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"The Empire Strikes Back" Released in Theaters

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

"The Empire Strikes Back" (also known as Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back) is a 1980 American epic space opera film directed by Irvin Kershner and written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas. The sequel to Star Wars (1977), it is the second film in the Star Wars film series and the fifth chronological chapter of the "Skywalker Saga". Set three years after the events of Star Wars, the film recounts the battle between the malevolent Galactic Empire, led by the Emperor, and the Rebel Alliance, led by Princess Leia. Luke Skywalker trains to master the Force so he can confront the powerful Sith lord, Darth Vader. The ensemble cast includes Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, and Frank Oz.

Following Star Wars' success, Lucas hired Brackett to write the sequel. Following her death in 1978, he outlined the whole Star Wars saga and wrote the next draft himself, before hiring Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) writer Kasdan to enhance his work. To avoid the stress he faced directing Star Wars, Lucas handed this responsibility to Kershner and focused on expanding his special effects company Industrial Light & Magic instead. Filmed from March to September 1979, in Finse, Norway, and Elstree Studios in England, The Empire Strikes Back faced production difficulties, including actor injuries, illnesses, fires, and problems securing additional financing as costs rose. Initially budgeted at $8 million, costs had risen to $30.5 million by the project's conclusion.

Released on May 21, 1980, the highly anticipated sequel became the highest-grossing film that year, earning approximately $401.5 million worldwide. Unlike its predecessor, Empire was met with mixed reviews from critics and fans conflicted over its darker and more mature tone compared to the light-hearted Star Wars. Critics praised the puppeteered character Yoda, a diminutive alien that serves as Luke's teacher, for having expressive features and characterization. The film was nominated for several awards and won two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards, and one BAFTA, among others. Subsequent releases have raised the film's worldwide gross to $538–549 million and, adjusted for inflation, it is the thirteenth highest-grossing film in the United States and Canada.

In the years since its release, Empire has been critically reassessed and is now regarded as the best film in the Star Wars series and among the greatest films of all time. It had a significant impact on filmmaking and popular culture and is considered an example of a sequel superior to its predecessor. The climax, where Vader reveals he is Luke's father, is often cited as one of the greatest plot twists in cinema. The film spawned a variety of merchandise and adaptations, including video games and a radio play. The United States Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2010. Return of the Jedi (1983) followed Empire, concluding the original Star Wars trilogy. Here is The Empire Strikes Back original theatrical trailer:

Following the unexpected financial success and the cultural phenomenon of Star Wars (1977), the sequel was swiftly put into production. In case Star Wars had failed, creator George Lucas had contracted Alan Dean Foster to write a low-budget sequel (later released as the novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye). Once Star Wars' achievements were evident, Lucas was reluctant to direct the sequel because of the stressful experience making the first film and its impact on his health. The film's popularity resulted in more attention being focused on Lucas, both positive and negative, bringing him wealth and fame, but also many people who wanted Lucas's financial backing or just to threaten him.

Conscious the sequel needed to exceed the original's scope -making it a bigger production - and that his production effects company Lucasfilm was relatively small and operating out of a makeshift office, Lucas considered selling the project to 20th Century Fox in exchange for a profit percentage. He had profited substantially from Star Wars and did not need to work, but he was too invested in his creation to entrust it to others. Lucas had concepts for the sequel but no solid structure. He knew the story would be darker, and explore more mature themes, relationships and the nature of the force. Lucas intended to fund the production independently using his $12 million profit from Star Wars to relocate and expand his special effects company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), found his Skywalker movie ranch, in Marin County, California, using the remainder as collateral for a loan from Bank of America for the $8 million budget.

Fox had the right of first negotiation and refusal to participate in any potential sequel. Negotiations began in mid-1977 between the studio and Lucas's representatives. Fox had already given Lucas controlling interest in the series' merchandising and sequels because they had thought Star Wars would be worthless. Terms were agreed quickly for the sequel compared to the original, in part because Fox executive Alan Ladd Jr. had been supportive of the original and was eager for the sequel. The 100-page contract was signed on September 21, 1977, dictating that Fox would distribute the film but have no creative input, in exchange for 50% of the gross profits on the first $20 million earned, with the percentage increasing to 77.5% in the producers' favor if it exceeded $100 million. Filming had to begin by January 1979 for release on May 1, 1980. The deal offered the possibility of significant financial gain for Lucas, but he risked financial ruin if the sequel failed.

