When I think about The Empire Strikes Back, the most common thought that enters my head is how this is the best movie from the best movie series of all time. There’s so much more to it than that, but that statement alone should give you an idea where this review is heading.
I love the risks that George Lucas took with this movie. He didn’t just made a carbon copy of the first as many sequels are inclined to do. He tested his characters and tore them down. He also cemented Darth Vader as one of the greatest villains of all time. Vader had spent much of the first film being muscle for Tarkin, but in Empire he is the main man, and boy does he show it. The moment that Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is frozen in carbonite shows this better than anything. When the steam clears and all you see is Vader’s helmet. There is zero emotion despite turning a beloved character into a block of ice, just the determination to do his master’s bidding. The following sabre fight with Luke (Mark Hamill) and THAT reveal made him one of the most despised characters ever.
I wasn’t alive when this was released, but I can’t imagine how frustrating it would have been to watch this film and then have to wait three years for Return of the Jedi to come out. This movie leaves so many open questions that the wait would’ve been unbearable. Was Vader lying about being Luke’s father? What was going to happen to Han Solo? Could you really trust Lando (Billy Dee Williams)? These kind of cliff-hanger endings were more suitable to a television series, not a major film series where the wait was far longer than a week for the next episode. Anyone who watched this film in theatres in 1980 certainly has my sympathy. I was fortunate enough to have been born later and could pop Return of the Jedi in as soon as Empire’s credits rolled, which I’m sure made things a lot easier.
This film picks up a few years after the rebels won their decisive victory and destroyed the Death Star. Since then, they have been on the run from hidden base to base. The Empire has pursued them across the galaxy looking to stamp out this insurrection quickly without any more damage done. The rebels have found themselves a new base on the ice planet of Hoth. While checking out a meteor, Luke is attacked by a snow creature (a wampa, for those nerds that are interested) and his friend Han Solo must venture out into the cold and rescue him. During the rescue, Luke has visions from his old master, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), that he must search out someone name Yoda (Frank Oz) who can show him how to harness his force abilities and become a Jedi Knight. After the Empire finds their base and it is evacuated, Han and Leia (Carrie Fischer) go out on their own in the Millennium Falcon, while Luke ventures off on his own to find Yoda. Han and the Falcon eventually end up on Cloud City where he attempts to get help from an old Friend, but is not sure if Lando can be trusted. While doing his Jedi training, Luke sees some visions of his friends in pain, and decides to end his training and go save them, where he will face the villainous Darth Vader, who wants to turn the youngster over to the Dark Side.
There is so much action going on in this film. The Imperial invasion on Hoth is a sight to behold, as is the finale on Cloud City. During much of our film watching, I generally find myself checking my iPad instead of focusing 100% on the film. Not when I’m watching Empire though. There is so much going on and even after seeing this film what must be thousands of times, it still holds my attention. I think that is the best compliment I can give this movie. Even after nearly 40 years, it can still entertain me when so many other movies fail.
Of the three original trilogy movies, Empire Strikes Back is the one I’ve seen the least. For some reason my sister and I always seemed to skip over this one, thinking we’d already watched it. It’s not that it’s a bad movie. It’s a rare sequel that is as good as its predecessor (many would argue that it’s actually better), and delivers one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. But without fail, we would unintentionally skip over Episode V assuming that we had already watched it.
I think it’s because of Empire‘s iconic nature that we mistakenly missed so many viewings. The big reveal– that Darth Vader is Luke’s father– has been referenced and parodied in pop culture too many times to count. (I’m sure I had seen a take on it before seeing the original, but had no idea what was being referenced.) Watching this same scene played out over and over can trick you into thinking you’ve seen the original more than you really have. So, we often jumped straight from Episode IV to VI.
And yet, every time I do watch Empire (Ben never makes the mistake of skipping it), I’m still amazed at the emotional impact the movie has. Luke’s story finally gets interesting. He’s still a bit of a whiny teenager, but now has a friendly adversary in Yoda. Someone with authority and power to give Luke the comeuppance and guidance he so sorely needs. Leia and Han ratchet up the sexual tension, culminating in the now iconic “I love you/I know” exchange. That line is simultaneously romantic and aggravating. Ben and I had it engraved on our wedding bands… which may prove telling? He is often less romantic than I’d prefer, much like Solo.
The Empire Strikes Back is a great sequel. It’s a bridge between Episodes IV and VI, but so much more than that. The only reason it doesn’t rate higher for me than A New Hope is because I’m a sucker for an origin story.