The Force is strong with this one.
For many, The Empire Strikes Back has come to represent the quintessential film of the original Star Wars trilogy. Rather than a sequel, Empire is the next chapter of an ongoing story that sees protagonist Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) take on new challenges in an adventure notably darker than its space opera predecessor, as earth-shattering secrets are revealed.
Made in 1980 with the knowledge that Star Wars (later renamed A New Hope) wasn’t simply a one-hit-wonder but the most successful film of all time, George Lucas and co. returned to a galaxy far far away with a stellar screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and renewed confidence. Free of the budgeting and time constraints that plagued the original, Empire was free to explore new possibilities in storytelling and technology to produce a visual extravaganza from the first set piece on Hoth through to the escape from Cloud City.
Effects wise, Empire is head and shoulders above its predecessor and delivers unprecedented marvels with such power and frequency that they never draw attention to themselves. From AT-ATs roaming the snowy plains of Hoth, to Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon through an asteroid field, and Luke Skywalker taking lessons from a puppet, these effects feel like a natural part of the universe – a feat few films today can achieve.
Whereas Star Wars was trapped by the necessity to establish a rich universe wrapped within the mysterious mysticism of The Force, Empire is more sophisticated and daring in its storytelling. Darker and more thought provoking, Empire is mythic in quality: this is the beating heart of the trilogy and stirs such emotion to hearken back to the original and look ahead to the next chapter.
Empire culminates in an intense emotional confrontation between the evil galactic Empire and our intrepid heroes. To the backdrop of John Williams’ stunning score, the devastating consequences are made clear as Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is frozen in carbonite and Luke learns a terrible secret. The confrontation in the underbelly of Cloud City is a masterfully choreographed dual spectacularly visualised so that the dizzying heights of the structure and Luke’s impossible position captures his terror and disorientation at Vader’s revelation that he is in fact Luke’s father.
At the time, this revelation was ground-breaking and still holds up today. A quick search on YouTube will unearth hundreds of reaction videos with the eyes of children and adults alike bulging wide with shock as Vader delivers the fateful words “No, I am you father”. It is a feat rarely attempted by contemporary films for fear of being called a copy-cat making this scene one of the most iconic in cinematic history that only increases with each subsequent viewing.
Whilst Empire is certainly darker, it isn’t consumed by the dark side. C-3PO is just as camp and fussy as ever and diffuses the tension remarkably well using only statistical analysis of Han Solo’s ability to get them out of a tight spot. The romance between Han and Leia (Carrie Fisher) will endure even though anyone who has seen The Force Awakens knows exactly how it ends for out star-crossed lovers. In light of Fisher’s revelations last year that she and Ford were involved in an (albeit one-sided) affair one could be forgiven for thinking this somehow damages the iconic scene where two such cocky words as “I know” were transformed into the most powerful and romantic declaration of love. Rather, it has no effect at all. This is Han and Leia, and regardless of what happened behind the scenes, this is one pair of star-crossed lovers that history will never stain.
Comfortable in the knowledge that Star Wars wasn’t simply a one-hit-wonder but the beginning of a gigantic franchise, the actors settle into their roles with renewed confidence. Hamill – though by no means an Oscar winner – gives a great performance that enables Luke to grow beyond the plucky farmboy we met on Tatooine into a fearless rebel pilot intent on pursuing his father’s legacy as a Jedi. Although Luke is the primary protagonist, he is by no means the main character as Empire splits into parallel narratives that give everyone room to grow and develop. Harrison Ford oozes leading man as smuggler Han Solo but never steals the spotlight, producing a performance that is as memorable as it is heart-breaking as the hardened criminal confesses his love for Leia.
A role-model for women, Leia’s importance cannot be understated but it is as the emotional centre of the film that Fisher truly shines bringing her signature wit, moxie, courage, and strength to the fore. She brings our heroes together and encourages them to grow and in light of Fisher’s passing this is more important than ever before.
In a word, Empire continues to be a classic.