Though Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back has arguably become the greatest Star Wars film since its release 40 years ago, it wasn't always hailed as a masterpiece. Vincent Canby wrote of it in The New York Times in 1980, "Attending to it is a lot like reading the middle of a comic book. It is amusing in fitful patches but you're likely to find more beauty, suspense, discipline, craft and art when watching a New York harbor pilot bring the Queen Elizabeth 2 into her Hudson River berth, which is what The Empire Strikes Back most reminds me of. It's a big, expensive, time-consuming, essentially mechanical operation. The Empire Strikes Back is about as personal as a Christmas card from a bank."
Reviewer Judith Martin wrote in the Washington Post at the time, "This is no monumental artistic work, but a science fiction movie done more snappily than most, including its own predecessor."
Watching this early trailer, voiced by Harrison Ford no less, one could imagine why the critics might have been less than impressed.
But time has been kind, just as it's been kind to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith as it works its way into the spot of "best of a generation." (It seems fair to assume Star Wars: The Last Jedi — the most controversial Star Wars entry to date — could continue this trend, aging like a fine wine.)
As SYFY WIRE celebrates 40 years of The Empire Strikes Back, we talked to creators who worked on the film, luminaries in the Star Wars universe, and fans to understand why Empire has had such an undeniable staying power over the past four decades.
John Morton, who played Luke Skywalker's gunner during the Battle of Hoth, Dak Ralter, in The Empire Strikes Back, remembers there being a certain energy on the set — everyone wanted to make the best film they could. "The spirit was there to give everything for this film," he tells SYFY WIRE.
According to Morton, the genius of George Lucas on The Empire Strikes Back boiled down to who he chose to collaborate with. "There were really three directors on The Empire Strikes Back," he says. "Irvin Kershner was the director of record, but I was directed by him, by George, and by [producer] Gary Kurtz, who was an unsung hero."
He continues: "Gary was a conscientious objector, a Marine corps combat cameraman, and had a different take. Kershner would direct the close-ups and the acting scenes. George was directing me as an editor. He wanted to know what I was looking at on the blue screen. And then Gary was looking at things from the standpoint of how he experienced filming combat. Three directors exercising the chops of what they were an expert in."
For a generation of fans who grew up with The Empire Strikes Back, if they were old enough to remember being in the theater, the film made an indelible impression.
"As someone that was 11 years old when it came out, I am fortunate enough to still hold the feelings and sensory experiences I had then when I watch it now," James Arnold Taylor, the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, told us via an email interview. "I was shocked and amazed when Darth Vader revealed his true identity to Luke. As I type this, I can see the screen, remember where I was sitting at the Arlington Theatre in my hometown of Santa Barbara, California, smell the smells, experience it all the same way in my mind's eye. So, for me, it was the first time a sequel to a huge movie did something that had never been done before; it stood on its own merits and carried the story through in new ways instead of just regurgitating our favorite scenes of the first blockbuster."
Rob Coleman, the animation director for Star Wars' prequel films, agrees with the idea that the film was indelible from the start. "The Empire Strikes Back has been a favorite of mine since it was released," he says. "I think it has staying power because of how rich it is — the battle on Hoth, meeting Yoda on Dagobah, Luke finding out who his father is. It has everything: action, humor, and depth."
Don Bies worked on The Empire Strikes Back for its rerelease in 1997, aiding in crafting new scenes for the Wampa and appearing in the added parts of the film as a Stormtrooper. "Empire upped the game from Star Wars," Bies says. "Shots were more dynamic, the Hoth compositing effects were more challenging, stopmotion was more unique. I felt honored to get to work on it, albeit after the fact. Just to be around ILM and Lucasfilm during that period was thrilling, especially as George was ramping up for the prequels. It was an exciting time, to be sure!"
Film critic and SYFY WIRE contributor Eric Vespe credits the magic of defied expectations and Yoda himself. "Star Wars set the stage and characters and Empire deepened them," Vespe says. "It upped the dramatic stakes, fully embraced the spiritual side of the saga in a way that was only hinted at in the first movie, and quite frankly pulled off a few miracles, the least of which is making what's essentially a wrinkled muppet one of the most amazing, lifelike effects to ever grace the silver screen.
"If Star Wars hooked me, Empire is what reeled me in," he explains. "The movie also had the courage to leave people hanging (quite literally). The good guys don't win in Empire, they survive. It's a ballsy move, but one that gives the movie a weight the others in the original trilogy don't have."
"Empire has everything you want from the series," SYFY WIRE contributor and author Preeti Chhibber tells us. "Action and adventure, yes, but so much heart, and so much potential for story. The end of Empire is heartbreaking and full of hope, representing the best of what Star Wars has to offer."
Vanessa Marshall, the voice of Hera Syndulla on Star Wars Rebels, explains that Empire was part of the pattern that set the tone for all Star Wars in the future. "The bickering scenes between Leia and Han provided the inspiration for the hallway scenes between Hera and Kanan," she explains. "I couldn't help but think of their volatile yet indelible connection! The Empire Strikes Back inspired me long ago and it helped me shape Hera's character. On its 40th birthday, I am excited to discover how else it will impact my life moving forward."
When Marshall's character appeared on Hoth in cartoons and comics, it blew her mind. "Watching the movie long ago, I never would have thought I would have anything to do with it on any level," she says. "When Lando appeared on Rebels, and he told Hera, 'I owe you one!' For me, that was a direct link to Cloud City and Empire!"
Star Wars author E.K. Johnston hails The Empire Strikes Back as one of her favorite Star Wars films, and cites Princess Leia as a prime reason. "Leia gets to do so much in this movie, in terms of emotion and capability," Johnston says. "She even gets quiet moments, which I absolutely love. And, of course, we see her use the Force right after we hear 'There is another.'"
Speaking of the Force, Taylor further explains how important the film was on a spiritual level. "A New Hope brought excitement and wonder to the galaxy, Empire brought deeper challenges and inspiration for a young person desperately trying to make their way and be a hero in their own little world," he says.
"I do remember at the time being incredibly excited to see Master Obi-Wan return as a Force ghost," Taylor explains. "This was all new territory that we all now take for granted. Again, you have to be able to revert back to when all we had was one Star Wars movie before this. I loved the character of Obi-Wan because to me at the time, as a Lord of the Rings fan, he was like Gandalf and his return to help guide Luke was amazing to me. For a young kid with no father figure, this old, wise wizard brought comfort. I had no idea back then how connected we would be, but I'd like to think my feelings at 11 have helped my portrayal through the last 18 years of this Jedi Master."
Marshall agrees with the transformative properties of the film on a kid. "For me, Luke's journey of self-discovery, not only with Yoda, [but] the Force, and ultimately his father, was so inspiring to watch," she says. "That challenge is universal and was so helpful to me in my own quest to understand the universe growing up."
And that's a huge part of what makes The Empire Strikes Back endure after 40 years. "Lucas rooted this thing on the Joseph Campbell myths," Morton explains. "He tapped into something all human beings have in common, a hero's journey. That was an extraordinary revelation for Lucas as he was conceiving his space opera. As long as we're in an era where Campbell's assessment of mythology for all humanity holds true, as long as we're in sync with that, Star Wars will be with us. When we go through some other epoch or metaphysical change, then maybe Star Wars won't be quite relevant, but now I think it's timeless. Lucas saw it when no one else did."
Contemporary critics couldn't see The Empire Strikes Back for what it would become: A sequel that's defied expectations for 40 years and will likely be doing the same for 40 more and beyond.