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That Moment in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980): Assault on Hoth

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . . a young hotshot pilot on his first mission got close enough to exploit a weakness in the Galactic Empire’s Death Star, a brand new, fully-functioning, planet-destroying, weapon. He did it with one shot. So who is this kid? Was he just lucky? No. His name is Luke Skywalker and while he didn’t know it growing up, he’s actually a Jedi Knight, a guardian of peace.

It’s three years later and as the story continues, the Empire is reeling from its loss but now more committed to the cause. While the initial victory over the Death Star seemed like a tipping point (they even gave Luke (Mark Hamill) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) medals!), the Empire has regrouped and forced the rebels out of hiding and on the run. One concentration rebels, under the leadership of Skywalker, have found temporary refuge on the ice planet Hoth, in the Hoth System. They’ve built a base underground and are reorganizing and preparing to mount another attack. Luke and Han ride patrols around the frozen perimeter on tauntauns, combinations of two-legged creatures with a ram’s heads and four nostrils.


The Empire has been dumping probes all over the galaxy in search of the rebels and they’ve finally reached Hoth. One probe lands near Luke and he heads over to investigate, but before he arrives, he attacked and mauled by a wampa, a predator on Hoth that eats tauntauns and perhaps whatever happens to be rinding one. The wampa drags the unconscious Luke to its cave and hangs the Jedi by his boots from the ceiling of its cave while it feeds on the unfortunate tauntaun. Meanwhile, back at the base, Han is packing up to leave Hoth. He’s got debts to pay off and he can’t stick around with these rebels for any longer. Luckily, Chewbacca, his Wookie co-pilot decided to do some maintenance on their spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, which delays Han. This gives Han enough time to have a goodbye to the stubborn Princess Leia, who he is convinced is attracted to him. She tells him otherwise. Rejected, but not deterred, Han returns to the Falcon, only to be told that Luke hasn’t come back, so he mounts up and attempts to find his friend, much to the anger of the deck officer that informs him that his tauntaun will not survive the nighttime temperatures.


Back at the wampa cave, Luke is about to be eaten when he sees his lightsaber just out of reach. He makes a few feeble efforts to grab it, but can’t. He then closes his eyes and concentrates focusing his still untrained Jedi powers to mentally pull the saber free and makes quick work of slicing off the wampa’s arm and escaping into the frigid, snow swept landscape. Yet, with no tauntaun and night closing in, he has little hope, finally collapsing as a shroud of swirling snow and ice smother him. In what might be his last conscious moments, he has a vision. There before him stands Obi-Wan Kenobi, who you recall was cut down by the treacherous Darth Vader in the first installment. Rather cryptically, the old Jedi master doesn’t seem concerned with Luke’s predicament and simply tells him to go see Yoda in the Dagobah System. As he fades from thought, Solo arrives and sets up a camp to last the night.

After their rescue the next morning, the rebels notice that another pod has crashed on the planet. C-3PO, who is fluent in over 6 millions languages, deduces that the gibberish the pod is emitting is of imperial origin. Sure enough, the Empire has found the hidden base and assembles for an attack. The rebels prepare for a defense while the remainder evacuate. Problem is, Darth Vader is on the Starcruiser leading the invasion. He senses Luke is on Hoth and he’s angery at one of his admirals for giving away their advance. His rebuttal is swift and deadly. The rebels are fortified enough to stave off any ariel assault, so they prepare for a ground battle. The Empire doesn’t disappoint.


Following the massive unexpected success of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, there was high expectation for the sequel, which George Lucas wasn’t even convinced would happen. Giving away the director’s chair, he handed the reigns over to established filmmaker Irvin Kershner while remaining a writer and producer. The screenplay was written around a Lucas story and builds beautifully on the origin, giving the now famous characters a deeper universe in which to explore. Bolstered by a higher budget, the entire production is a richly curated environment that bubbles with life and wonder. Darth Vader, a secondary character in the first, is now the central antagonist, his presence far more intimidating, his power much more threatening. The shift is necessary and fulfilling. He is the dark side chasing Luke and the two are at odds throughout, that master on one side, the apprentice on the other, a shared link that will soon reveal a horrible secret. A rarity where a sequel outshines the original, The Empire Strikes Back is considered one of the greatest films of all time. It never loses sight of what made the first so charming, yet creates a higher standard for the series and everything that followed, even giving us the most memorable cliffhanger in cinema history. Pure movie magic.

That Moment In: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Scene Setup: The rebels are pressed for time. Recently discovered by the Empire, they’ve got to evacuate. They are still not strong enough to take on a full attack. Their base, while well protected, cannot withstand a continued assault so they load as much as they can into the transports, commission only two fighters each to escort them, and use the rest to fend off the coming ground attack. And the coming ground attack is the stuff of legends. What are those dots on the horizon? Tanks? Yes, with legs. Rebels are lined up in trenches manning mounted turrets and using blasters. Behind them is the shield generator, preventing ships in orbit from raining hellfire down upon them. There’s no hope of actually stopping the Empire, but the plan is to hold them off long enough so the transports can clear the surface and make a run for it. Once they are away, the remaining soldiers will hop into their own ships and take off, meeting up later. R2-D2 is already in Luke’s X-Wing fighter, waiting for him to return from the battle. Leia is waylaid and is blocked from getting to her ship, so Han, takes her to the Millennium Falcon with Chewbacca and 3PO. All hands accounted for.


