George Lucas began the Star Wars saga in 1977 with Star Wars, later titled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, and it changed the course of the entire science fiction genre. It proved that sci-fi could be fun for everyone and that with a sense of scope, adventure, and a compelling cast of characters, the genre could be boosted into the furthest depths of popular culture. Three years later in 1980, a sequel, titled The Empire Strikes Back, was released. Although it received a mixed reception at the time, it has since become one of the most revered films in all of cinema.
Taking place three years after A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back follows Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on his quest to become a Jedi, while the evil Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones), pursues Luke’s friends, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) across the galaxy. The film is great for several reasons. It manages to strengthen old characters while also introducing new ones, as well as introduce a more complex and meaningful story.
Every character has an opportunity to shine in this film. Luke Skywalker is no longer the whiny farm boy the audience knew from the previous film, but instead, a man who is struggling to understand the complexities of the universe and the balance between good and evil. Hamill really comes into the role of Skywalker, and sets the bar for many future protagonists.
The romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia is one of the crowning jewels of not only this film, but the entire saga. Although, Han and Leia shared a few flirtatious scenes in the original film, it isn’t until this sequel that their romance is further explored and truly compelling. The two characters share great dialogue, and their exchange of words near the climax of the film has gone on to become one of the most iconic interchanges in all of film. Needless to say, the performances of Ford and Fisher need to be recognized, because their chemistry is so believable that it should be recognized as one of the greatest romances in film history.
Darth Vader, who I once described as one of the greatest villains in film history, further strengthens my claim in The Empire Strikes Back. Unlike the original Star Wars, Vader is essentially let off the leash in this installment. If a subordinate fails their task, Vader uses just a fraction of his power to quickly do away with them. He cuts through the higher ups of the Empire like tissue paper without even skipping a beat. Vader is truly a force to be reckoned with and this film has no problem demonstrating his ruthlessness. The commanding voice of Jones only reinforces the power that Vader is capable of and it helps deliver one of the greatest lines and twists in film history.
Newcomers include Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and Frank Oz as Yoda. Lando is introduced as the Administrator of Cloud City and an old friend of Solo. Lando is a scoundrel and former Captain of the Millennium Falcon who is strikingly similar to Han Solo. In fact, Lando is an interesting character because he serves as a look at what Solo would have been had he not gotten involved with Luke in the previous film. If not for Luke, Solo would not have grown emotionally or heroically, but instead stayed a smuggler with little honor. Fortunately, there is a bit of a redemptive aspect for Lando in the story, and it’s enough to push him into a protagonist’s position. Both are great additions to the ever-expanding Star Wars franchise.
Yoda is first introduced as a goofy hermit who is far too silly to be anything but a bother to Luke. After Luke proves he’s too impatient for Yoda’s antics, it is revealed that Yoda is actually a Jedi Master who then reluctantly agrees to train Luke. It’s strange that a puppet is able to seem so lifelike and also so wise. Many of Yoda’s lines are great and help solidify the film’s ability to produce memorable and quotable dialogue. Yoda is a great addition to the lineup of characters and being a puppet, also serves as an example of practical effects done right.
In addition to great characters, The Empire Strikes Back also manages to serve an emotionally complex story with many thrills and twists. There is a great mix of emotions in the film that range from joy to devastation. Unlike its predecessor, this film does not end on a happy note, but instead, leaves the audience wondering what will happen next and if their favorite characters are going to make it. With the aid of a great score composed by John Williams, this film has real stakes and drama that make it stand apart from other films in the franchise.
Although there have been many sequels to Star Wars, none has ever done so much more for the franchise than Empire. It’s about as perfect as a film can get because it offers such a wide range of things to chew on, and it always manages to fill me with one of the greatest feelings a movie can. This film does what a sequel should, which is building on the aspects that turned the original into a classic. With great acting, dialogue and truly iconic moments, The Empire Strikes Back is not only one of the best sequels of all time, but one of the best films ever made.