To mitigate some of the risk, he founded The Chapter II Company, to control the development of the film and absorb its liabilities. Lucas signed a contract between the company and Lucasfilm, granting himself five percent of the box office gross profits. He also founded Black Falcon to license Star Wars merchandising rights, using the income to subsidize his ongoing projects. Development began in August 1977, under the title Star Wars Chapter II.

Lucas considered replacing producer Gary Kurtz with Howard Kazanjian because of issues that arose while filming Star Wars in which Kurtz had not fulfilled his role and left problems unresolved. Kurtz convinced him otherwise by trading on his long-time loyalty to Lucas and his existing knowledge of the Star Wars property. Lucas took an executive producer role, enabling him to focus on his businesses and the development of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Lucas re-hired artists Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston to maintain visual consistency with Star Wars, and the three began conceptualizing the Hoth battle in December. By this point, the budget had increased to $10 million. Lucas wanted a director who would support the material and accept that he was ultimately in charge. Lucas considered around 100 directors, including Alan Parker and John Badham, before hiring his old acquaintance Irvin Kershner in February 1978. Kershner was reluctant to direct the sequel to a film as successful as Star Wars, and his friends warned him against taking the job believing he would be blamed if it failed. Lucas convinced Kershner it was not so much a sequel but rather a chapter in a larger story; he also promised him he could make the film his own way. Here is a candid interview of George Lucas during the actual production of The Empire Strikes Back:

In June 1978, impressed with his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas hired Lawrence Kasdan to refine the draft; Kasdan was paid $60,000. In early July, Kasdan, Kershner and Lucas held a story conference to discuss the Lucas draft. The group collaborated on ideas, challenging Lucas when his made no sense; Lucas embraced their ideas. Mandated to deliver a fifth of the script every other week, Kasdan began his re-write, focusing on developing character relationships and psychologies; he completed the third draft by early August. This version refined Minch Yoda -alternately named "the Critter", Minch, Buffy, and simply Yoda—from a slimy creature to a small blue one; each version retained the character's long life and wisdom. Yoda was intended to teach Luke to respect everyone and not judge on appearances, and defy audience expectations. The draft tightened or expanded dialogue to better pace action scenes, added more romance, and added or changed locations, such as moving a Vader scene from a spaceship deck to his private cubicle. Lucas removed a line mentioning Lando deliberately abandoning his people and had Luke contact Leia through the Force instead of Obi-Wan's ghost. The fourth draft - mostly the same but with more detailed action - was submitted on October 24.

The Empire Strikes Back debuted at the Dominion Theatre, London, on May 6, 1980, followed by a premiere on May 17, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. This event featured the principal cast. 600 children, including special olympians, attended. Its world premiere took place on May 20 at the Odeon Leicester Square, London. Dubbed "Empire Day", the event included actors in Stormtrooper attire interacting with people across the city. Here is a rare behind the scenes footage during The production of Empire Strikes Back:

In North America, Empire opened in mid-week in 126 theaters on May 21, leading into the extended Memorial Day holiday weekend. The number of theaters was deliberately limited to make it difficult to get a ticket, thus generating more appeal—a strategy used with films expected to receive positive word of mouth. It earned $1.3 million during its opening day—an average of $10,581 per theater. Empire earned a further $4.9 million during the weekend and $1.5 million during the holiday Monday for a total of $6.4 million—an average of $50,919 per theater—making it the number one film of the weekend, ahead of the counter-programmed debuts of the comedy The Gong Show Movie ($1.5 million) and The Shining ($600K). By the end of its first week, the film had earned $9.6 million - a 60% increase over Star Wars - averaging $76,201 per theater, the highest-ever figure for a film in over 100 theaters.

Empire earned approximately $181.4 - 209.4 million, making it the highest-grossing film of the year. Although it earned less than Star Wars' $221.3 million, Empire was considered a financial success, and industry experts estimated the film returned $120 million to the filmmakers, recouping Lucas's investment and clearing his debt; he also paid out $5 million in employee bonuses. Box office figures are unavailable for all the releases outside of North America in 1980, although The New York Times reported the film performed well in the United Kingdom and Japan. According to Variety, Empire earned approximately $192.1 million, giving the film a cumulative worldwide gross of $401.5 million, making it the highest-grossing film of the year. Empire did not receive the same repeat business as Star Wars, which Lucas blamed on its inconclusive ending.

