With the release of the seventh Star Wars film this Friday, this week is more appropriate than ever to look back at the iconic film series that brought us here. From the memorable highs of The Empire Strikes Back to the laughable lows of Attack of the Clones, join us as we recap the Star Wars saga in preparation for The Force Awakens.
Coming off the heels of the 1977 phenomena that was Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back had a lot to live up to as a sequel. Fortunately, it both fulfills that and exceeds its predecessor in almost every way.
Some time has passed since the destruction of the Galactic Empire’s Death Star. Since then, Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) has been on the hunt for the young pilot responsible: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). After being relentlessly on the prowl throughout the galaxy, he finally finds his prey. Locating him on a Rebel base situated in the icy planet Hoth, Vader unleashes an all-out assault on the ground and imposes a star fleet blockade around the planet.
In the ensuing chaos, most Rebel forces are either crushed or hastily flee the Imperial storm. Luke and R2-D2 take off without a problem, but do not rendezvous with the rest of the fleet. After a mysterious vision from his dead master, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), Luke instead travels to the swamp planet of Dagobah. Once there, he meets the oldest remnant of the Jedi order left — Master Yoda (Frank Oz). Through Yoda, Luke is trained hard to harness the power of the force, as well as learn the hard truth of what being a Jedi means.
Meanwhile, Luke’s friends Han (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) are less fortunate. From sheer bad luck, their ship — the Millennium Falcon — is now on the run from Vader’s entire armada in the aftermath of the Hoth battle. With the Sith Lord throwing everything at them from TIE fighters to hired mercenaries, the Falcon crew puts in an equal amount of effort to keep running, especially for Han and Leia, who maybe even fall in love along the way.
However, the crew’s luck eventually runs out and into the hands of Lord Vader. For the sake of his friends, Luke must finally come out of the shadows and confront Vader himself. Yet, unknown to him, it is a coarse action that even Yoda and Kenobi are fearful of.
The Empire Strikes Back is, simply put, one of the best examples of a blockbuster sequel. The action and adventure are bigger. The stakes are raised even higher. More importantly, it does not do this at the expense of character investment — the heart of what made the previous film worthwhile. And boy, does it do that particular element justice.
We get to see much more character development and complexity this time around. Through Yoda’s training, we see Luke for who he truly is — not just the courageous golden boy of the previous film, but also impatient and reckless. However, it only strengthens our investment in his character, as he clearly keeps trying his best to prove Yoda wrong. Additionally, we are also treated to Yoda’s iconic wisdom — from lifting a Starfighter with just the flick of wrist to his now famous motivational quote: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Likewise, our investment for the rest of Luke’s gang is also preserved. In almost every turn, there is very little that goes right for them. Combined with their likeable aspects from the first movie, their perils feel truly concerning. The threat is made even more legitimate with how Vader is successfully portrayed as the merciless force he is. He kills his own officers at a whim, never shows a tinge of weakness, and is always one step ahead of our heroes. Given his powerful use of the Force and his lightsaber, Empire does a good job of telling us: Do not screw with Darth Vader.
The action set-pieces are also top notch. The reliance on character development is as prominent as it is in the first film. With that, the movie successfully heightens the spectacle. The Battle of Hoth is a sci-fi version of grand battles you see in classic World War II Hollywood films: masses of Rebel ground troops and aircraft throwing everything they have at the Empire’s unstoppable AT-AT Walker tanks. This sequence takes the great things from the previous film’s climax and translates them into a hopeless ground war.
The climactic lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke also successfully does the same thing. Unlike the acrobatic hijinks of the newer films, it is focused and racked with knife-cutting tension. It is also a clearly one-sided fight that demonstrates the strength of Darth Vader, and how — despite his training — ultimately fragile Luke still is. It is the kind of fight that really makes your 10-year-old truly fear for the hero’s fate.
There is really nothing else to be said. Having so much emotional exhaustion, The Empire Strikes Back stands as the best entry of the series. Even better? It’s one of the best Hollywood sequels ever, period.