30 years ago tomorrow, The Empire Strikes Back, the follow-up film for George Lucas’s Star Wars, was released to theaters. Hailed as one of the best sequels , Empire is easily one of the strongest entries in the Star Wars Franchise. Ultimately, Empire has long remained one of my favorite Star Wars films, for its strong story and memorable characters, but also because it demonstrated that Star Wars was more than a simple one hit wonder out of Hollywood. Indeed, the successes of The Empire Strikes Back allowed Lucas to continue his story with Return of the Jedi, and ultimately, with the Prequel Trilogy.
The Empire Strikes Back was certainly faced with a daunting problem: how did one follow up the incredible success that was Star Wars with something bigger and better? The first film had been a major, unexpected blockbuster hit, with theaters selling out and sending lines around the parking lot in ways that revolutionized how the film industry marketed summer films. Taking place five of so years after the events of A New Hope, Empire opens with the Rebellion once again facing hard times: the victory over the Empire with the destruction of the Death Star was short lived, and are forced to take refuge on the planet Hoth, a desolate ice world. Tracked to the planet, the rebels wage a costly battle on the surface of the planet against Imperial Walkers before once again escaping, separating the main characters. Luke flies off to the planet Dagobah to train with Jedi Master Yoda, while Han Solo and Chewbacca take off through an asteroid belt in the Hoth system to evade imperial pursuit, with C-3P0 and Leia Organa in tow. Their ship damaged, they make their way to Bespin for repairs, where they are captured by Darth Vader and his soldiers, while Luke is in turn drawn to the planet in a trap prepared by the dark lord, using his friends as bait. In the end, Luke learns of his parentage, loses a hand, and Han Solo is put on ice, and we’re left with an ambiguous ending, with an uncertain future.
The Empire Strikes Back worked simply because it built upon the successes of Star Wars. The first film demonstrated that a film with excellent special effects, a story that drew upon numerous sources and putting in quite a lot of space warfare worked well. Empire looked inwards towards the stories and characters, rather than building upon the previous successes, something that modern day filmmakers should take note of when looking to top their sequel. Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, Empire is a far more complicated film. Han, Luke and Leia seem to have developed their own little, complicated relationship between the three of them, while the Empire clearly has additional plans for Luke Skywalker. Rather than an evil yes-man for the Emperor, Vader looks to Luke as a way to expand his own personal power beyond being the 2nd in command to Emperor Palpatine.
Furthermore, there is far more added onto what Luke needs to do in order to become a Jedi Knight – he clearly has some of the basics down, but as Yoda demonstrates, much of what a Jedi has to do is mental – with that amount of power, there is much restraint and maturity required to fully master the force: Skywalker is not nearly at that level, and his showdown with Vader in the cave on Dagohah demonstrates that there’s a clouded future for him.
This all pales in comparison to the revelation at the end: Darth Vader is Luke’s father, which further reinforces Empire as a stronger, character driven drama, rather than one mainly fueled by the effects and action that so many other sequels are characterized by. There’s some true issues that face the characters: Luke’s father is one of the rebellion’s sworn enemies, and he’s being asked and tempted, to work with him to overthrow the Emperor. Lando Calrissian is forced to betray his friends at gunpoint, and has to reconcile with Leia and Chewbacca in order to save Han. Luke must forgo part of his training to save his friends. Empire works well, not because the heroes come out on top, but because they’re beaten back. Luke’s lost time training (and his hand), they have lost a close friend and ally and are still on the run. In light of that, the last shot, with Luke and Leia staring down at a galaxy, is one that really seems hopeful, and that despite their setbacks, will continue onwards with their ultimate goals. This to me speaks to far more than the victorious closing scene at the end of Star Wars.
In the end, what saves the Star Wars franchise, is the darker, more serious nature that Empire takes on after A New Hope. In a lot of ways, the story represented a huge risk, one that didn’t pander to the audience, but helped to bring up their expectations for what quality cinema should be: challenging, entertaining, exciting, so forth. Instead of more intense action, the major fights are in the beginning of the film, with a fairly epic lightsaber battle at the end, and the action in this film is smarter, not there just for the sake of putting people into theater seats. The Empire Strikes Back is a superior sequel, one of the few out there.
As such, Empire remains my favorite Star Wars film, standing far and above the prequel trilogy and A New Hope and Return of the Jedi for me. The complexity in the story and characters, as well as the excitement that I had when I first saw it when it was re-released in 1997 still floods through me when I watch this one. It’s one of the reasons that I’ve tailored my own Storm Trooper costume over to the Empire Strikes Back style, and why I’ll inevitably pick it up first when wanting to watch a Star Wars film.