The Empire Strikes Back! One of the earliest major movie sequels, and widely considered to be the best Star Wars movie of the saga. (I wonder if it’ll retain that title in a week’s time. Part of me thinks it will, but at the same time, I rather hope it won’t – wouldn’t it be nice if The Force Awakens really was that good?)
One of the more interesting things about the opening of this movie is that it’s actually set three years after the end of A New Hope; there’s something of an implied history there, between the characters we were introduced to in the previous movie, which is used to interesting effect here. There’s clearly been a lot of development and progress in their stories – and, once again, a wider world is being hinted at. For Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca, their story didn’t stop when the Death Star exploded; they’ve been out there, living their lives, fighting against the Empire ever since. It makes the whole world a little wider.
In fact, that’s something this sequel does a pretty good job of throughout, in terms of expanding the size of this Galaxy. Take, for example, Cloud City. We meet Lando Calrissian, an old friend of Han’s, now in charge of a mining colony; once again, we’re seeing glimpses of a whole other world. There are fleeting references to Han’s life, before he became a leader in the Rebel Alliance – he’s now Captain Solo, in fact – which serve as some impressive character development as well, by contrasting who he is now with who he once was. The Bounty Hunters too fulfill a similar role – they hint at a much seedier side to this galaxy, and also to the Empire itself. Before, everything has been a much more clinical, powerful depiction of the Empire – but now Darth Vader needs these people? What sort of madmen are they, so lacking in restraint they need to be specifically instructed “no disintegrations”?
Actually, it occurs to me as well that this is the first time we see the actual Emperor in the Original Trilogy (it’s a cameo by Ian McDiarmid, though I’m not certain if that’s from the original or a George Lucas edit). That was really fascinating – you can see, immediately, how big of a deal this character is when Darth Vader himself kneels before him, calling him master. The audience knows, right from the off, that this character is a very big deal, and very dangerous indeed.
It is, of course, great to see all of the characters from the previous movie back once more – like I said, Han, Leia, Luke and Chewie have all evolved slightly from their previous appearance, but they’re still recognisably the same characters we got to love previously. Notably, though, their journeys and evolution continues throughout, as each character embarks on their own discrete arc.
Han and Leia, in this movie, get a lot closer to being romantically involved; it’s one of the most important relationships of Star Wars, I think it’s fair to say, and this film does a lot of work to show the beginnings of a relationship between them. It’s far better than that of Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones; although Han and Leia spend a lot of time being confrontational with each other, the movie manages to draw on the aforementioned implied history to demonstrate that this is conflict stemming from an actual bond the two share. You can see it in the beginning of the film too, where the pair of them both spend time looking across at each while they think the other can’t see them. It’s a far cry from “creepy teen makes woman he last saw ten years ago extremely uncomfortable, until she suddenly decides she likes him (and then he murders people)”.
Luke, of course, starts his training as a Jedi here – you can see at the start of the movie, when he’s in the Wampa’s cave, that Luke has been practicing with his command of the force, but there’s obviously still a lot for him to learn. (This is actually a nice, tense scene in the beginning, given that Luke is clearly exerting himself when trying to get the lightsabre – we’ve got just enough doubt as to whether or not he’ll manage it for the scene to be suitably tense.) It’s really interesting to see Luke’s journey and development into becoming a Jedi, under the tutelage of Yoda, and it goes a great way towards furthering Luke’s journey as a hero.
Yoda makes his first appearance in the Original Trilogy here, initially appearing to be little more than a strange comedic character – the Jar-Jar of his day, if you like. It’s a great bit of misdirection, and serves really well to throw us off balance with the introduction of Yoda; he’s so different to what you’d be expecting, after everything Obi-Wan has said and Luke has assumed, that when that strange little green hermit appears, there’s no way you’d ever assume that he was, in fact, the greatest Jedi Master of them all. It’s a great way to structure the reveal, actually, and challenges all the audience preconceptions of everything we think we know about the force.
The most notable thing about this movie, though, is the work it does with establishing Darth Vader as one of the greatest cinematic villains of the 20th Century. Actually, in fact, not one of the, but the greatest cinematic villain of the 20th Century (only a Sith deals in absolutes!), with The Empire Strikes Back often cited for its impressive depiction of the villains.
Nearly every scene with Darth Vader works towards furthering his screen presence as a villain; it’s particularly apparent aboard the Imperial Star Cruiser, through his interactions with the ship’s crew. The “promotion” of Admiral Piett is a stand out scene, I think – seeing as his predecessor is force choked on the viewscreen is a nice demonstration of Vader’s power, given that it shows he doesn’t even need to be in the same room as his victims to kill them. Similarly, I liked the fear we see in one of the other officers, as he talks of the need to apologise to Lord Vader – we then later see Vader standing over his dead body, simply saying “apology accepted”. It’s a very chilling demonstration of how powerful a villain Vader is.
We also have that twist to discuss. It’s very difficult to see it in terms of its original context now, isn’t it? It’s an idea that is now so ingrained in popular culture, the number of people who watch Star Wars for the first time without already knowing the identity of Luke’s father must be very few indeed. You can see, though, that it’s been set up right from the beginning – in the opening crawl, they establish that Vader has been obsessed with finding Luke since the destruction of the Death Star, which in hindsight is clearly because he knows Luke Skywalker is his son. Another interesting moment is when we see Vader putting his helmet on, and catch a glimpse of his ashen, scarred cranium – it hints at a past life for him as well, but also reveals that Darth Vader isn’t just a robot, and there’s a man behind the machine.
In revealing his connection to Luke, though, we do have a pretty monumental twist. It changes everything we thought we knew so far, and it’s clear this is going to have huge repercussions going forward into the next movie. It’s a genuinely fantastic idea, and I’m really glad that George Lucas came up with it (even if that wasn’t the original plan!), because it gives the story a lot of resonance.
The final ending is, ultimately, a defeat for our heroes – the greatest that we’ve ever seen them suffer. Han has been frozen in carbonite, and taken away to the vicious Jabba the Hutt. Luke has had his hand cut off, and it’s been revealed he’s the son of the most evil man in the galaxy. The rebel base on Hoth was destroyed, the rebellion dispersed, and we don’t know how many of them survived. Leia even kissed her brother without realising.
Truly, things are dark. And that means the ending of this movie is really, genuinely impactful.
The Empire Strikes Back is a really, really good movie. Again, I think I’d have to give this one another 10/10 (though I am not certain if, in terms of my own subjective enjoyment, I prefer it over A New Hope. I think A New Hope might just edge past The Empire Strikes Back, ultimately.)