4 out of 5
Directed by: Irvin Kershner
The first one was a hit, and now we’re a trilogy; while The Empire Strikes Back has a similar cadence to Star Wars – a sweeping setup, putting the characters into place; interstitial back-and-forths; everyone back together for the final scuffle – George Lucas (and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan) take the built-in audience they’d earned and allow their film world to grow into something deeper and more developed than the adventure template of Episode IV. It is a better film, although director Irvin Kershner’s more focused eye does make it seem more like a film, where Star Wars’ meandering point of view helped make it come across more as an experience; something you went through alongside Luke Skywalker and crew. But there’s also a plus to this, of course, in that the complex stuff, when characters are running around in different worlds, feels more seamless, and some of the dialogue fluff about good and evil gets sneaked past us due to the quality of what we’re seeing, and our investment in Luke, and Han, and Leia.
Picking up after the first movie’s events, the rebels are installed in a secret base on ice planet Hoth, but are soon discovered by one of the probes Darth Vader has scouring the universe, and a subsequent assault on the base occurs whilst the rebels buy time for an escape. Luke takes the opportunity to go get some Jedi training from Obi-Wan’s former master, Yoda, while Han, Leia and the rest hide out at Cloud City, hosted by an old friend of Han’s, Lando Calrissian.
Vader, meanwhile, is Force-offing the various officers who keep letting Luke and Han get away, and a sit down chat with who turns out to be his boss – the craggly faced Emperor – lets us know that Luke is the actual conquest here. He’s a “chosen one,” something he’s finding out as well while his Jedi training gets underway on planet Dagobah. A psychic message warns him that his friends are in trouble… and thus he’s off to the final thrust of the film, a shown at Cloud City.
The original effects – and even the later added computer touches – bring these various planets and locations to life, enriching the worlds Lucas started with even further. And as we’re past introductions, Han and Leia get further opportunities to grow out of their one-note savior / rebel personalities, although Luke still definitely gets the spotlight, with Mark Hamill finding a great balance between youthful assuredness and doubt.
We’re still treading in blockbuster territory, though, meaning emotional stuff is way too digestible and generally unearned except through movie shorthand, and there are two huge beats in the movie that are undercut by a lack of visual / emotional heft in the moments that directly follow; Empire is a more mature movie, but Lucas and all were still clearly wary of allowing things to get too dark.
But: Empire will forever be a mostly ideal template for how big budget sequels – and middle chapters in trilogies – can work. You can go bigger without shooting for the moon; you can fan service with winks to the camera without subverting what was previously established; you can end on what’s essentially a ‘to be continued’ while still offering massive plot developments that make the film required viewing. And, sure, you can also make it a good movie. That helps too.