Empire has received multiple theatrical re-releases, including in July 1981 ($26.8 million), November 1982 ($14.5 million), and Special Edition versions, modified by Lucas, in February 1997 ($67.6 million). Cumulatively, these releases have raised the North American box office gross to $290.3–$292.4 million. It is estimated to have earned a worldwide total of $538.4–$549 million. Adjusted for inflation, the North American box office is equivalent to $920.8 million, making it the thirteenth highest-grossing film ever. Here is a scene of the Battle of Hoth using cutting edge special effects from Industrial Light and Magic:

Upon its initial release, The Empire Strikes Back received mixed reviews compared to Star Wars' positive reception. The film appeared fourth-most on 24 critics' top-ten films of the year lists. Fan reactions were decidedly mixed, concerned by the change in tone and narrative reveals, particularly Leia's love for Han over Luke and his relationship with Vader.

Some critics believed Empire was a good film but not as enjoyable as Star Wars. They believed the tonal shift featuring darker material and more mature storylines detracted from the charm, fun, and comic silliness of the original. The Wall Street Journal's Joy Gould Boyum believed it was "absurd" to add dramatic weight to the light-hearted Star Wars, stripping it of its innocence. Writing for The Washington Post, Gary Arnold found the darker undercurrents and greater narrative scale interesting because it created more dramatic threads to explore. The New Yorker's David Denby argued it was more spectacular than the original, but lacked its camp style. The Hollywood Reporter's Arthur Knight believed the novelty of the original and plethora of space opera films produced since made Empire seem derivative; even so, he called it the best in the genre since Star Wars. Writing for Time, Gerald Clarke believed Empire surpassed Star Wars in several ways, including being more visually and artistically interesting. The New York Times's Vincent Canby described it as a more mechanical, less suspenseful experience. Here is a classic scene of the The Millennium Falcon navigating it's way through an asteroid field:

Reviews were mixed for the central cast. Knight wrote Kershner's direction made the characters more human with fewer archetypes. Hamill, Fisher, and Ford received some praise, with Champlin describing Hamill as "youthfully innocent" and engaging and Fisher as independent. Arnold described the character progression as less development and more "finesse", with little change taking place, and Kehr felt the characters were "stiffer" without Lucas's direction. Knight described Guinness' performance as half-hearted, and Janet Maslin criticized Lando Calrissian, the only major black character in the film, as "exaggeratedly unctuous, untrustworthy and loaded with jive". The Chicago Tribune's Gene Siskel said the non-human characters, including the robots and Chewbacca, remained the most lovable creatures, with the Yoda character being the film's highlight. Knight, Gould Boyum, and Arnold considered the characters expressions so realistic that they believed an actor's face had been composited onto the puppet. Canby said the human cast was bland and non-descript, and even the robot characters offered diminishing enjoyment, but Yoda was a success when used sparingly. Here is the famous final dramatic scene between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader:

In the years since its release, Empire has been critically reassessed and is now regarded as the best film in the Star Wars series and among the greatest films of all time. It had a significant impact on filmmaking and popular culture and is considered an example of a sequel superior to its predecessor. The climax, where Vader reveals he is Luke's father, is often cited as one of the greatest plot twists in cinema. The film spawned a variety of merchandise and adaptations, including video games and a radio play. The United States Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2010. Return of the Jedi (1983) followed Empire, concluding the original Star Wars trilogy. Prequel and sequel trilogies that round out the "Skywalker saga" have since been released.

Composer John Williams won two Grammy Awards for his score to The Empire Strikes Back, in addition to nominations for Academy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA awards. At the 1981 Academy Awards, The Empire Strikes Back won the award for Best Sound (Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Gregg Landaker, and Peter Sutton) and the Special Achievement Academy Award for Best Visual Effects (Brian Johnson, Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, and Bruce Nicholson). The film received a further two nominations: Best Art Direction (Norman Reynolds, Leslie Dilley, Harry Lange, Alan Tomkins, and Michael Ford) and Best Original Score (Williams).

The Empire Strikes Back was ubiquitous in places such as the United States and the United Kingdom on its release. In 2010, the United States Library of Congress selected The Empire Strikes Back to be preserved in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

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