The Scene: There is plenty in The Empire Strikes Back that is memorable, most especially the ending. We travel to new and beautifully realized worlds, meet strange and fascinating characters, and become even more wildly attached to our heroes. We witness the rise of the Empire, rebuilding from its earlier mistakes, and watch as the once second-in-command Darth Vader sits firmly in charge, his presence so powerful, those beneath him are in constant fear. And we see that despite this power, he still answers to one even more intimidating. Yet the opening assault on the rebel base is the most important. It’s excellent pacing, slow build, incredible suspense, and character-driven action sweeps us right back into the charm and endearing romance of this space lore. We are connected straight away with the rebels and their plight and with simple, effective storytelling, learn all we need in order to jump right back in. From the opening title crawl, we read that things are not looking good for the alliance. They’re scattered all over, and our group is living underground on an ice planet. That can’t be good. And seeing how they are in this camp, we have to wonder: just how much attention does the massive Intergalactic Empire need to give them. So unthreatening, they seem like they have all but collapsed.

Huddled under an ice shelf on a remote, desolate planet. In the three years since the Death Star, they’ve dwindled to pockets of resistance and become a minor inconvenience for the imperial leaders. So why the interest? The answer: Luke Skywalker. Vader understands this most. As a minion of the Dark Side, he knows the reach of the Light Side. It might have begun by some rebellious insurgents attempting to topple the Empire, but now it’s a whole new threat. It’s about control over the Force. Luke has gone three years without Obi-Wan, growing to be an outstanding fighter pilot and leader, but he has had little training in the arts of the Jedi. He is able to use it, sparingly. We see him conjure its power while in jeopardy. But we also see his cunning and quick-thinking, which might be independent of the Force. Yet Kenobi waits three years before instructing him to seek out Yoda, a famous Jedi master. Luke needed time to mature, to hone skills and focus his emotions. During the Hoth battle, Luke leads an ariel attack on the AT-AT “Walkers” realizing their blasters are useless against the armor (except apparently if one is knocked down, then yes, blasters work. Go Figure) and devises a plan to use tow cables to entangle the Walker’s legs. Ingenious. Was that a Force-guided decision? Probably not, but it shows that the young Jedi is a leader and has strong critical thinking and decision-making skills.

tow cab

And really, once the Walkers make their appearance, it’s all about Luke. Before this, as mentioned, he was attacked and captured by the wampa. Let’s consider this. Why is there a wampa attack? What purpose does it have in the narrative, other than seeing a new creature? It might seem like a scene manufactured only for us to witness the growth in Luke as he uses his powers to get his lightsaber, but it is in fact, just the opposite. We remember the lightsaber because it is a demonstration of his developing skills, but what the moment truly reveals is just how unfocused Luke actually is. How did he let that creature, one so large and lumbering, get close enough to strike him down, completely unaware that it is there? His tauntaun senses the trouble, rearing up a bit, but even then Luke isn’t concerned. A second later, he is struck down.

We can learn from this that Luke is still not in tune with his potential. And THIS is the reason why Obi-Wan suddenly appears, just after Luke manages to escape. Obi Wan had been watching the young man and recognizes that Luke is at a crossroads. He’s a natural Jedi sure, part of a family of masters, but he lacks discipline and is impulsive. Perhaps he was hoping after three years, Luke might have grown more than he has, but it is clear that he is not ready to face the Empire, and by extension, Darth Vader. At Luke’s most vulnerable, while he is wounded by both injury to his body and damage to his pride, Master Kenboi steps in.

So back to our chosen moment. Why does this scene matter? Actually, the approach and attack of the Imperial Walkers is in essence a summary of the franchise story so far, a kind of “previously on . . .” It serves as a sort or reenactment that represents the war between the Alliance and the Empire and gives the audience a needed reminder of where both sides stand. The rebels, banded together with limited supplies are on the run, and on constant defense. The Empire is ever-present and gaining steadily. When the Walkers appear on the horizon, it mirrors the looming size of their armada up in space in the first installment. Just like Episode IV, the rebels are trapped and fight with no hope of winning but do not give up. Here, they are able to take one Walker down by exploiting its one weakness, just like the Death Star in A New Hope. Matching that epic sequence from the first film, once the At-AT is disabled, the rebel’s first shot misses but the second ship hits its target and the Walker explodes. Subtle but effective recall of the first movie. frteb

This entire sequence is a brilliant setup for the remainder of the film. It’s established early with outstanding storytelling and groundbreaking visuals just how desperate the rebel cause is and how much more it will become, yet instills great expectation for the future. From here, stories diverge and the saga expands, introducing new worlds and of course two very important characters, Yoda and the Emperor, teachers of opposing powers, each guiding their apprentice toward the other in hopes one will either defeat or turn them to the other side of the Force. An absolute must watch.

MV5BMjE2MzQwMTgxN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDQzNjk2OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Director: Irvin Kershner

Writers: Leigh Brackett (screenplay), Lawrence Kasdan(screenplay)

Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher

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