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'Star Wars' exclusive: The Empire is back

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Star Wars hit theaters on May 25, 1977, and it was unlike anything we’d ever seen. The perfect marriage of story and spectacle, the movie gave us a familiar plotline (save the princess!) in a most unfamiliar setting (outer space, with aliens, droids, Sith lords, and an entire cantina full of oddballs). There is little doubt that it changed filmmaking forever, taking Jaws‘ introduction of the ”event movie” and blasting it into an entirely new galaxy far, far away. Funny, then, that when most Star Wars aficionados go back to watch their favorite installment from the franchise — and we do this a lot — it is not the original film we gravitate toward, but rather its follow-up, The Empire Strikes Back.

Released 30 years ago, on May 21, 1980, Empire took everything Star Wars did and made it bigger (the giant AT-AT ground assault on Hoth remains one of the most gripping battle sequences ever filmed) and better (Luke Skywalker doesn’t waste half the movie whining about his stupid power converters). Now a new book arriving this October, Star Wars: The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, goes behind the scenes of the epic space saga in exhaustive detail, providing rare and never-before-seen photos and quotes from the cast and crew, some of which you can enjoy right here in an exclusive sneak peek.

Empire is no ordinary sequel. While most follow-up films are known for introducing annoying new characters that merely detract from the original — think the jive-talking robots from the second Transformers movie, or, a bit closer to home, the unfortunate Jar Jar Binks experiment — amazingly, all the newbies in Empire became instant fan favorites. There’s the pint-size Jedi Master Yoda, who, as a puppet, really could have been a disaster of epic proportions; enigmatic bounty hunter Boba Fett; smooth-talkin’ Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams); and, of course, Lobot — a silent yet striking Kojak-looking wannabe with an awesome computer fashion accessory wrapped around his head. They all help elevate Empire beyond mere sequel status.

But what makes The Empire Strikes Back the greatest and grandest of all Star Wars films is its emotional resonance. This is no feel-good popcorn film, as the Rebel Alliance is on the receiving end of a pretty much continuous loop of butt kickings, starting from the very first line of the opening crawl: ”It is a dark time for the Rebellion.” Sure, in Star Wars (later retitled, somewhat lamely, Episode IV: A New Hope) an entire planet is destroyed from afar — Alderaan, R.I.P. — but for the main characters, the only real moment of dread in that movie is when they get stuck in a room full of stinky garbage. Compare that with Empire: Luke (Mark Hamill) is mauled by a wampa two minutes into the film, and then later gets his hand chopped off, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is tortured and then encased in carbonite, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is blasted to bits and then has his head tossed around by a bunch of freaky-looking Ugnaughts, Leia (Carrie Fisher) is forced to wear a truly ridiculous hairstyle in Cloud City, and when Lando finally does something right for a change, he is rewarded by being practically strangled by a Wookiee. Instead of a tidy happy ending with parades and medals, the good guys’ big triumph here is merely surviving and living to fight another day. It’s tough to be a hero in Empire, which, in turn, makes these heroes all the more interesting.

And Empire‘s evildoers are just as intriguing. Boba Fett utters only three lines in the entire movie, but he’s a commanding presence with his funky armor and streetlight-inspired spaceship. Darth Vader, meanwhile, reaches new heights of badassery, killing any Imperial officer who displeases him, and, yes, cutting off his own son’s hand. Again: his own son’s hand! That epic lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke makes A New Hope‘s Vader vs. Obi-Wan Kenobi face-off appear to have been filmed in slow motion, and culminates in the jaw-dropping ”I am your father” line, one of the best twists in cinematic history.

Of course, much credit must go to Irvin Kershner — who took over directing duties on Empire from George Lucas so that the latter could focus his energies on a myriad of production issues — for expanding the range of emotions available to actors like Hamill and Ford, and for creating the dark, moody ambience that permeates the film. Lucas also deserves kudos for having the guts to make a film showing characters audiences had grown to love basically being pummeled for two hours. It made their struggle more real, and their (albeit small) successes that much more special. It’s why 30 years later, the Force is still strong with The Empire Strikes Back.

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