It’s an obvious point, but worth repeating: With so many bad franchise sequels in film history, Empire Strikes Back is kind of a miracle. It gives a prototype for other sequels of great movies to follow — one that too few would use.
The follow-up can’t top the original in mythic sweep or operatic scope. No need to do a watered-down retread. Instead, Empire expands the worldbuilding, tells a richer and more human story filled with ambiguity and complex moral dilemmas. It takes the original film’s weaknesses — mediocre lead acting and a wonky script — and turns them into strengths. And the ending is flipped from the original: no triumph, only failures and dark revelations, leaving us craving more.
Let’s start with the highlights, of which there are many. Whenever Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are sharing the screen, The Empire Strikes Back is brilliant, capitalizing on Ford and Fisher’s obvious chemistry and steering clear of the too-obvious, too-stuffy Luke-Leia pairing. “Why you… stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking NERF HERDER!”
(I do have to point out that Solo/Ford lean a little too hard into the “scoundrel” angle at times, making him come off as pushy, especially when he grabs Leia without permission.)
Meanwhile, Darth Vader is scarier and more prominent than ever. He’s given a bit more of a character: A ruthless military officer whose patience is fracturing as he obsessively hunts Luke Skywalker. We know by the end of this movie (and, of course, Return of the Jedi and the whole prequel trilogy) that this represents a fairly complex struggle of fatherly instincts clashing with a long-icy heart, but it doesn’t really get to play out in this episode to any depth. This is just the groundwork for that arc.
The other highlight is Luke’s abbreviated training with Master Yoda, easily the most appealing and memorable new character. Yoda’s an amazing piece of puppetry, but also expands our sense of what “The Force” is, and what Luke must sacrifice to use it. Luke shifts from a fresh-faced kid to a young man facing really tough choices. It’s a welcome deepening of the shallow hero from the original.
Empire is an upgrade in almost every conceivable technical way. The acting is way better, especially Fisher and Hamill. But this is Ford’s best performance in a Star Wars movie, too. (Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing are desperately missed, but Yoda and more Vader make up for it.)
Meanwhile, Williams’ score builds on the original with new themes and flourishes. The first time we hear “The Imperial March” and get the establishing shots of the geometric layout of Vader’s cockpit and the Imperial fleet is perhaps the most breathless, audiovisually brilliant few minutes of the entire Star Wars series.
But beyond that moment, the glorious fusion of music and drama that made the original feel so vital is greatly diminished.
As for what doesn’t work, it’s a short list, but not an empty one. Most dull for me is Leia and Han’s never-ending chase from Vader and the Empire’s fleet. In particular, I find Lando Calrissian to be a major whiff — his time is too rushed for his character to mean anything to us or for his betrayal to sting too hard. Cloud City, too, has some phenomenal sets but feels less iconic and alive than any other major setting of the series to date.
I also somewhat resent that the movie’s big paternal twist, great though it is at deepening Vader’s and Luke’s arcs, makes this too much of a “chosen one” saga where the original’s protagonists felt like a bunch of nobodies, scrappy underdogs trying to grind the system to a halt. Vader, too, loses a layer as head evil honcho, where in the original he felt like a wildcard secret agent of mysterious repute and power.
For more than a decade, from middle school through college, I considered Empire Strikes Back one of my ten-or-so favorite movies ever. But as I’ve gotten older, it has started to feel a bit too conventional (albeit still phenomenal) to rank so high. I’m not quite ready to bump it down a rating, but I’m the closest I’ve ever been, and I’m a little sad about that.
(Viewed Harmy’s Despecialized Edition)
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100
Masterpiece: Tour De Good (8/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.