Welcome to SciFiNow’s long-running feature that gives you the chance to vote for the greatest sci-fi film of all time. Every issue for the next ten months the industry’s best writers will campaign for their favourite film from a shortlist of ten, with our readers ultimately deciding which film deserves the accolade of Greatest Sci-Fi Film Of All Time.
Today, Samuel Roberts argues the case for Irvin Kirshner’s Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
The magic of Star Wars as a series lies in its ability to court the attentions of even the most casual moviegoer, despite the anti-populist stigma of being a sci-fi movie. With that in mind, then, it’s easy to forget how brave The Empire Strikes Back was as a sequel. Tonally, it represented a dark turn for the previously family friendly series, daring to tear the fabric of its premise apart in a series of well-conceived plot twists. A New Hope sold audiences a universe of unimaginable scope – The Empire Strikes Back justified and enriched that, demonstrating the idea that stories within the Star Wars universe could be more complex than good versus evil heroics.
There’s a strange mentality in popular fiction that determines dark equals better. While that isn’t necessarily always the case, The Empire Strikes Back perpetuated that idea in rather a strong way, creating a contrast between itself and its predecessor that would shock its audience by the movie’s end. To get a real measure of how important The Empire Strikes Back’s key moments were – Lando’s betrayal, Leia and Han becoming infatuated with each other and Darth Vader’s revelation that he’s Luke’s father – you have to look at Star Wars in a wider sense. At the time of Empire’s 1980 release, Star Wars was the holy grail of popular culture. Many cinemagoers had seen the original more than once, merchandise sales were cataclysmic and demand for the sequel was at fever pitch – people thought they knew what Star Wars was. It was space opera. The bad guys wore strange armour and the good guys were handsome heroes.
They did not, however, anticipate that the ultimate villain of the series was, in fact, the protagonist’s father. That series-defining revelation is, let’s face it, Empire’s most important moment, a point in cultural history that helped define mainstream cinema. Everyone remembers the climax of Darth Vader’s Lightsaber battle with Luke Skywalker – but it’s the surrounding drama, as well as the beauty of the build-up, that astounds in equal measure.
Empire is arguably the Star Wars series’ strongest in terms of iconography. The Battle of Hoth is certainly an unbeatable visual spectacle, arguably the best battle in Star Wars lore due to the sheer creativity of the art direction and cinematography. The showdown between the Empire’s AT-ATs and the feeble Rebel ground forces made for an absolutely fantastic contrast with A New Hope’s closing Death Star triumph – once again, the audience is reminded this is a film where the characters do not (even remotely, in fact) win. This is illustrated most poetically by the early demise of Luke’s Snowspeeder gunner, Dak, who enthuses about taking on the whole Empire himself, before being killed in the opening battle with his carcass crushed by the cold foot of a giant Imperial walker.