From the sight of a camel/kangaroo/ram called the Tauntaun racing across the snow planet Hoth to the climactic light-saber battle in the cloud city of Bespin, this film features the most piquant critters, gadgets, locales, and set-tos in the Star Wars trilogy. The Empire Strikes Back proves that even gimmickry gets elevated when actors settle into character and a director arranges ingredients for emotional variety and grace. Kershner's film is two-fisted and poetic -- a space extravaganza about the getting of wisdom.
Here young Luke Skywalker and Mark Hamill hit an airy stride. In Star Wars, when Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) tells Luke of the energy that binds the universe -- the Force -- it comes off as mysticism for a Sunday afternoon. But here, when Luke actually has to learn the Force's discipline under the guidance of Yoda, the super-elf and Jedi Master, it hits home as an American, can-do form of Zen. Yoda tries to teach Luke how to be a Jedi Knight: to live intensely in the moment, so he can act in the present with great potency. One small step in the plot becomes one giant step for Luke, and for Hamill. He looks different -- more intriguing -- in The Empire Strikes Back. Skywalker is still a juvenile, but a ravaged one, cut up by a fearsome snow beast in the opening minutes. Hamill develops instant character lines and a new edginess. The improvement in his performance is one reason The Empire Strikes Back wins hearts as it blows minds.
Since The Empire Strikes Back centers on Skywalker's maturity, you might expect it to be heartwarming. But the imagery and the narrative twists and turns are bracingly stormy. It begins in a titanic icy battle between white-clad rebels and the evil Empire. The Empire's space dreadnought is like an enormous incubus giving birth to a nightmarish arsenal of spidery probes and elephantine tanks. The rebels must counterattack with harpoons, like old Nantucket seamen going after whales. Kershner unleashes this unforgettable armory in the first half-hour. The peak of thrills comes later, in a whirlwind chase through an asteroid field, but those battle scenes stay fixed in our minds as the background to the entire film. And Luke's friends -- Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) -- continue to spar with the Empire while Skywalker and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) go into spiritual retreat with Yoda. We know that a conflagration could ignite any second.
At the start, Hamill's Skywalker and another green recruit, his gunner, feel as if they could conquer the Empire by themselves. But when Luke meets Yoda, he discovers how inadequate he is. Yoda is green too -- but only in color. He's a wise and wonderful creation, as tiny and spry as a Hobbit, but with an omniscient Eastern face like Akira Kurosawa's. As operated and vocalized by master puppeteer Frank Oz, Yoda dispenses knowledge gleefully instead of dropping it like weights. Though the Force apparently impels all creatures great and small to speak in boring abstractions, Yoda's teaching is sensible: He urges Luke to be patient and objective, to rid himself of the evil pettiness and jealousies that could warp the power of the Force, and to believe that if he struggles in good faith, the Force will burgeon within him. It takes confidence for an actor to hold his own with a hard-to-resist puppet like Yoda chattering by his side. Hamill has to do a scene standing on one hand, with Yoda balanced on one of his feet, while the camera watches him concentrate on lifting a rock telekinetically. And Hamill doesn't choke under the pressure. In the Yoda sequence Kershner forsakes nonstop action for sly metaphysical ballet; it's refreshing that this film (unlike Star Wars) gives us a chance to catch our breath and watch the characters grow.