Star Wars was a game changer in many ways, in terms of blockbusters and memorabilia but it’s the second movie in the original trilogy that’s impact is still felt. Countless film series made since has attempted to follow the Empire model with the second movie having a darker, more downbeat ending that leaves the heroes in poor shape before they rally in the third part.
But although often imitated, The Empire Strikes Back has never been matched and is still the stand out movie in the four part Star Wars saga. I fell in love with the first movie, but it paled when I saw this one, and this is where I became a lifelong fan of the series.
Unlike a lot of movies which include a massive twist, this movie is more than just that big reveal. The moment where the villainous Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) reveals that Obi Wan was telling porkies and that he is actually Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) father is one that has slightly lost it’s impact thanks to countless rip offs and gags, but for audiences in 1980 it must have been an absolute stunner.
If I have kids I’m going to show them the Star Wars trilogy at a young age and hopefully ensure that this twist is fresh for them, as it’ll probably make more of an impact.
The reveal sets up the finale brilliantly, but it also contributes to the downbeat ending which made Empire so special. The end of the movie finds our heroes in a bad way, Luke is reeling from the news his enemy is his papa and has lost a hand, Leia (Carrie Fisher) has finally admitted that she loves Han Solo (Harrison Ford), only to see him frozen and taken prisoner.
But the ending doesn’t depress you. Luke has a robot hand and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) sets off to find Han. It leaves the audience hooked- will they be able to rescue their old friend? How will Luke and Vader’s next meeting go? And will the war with the Empire ever be over?
The defeat they suffer works because it delivers on it’s title. If a villain is always vanquished they begin to lose their edge for audiences (see the Daleks), what they got right in this series was that while the Empire had lost the first movie they win this one, and the good guys barely escape. It makes the villains all the more evil, and more of a threat, it’s a smart move.
Of course, a solid ending isn’t enough and what makes this such a cracker is everything that builds up to it. We find the Rebels on a snowy planet and Han debating leaving as he needs to sort out the bounty hunters on his trail. His decision to leave causes an argument between him and Leia, and suggests that there is a growing attraction there.
Ford and Fisher, who we recently found out were getting it on behind the scenes, have phenomenal chemistry on screen and their bickering, flirty scenes together are among the best in film. The story splits up our group, leaving Leia, Han, Chewie and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) on the run and trying to find a safe place to hole up, while Luke travels to continue his Jedi training.
This is another aspect that would work for first time viewers, the reveal of Yoda (Frank Oz). When Luke seeks out the Jedi Master who taught Obi Wan the audience expects a great warrior and intergalactic badass, the revelation that the little green man is actually the master is a nice subversion of expectations.
Yoda’s wisdom and training sees Luke develop his skills, and this is an interesting storyline as we see Luke get stronger and discover more about the Force.
This movie improves on the first by adding to the characters and by having a superior script, shown not only in Han and Leia’s flirtations, but throughout. And there are memorable moments throughout- the AT-ATs advancing through the snow, the trippy sequence where Luke faces his fears, the climactic fight.
I love this movie because it’s great fun, and shows us more of the universe. It also introduces Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, who is pretty damn suave.
It’s a perfect middle movie for a trilogy, which doesn’t just act as a bridge but serves to up the stakes, grow the story and ensure the audience is even more invested in the characters.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.