Heretical though my viewpoint might be among old-school fans of a galaxy far, far away, I don’t subscribe to the belief that The Empire Strikes Back is a better film than Star Wars (1977)—even though, by most normal criteria, the second film in the Skywalker saga is superior. Yes, the acting is better, the dialogue is crisper, the narrative is deeper, and the storytelling is slicker. Even the special effects are more impressive the second time around. Still, two considerations always persuade me to keep the first picture atop the pantheon: 1) Empire doesn’t have an ending, because the resolution of the film’s plot doesn’t occur until the first 20 minutes of 1983’s Return of the Jedi; 2) By definition as a sequel, Empire cannot match the thrilling freshness of Star Wars. Ideas are only new once—even ideas like Star Wars, which was cobbled together from myriad preexisting influences.
Having said all that, Empire is such an exciting, fast, intoxicating, romantic, and surprising ride that it’s unquestionably among the few sequels to match its predecessor in quality. One need only look at the precipitous drop from Empire to Jedi in order to understand how difficult it is to keep a good thing going.
In any event, reciting Empire’s plot serves very little purpose, partially because the movie is familiar to most viewers and partially because the storyline will sound impenetrable and/or silly to anyone who hasn’t yet hitched their first ride in the Millennium Falcon. (See, we’ve lost the Star Wars virgins already.) Nonetheless, here are the basics. After destroying the Death Star, rebel forces decamp to the snow-covered planet Hoth, but the Empire’s main enforcer, Darth Vader, leads a successful siege. Escaping separately from the fight are wannabe Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker, who heads to the planet Dagobah for training with Jedi Master Yoda, and the duo of mercenary Han Solo and rebel leader Princess Leia. While Luke channels his abandonment issues into supernatural Jedi skills, Han and Leia wrestle with their burgeoning attraction—even as Vader conspires to capture the heroes.
Fantastical sights and sounds abound. The floating Cloud City overseen by suave Lando Calrissian. The epic lightsaber duel that concludes with perhaps the greatest single plot twist in sci-fi history. And so much more. Although series creator George Lucas stepped away from the director’s chair for Empire, enlisting his onetime USC teacher Irvin Kershner, Lucas’ fingerprints are visible on every frame. Better still, cowriter Lawrence Kasdan (beginning a hot streak of Lucas collaborations) helps introduce grown-up emotions into the Star Wars universe. The principal cast of the so-called “original trilogy” reaches its zenith here, with Mark Hamill transforming Skywalker from a hayseed into a haunted hero, Carrie Fisher elevating Leia into a full-on field commander (albeit with a soft spot for the men in her life), Harrison Ford perfecting his charming-rogue take on Han, and new arrival Frank Oz contributing wonderful puppetry and voice work as Yoda.
Nearly everything in Empire is so terrific, in fact, that a tumble into mediocrity was probably inevitable by the time Jedi came around. Thus, for fans who were kids when the first Star Wars was released (myself included), Empire represents the last moment when we believed Lucas could do no wrong—a galaxy of possibilities, if you will. To say nothing of outer-space badass Boba Fett. (Now we’ve really lost the Star Wars virgins.)
The Empire Strikes Back: OUTTA SIGHT