Of all the episodes in the “Star Wars” film series, “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” is arguably the most character-driven, patiently developing character motivation and history between action sequences. It is also, without doubt, the most innovative in terms of dramatic structure. One of the protagonists, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), in a more brooding and mature performance than in “Star Wars Episode IV,” is separated from others for much of the film. Another of the central protagonists, the gnomish and almost lovable Jedi Master Yoda, appears in only a few scenes. He trains a somewhat stubborn Luke in the ways of the Force. The lessons captured in his pithy dialogue and his playful interactions with Luke are central themes of the entire series.
For the second film released in this now classic series, creator George Lucas tapped one of his former film school professors at USC, Irvin Kershner, to direct. Kershner was an unusual choice to direct because his earlier films were much smaller in scale and almost entirely character driven. But in many ways, it was an enlightened choice because Kershner was able to let the characters develop through a very individualized set of motivations. Luke becomes a truer warrior and a person willing to face his ugliest and most feared elements. Han Solo, played more reflectively than in the earlier film by Harrison Ford, learns that there are betrayals that even he cannot fathom, but he is willing to sacrifice himself for certain other individuals.
This is not to say that “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” is not also a magnificent action film. For much of it, the rebels, including Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han, are on the run and eventually captured by Darth Vader, who gets his own humanizing touches in the film. The moment when Vader’s headgear is removed as his back is to the camera sets the stage for one of the most shocking confessions ever made by a villain in film history.
As the Rebel Alliance suffers setback after setback, and the power of Darth Vader becomes more familiar, Luke must choose whether to remain pure in the ways of the Jedi and continue his training or to go save his friends. Although, in name, he is still fighting for the rebel cause, once Luke decides to go save his friends, viewers know that he is being purposefully lured in by Darth Vader for other purposes. At this point, it becomes a film about the limits of loyalty and commitment, the dangers and uses of forces, and unshakable truths from the past that are dormant in individuals.
There is nothing like the scenes between Luke and Yoda in any of the other “Star Wars” episodes, although the scenes do echo some of the warmth and camaraderie of the relationship between Han and Luke in the earlier film. But the Yoda and Luke scenes have no father and son qualities-they show how each character can delve deeper into his inner world and find unfamiliar reserve and persistence as well as bothersome flaws that cannot be sidestepped. Throughout this long ordeal in which the character tests himself and wills himself to greater achievement, Yoda is often literally the voice on Luke’s shoulder that not only encourages but reminds him of the limitations of all things-even the Force.
As he heads to the trap set by Darth Vader, Luke is willed by the viewers to prevail in the action and not abandon what he learned from Yoda. Unlike the ending of the first film, the character’s pasts and motivations have been so intricately developed that a simple victory will not do this time. And, appropriately, the victory at the end is not definitive-they still have to go after the kidnapped body of Han-it is ultimately a whole type of different victory altogether. It is a victory of Luke over himself and over parts of his being that had remained, to that moment, unacceptable.
The series was never again able to capture this dramatic intensity. The following installment settled for the dramatic special effects that, although dazzlingly executed in “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back,” do not take center stage because of the sophisticated character development and the willingness to plumb the psychological lives of the characters.