Vader’s Revenge: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
This is the second in a series of reviews I’ll be writing for each of the live-action theatrical Star Wars films. I’ll be reviewing the films in release order in order to give the proper historical context for each film. I’ll also be grading and ranking each film as I go. This review will contain spoilers.
In my previous review, I explained how 1977’s Star Wars isn’t perfect, but might be the perfect film. What’s remarkable is that The Empire Strikes Back is an even better movie. Not only did it prove the original film wasn’t simply a rare case of capturing lightning in a bottle, it’s the perfect sequel and the sequel that all movies since have looked back upon, for better or worse.
Like the mythology of Star Wars itself, the story behind how Lucas devised the saga is equal parts myth and reality. If you listen to Lucas himself, he will tell you he had the series planned out from day one – and the otherwise excellent documentary Empire of Dreams (now available for free with an Amazon Prime subscription) indulges this myth. In reality, the story is a bit murkier. When Star Wars was originally out in theaters, Lucas was very concerned the film would flop. In order to ensure a sequel could be made, he ordered a novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, be published. The first novel in the now non-canon Expanded Universe (or EU for short), it would have been an ideal candidate for a low-budget sequel – Harrison Ford’s character was cut, the film was set in a low-tech environment, and the heavy effects shots were limited.
Of course, once Star Wars became the biggest film of all time, plans to use Splinter of the Mind’s Eye as a sequel were dropped. Instead, the new film would double-down. Visionary filmmaker Irvin Kershner was brought on to direct, and it was planned to be bigger, bolder, and darker. Writer Leigh Brackett was brought on to write the script, and while the overall product contains the skeleton of Empire, Lucas found her work to be sub-par; however, he was unable to ever tell her as she had developed cancer, which she ultimately died of. Interestingly, Darth Vader was not Luke’s father in this draft, Leia was not his sister, and the film was given the designation of Episode II! Instead, he hired Larry Kasdan to re-write it and the rest is history – from the corpse of the Brackett script came what might be the best sequel of all time.
From the very start, Empire is clearly the film in the series with the best direction in my opinion. Kershner had a clear vision of what he wanted to make and did it – he did it so well, in fact, that there was little left for Lucas to tinker with (perhaps a reason why Lucas chose a more malleable director for Return of the Jedi). The film clearly benefits from a consistent vision not unlike that seen in Star Wars, but also a superior script and improved special effects. The film’s standout sequences – the epic battle of Hoth, the intense chase in the asteroid field, and the final confrontation of Luke and Vader – blow Star Wars out of the water on a technical level. Also improved is Williams’ score. While I think the original film might still have the most iconic sound, The Empire Strikes Back takes everything established in the first film and makes it even better. The three new, major themes – Han Solo and the Princess, The Imperial March, and Yoda’s Theme – are maybe the best the series has to offer.
What also are improved are the film’s themes. Star Wars is a very simple story with basic, transcendent themes of good and evil, and The Empire Strikes Back is very much not that. Every single character benefits from increased depth, and the addition of Yoda and Lando offer two complex characters that truly help the film shine. What’s remarkable is how The Empire Strikes Back makes the middle film of a trilogy seem so effortless: in the grand scheme of things, what happens in the film is less important than the original. There is no superweapon or evil device to destroy and no princess to save. It’s purely a chase with the Rebels barely managing to escape a seemingly omnipresent galactic evil. Done wrong, this film could have dragged – instead, it practically soars. Both major plots in the film are equally interesting and equally investing, but the sequences on Dagobah where we learn more about the force truly shine. By taking a more personal, character-driven approach, the film actually becomes far bigger than any number of dull, action-heavy sequels.
It’s also worth noting that, even as the film adopts a darker and more serious tone where the good guys actually lose, it retains the energy and spirit of the original. It doesn’t come off as a dramatic shift, but rather a natural progression from where the original left off.
Of course, like the other films in the original trilogy, the elephant in the room is the Special Edition releases. How does The Empire Strikes Back fare? Well, it’s the film that is most intact, and the Special Edition version isn’t really bad. A few elements are actually slight upgrades, like adding Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor for continuity and adding windows to Cloud City. Do I prefer the original edition? Of course. But for all but the biggest fans, there isn’t much in the Special Edition to detract from the film. It’s a lesser version, but not an offensive one, and you can’t really go wrong with the modern Blu-Ray release.
If it’s not already clear, I absolutely adore The Empire Strikes Back. I’d be hard-pressed to name even one thing I dislike about the film. There’s a reason it’s widely cited as one of the greatest films of all time, and that’s because it absolutely is one of them. It’s probably not a spoiler to say it’s my favorite Star Wars film, and it sits very, very comfortably at the top – a spot that might never be threatened, let alone surpassed.
Star Wars saga rankings:
- The Empire Strikes Back – A+
- Star Wars – A+