrayal; for the time it takes to find Han, anyway. A robotic hand now fitted to his wrist, Luke comes over to stand with Leia as she looks out into space. They’ve taken losses, but they’ve got each other. That is a combination not to be messed with.

I have doubts about all the parallels drawn between the original trilogy and the prequels. Did severed hands really have to run in the family? What all those lines of correlation do, though, is really drive home the differences between Vader and Luke. Even as Anakin Skywalker, Vader could not handle defeat and his response to painful revelations was catastrophic. He had so few genuinely beloved people in his life that he put each of them on a pedestal of mixed love and awe, and the prospect of losing any of them shook him with an almost existential terror. Luke is not like that. He grew up in a stable home where his personhood was respected and his abilities were nurtured instead of exploited. He makes friends easily and accepts his loved ones for who they are; even while he’s dealing with his own emotional crisis, he lends what support he can to Leia, and she gives what she can in return. And neither Luke nor Leia have it in them to just give up.

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