Empire Strikes Back remains pinnacle of Star Wars franchise
Star Wars … sigh, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, is the greatest standalone science-fiction movie of all time. It tells a complete story and you can enjoy it without watching another second of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Darth Vader, R2-D2 and company. But in doing so, you’d deprive yourself of the greatest sci-fi film of all time — Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back — no qualifiers necessary. This is a generation-influencing masterpiece the likes of which we’ve rarely seen since.
It’s difficult to credit any one particular aspect as every element from the script, performances, special effects, John Williams’ unforgettable score and Irvin Kershner’s impeccable direction ranks as some of the best, not just in the genre, but in all of cinema.
And there’s also the filmmakers’ incredibly risky decision to role-reverse the character dynamics for the sequel. George Lucas hands the reins over to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who shifts the tone from a swashbuckling serial to a much more character-driven, desperate quest for survival.
Destroying the Death Star didn’t win the war for the Rebel Alliance. It just incredibly ticked off Darth Vader (David Prowse/voiced by James Earl Jones), who unleashes the Empire on a galaxy-wide quest to find and capture Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the daring pilot responsible for the Death Star’s destruction.
Kasdan reveals a beaten and humiliated Empire is far more dangerous than the evil tyranny that existed in A New Hope. Kershner likewise picks up on the cue and amps up the threat level immediately. In the scene when the Empire finally arrives on camera and Vader basks in the might of his armada, they come across like an intimidating, threatening force. The Empire means business this time out and they’re not relying on a flying space station to accomplish its dirty work.
While the Rebels won an important battle, the Empire is far from defeated and they are still an overwhelming force. The battle on the desolate ice system Hoth is one of the great action settings ever. From the fearsome Wampas to the mounted Tauntans, Hoth is a harsh environment made even deadlier with the Empire’s arrival.
And they come off like monster bullies going for a little morale-crushing exercise by bringing out the towering AT-ATs plodding through the snow. Their drivers treat the Rebel defenders as annoying insects barely worth a swat. It makes the Rebel forces’ ability to take down a handful all the more satisfying.
Every step of the way this time out for our heroes is one of desperation. In a twisted fashion, Vader and the Empire have an almost heroic sense of duty and perseverance in going after the Rebels. Typically, the villains are the cowardly quick to retreat characters, but Empire’s true beauty is putting the heroes on the run until eventually there’s nowhere left for them to escape.
The fascinating underlined story is that you can only run from the big, bad bully for so long before you have to stand up and face him.
Not all hope is lost though as Luke, with his faithful droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) travel to Dagobah to continue his use of the Force with Yoda (Frank Oz), the last surviving Jedi. Yoda is a brilliant addition to the universe with his unique style of conversing and his non-coddling way of teaching.
With Luke undetectable, Vader goes after his closest friends — Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) — in hopes of using them as bait to draw Luke out using every available resource including bounty hunters.
Empire hit a home run with every new character, but arguably the most popular was the bounty hunter Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), who proved even cooler from his limited dialogue and competency. And Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) as Han’s old running buddy and current head of the majestic Cloud City cemented Empire’s status as the sequel that kept on giving.
Kershner expertly escalates the threat to Luke and his friends so as soon as they handle one obstacle, they’re faced with a greater challenge. For Luke, it’s making baby steps in his training while continually failing the larger test while Han and company constantly think they’ve escaped the Empire only to be tracked down for another round.
All roads converge on Cloud City, the most luxurious location in the series with its levitating base surrounded by clouds awash in gorgeous oranges, reds and yellows from the sunsets.
With his friends in trouble, Luke has no choice but to race off to confront Vader leading to the pinnacle of the series’ lightsaber duels and one of the biggest reveals in cinematic history. Too many sequels are content to just do what worked in the original, but Empire is a more personal, expansive look at the Star Wars universe and its limitless potential.
The film explodes with creativity from the numerous new characters, vehicles, exploring the Force’s possibilities and the frequently dramatic shifts in locations. Hoth gives way to a dogfight chase through an asteroid field to the murky swamps of Dagobah before ending at the postcard worthy Cloud City.
No matter the setting, the action never overwhelms the personal nature of the story. Kasdan delves deeper into the characters beyond the archetypes established in Star Wars providing Ford, Hamill and Fisher opportunities to further flesh out their characters.
Luke clearly is making a terrible decision in ditching his training, but with the bond he has with Han and Leia there’s no question it’s the right call. That doesn’t shortchange Chewie, C3-P0 and R2-D2 from having several memorable moments as well. And it’s in this film that Darth Vader fully establishes himself as one of the greatest movie villains of all-time.
Being the second act of a sci-fi masterpiece comes at some expense though. While you could enjoy it without having seen Star Wars, Empire leaves you with a cliffhanger. Empire is one of my two favorite films and the one that first triggered my immense love of the power of movies.
Even if you’ve been weaned on other sci-fi/action franchises, this is the one that surpasses them all and warrants my highest recommendation. See it and prepare to be captivated by the most spellbinding sci-fi film of them all.
Rating: 10 out of 10
Buy the single movie at Amazon.com Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back Steelbook [Blu-ray] or buy the entire original trilogy: Star Wars Trilogy Episodes IV-VI (Blu-ray + DVD)