The Galactic rebellion intensifies.
How do you improve upon perfection? The second installment in the Star Wars series, The Empire Strikes Back, answers this question with profound confidence, wiping away any doubt with the swift of a lightsaber and the influence of the force. It’s hard to imagine that at one point, creator George Lucas doubted the impact his series would hold. And now here stands The Empire Strikes Back, not only every bit as strong as its predecessor, but also cementing its influence on cinema forever.
Taking place a few years after the events of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back follows its core characters as they continue the intensified conflict against the empire. Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) is viciously in pursuit after Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Han Solo (Harrison Ford) has a debt he desperately needs to pay off from a criminal overlord. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has a war she’s still trying to fight. And while all of this is going on, Luke receives a message from his long-deceased friend, Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness), telling him to go to the Dagobah system to train with the only Jedi master left in existence. Now all on separate paths towards their destinies, these rebels and friends must complete their own journeys as they continue to fight the empire and save the galaxy from its evil clutches.
After the massive success of Star Wars, you’d wonder how on Earth George Lucas would be able to provide a follow up to his science-fiction saga. Yes, he had created these wonderful characters, but character appeal can only last for so long. You have to give them something to do to test the strength of their resolve and the changes that they go through. For the sequel to work, Lucas needed to not only reproduce his memorable heroes: he needed a story just as compelling to allow them to grow and evolve.
Thankfully, Lucas delivers just that alongside director Irvin Kershner and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. One improvement that The Empire Strikes Back has upon its predecessor is in the scope of its storytelling; in the stakes that it sets up and in the challenges it pits against its characters. That’s perhaps the most noticeable way in how this movie excels, is in its buildup and anticipation.
Take, for instance, the dynamic that pits Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader. As the movie builds, you quickly realize how similar Luke and Vader are to each other, and how dangerous of a path Luke is on if he isn’t careful. Luke is training to become a jedi. So was Vader, at one point. Luke is very strong in the force. So is Vader. Luke wants to get powerful fast so he can protect his friends. So did Vader, before he turned to the dark side. The parallels this movie draws on its protagonist and antagonist are very strong, and Kershner is effective in highlighting the conflict going on inside of Luke. It shows that if Luke isn’t careful, the greatest thing he will lose is not his friends, but his soul.
The other characters are just as great as they were the first time we became acquainted with them. Han Solo is still the smug, over-confident rebel, Leia is still the stubborn and headstrong leader that gives a good name to female protagonists. Darth Vader, however, is just as imposing and fearful as he was when we first met him. I would argue even more so, given more of the history we learn about him in this movie. When listening to him, I had forgotten how pivotal James Earl Jones was in his character conception, how his voice lends so much to his performance and his agony. It isn’t just the deepness of Jones’ voice that perfectly encapsulates Darth Vader: it’s in the sincerity of his words, how he says some lines with intensity and quietly utters others in softness. In the first movie, we got a great introduction to Darth Vader as a villain. Here, we’re beginning to understand him as a character, and Jones continues to be pivotal as that comprehension continues to be constructed.
What of the technical elements? Read my first review. You know what I think of its technical elements. The landscapes are vast and barren, contributing to a deep sense of loneliness and vulnerability. The action is exciting and suspenseful, teaming our heroes up against near impossible tasks, then having them find solutions in the most creative and dynamic ways possible. John Williams’ score doesn’t even need any elaboration. Can’t you remember the emotions you felt the first time you saw the words “Star Wars” on the screen and heard the horns blasting proudly in harmony?
This movie is just as strong as the first film was in its production value. Yet, production value means nothing without a strong arc for our characters to go through, and The Empire Strikes Back has that in spades. On the surface, it’s another sci-fi action blockbuster not too dissimilar to its first entry. In deeper insight, it’s a character conflict on how these heroes and villains react to stakes rising and how similar they are in their struggle and in their pain.
There are other characters and story elements that I would like to talk about, but doing so would cheat you of the experience and take away the enjoyment of seeing it for yourself. Star Wars was a masterpiece. The Empire Strikes Back, even more so.