After a rebel base on Hoth is attacked by the Empire and must be evacuated, Luke (Mark Hamill) travels to Dagobah to seek Jedi training from an old friend of Ben’s. Meanwhile, Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) struggle with their feelings for each other as they evade the capture of the Empire and a bounty hunter, who is after the prize on Han’s head.
Right from the beginning it’s fantastic, dropping you right into the action, with the scenes on Hoth action packed, full of humour and tension, but never skimping on the character development. Because throughout all the action, Empire is a character-driven story, with our characters splitting up for the first time.
Luke’s journey in Dagobah is beautiful; the foggy swamps and lush greenery reinforce the spiritual power of the Force, and as Luke struggles with the idea of the Dark Side for the first time and learns more about his father and Darth Vader, we see a more battle-worn Luke, less naive and more worldly than the Luke of A New Hope. And then, of course, there’s his master Yoda; chaotic good in pint-sized form, the series’ arguably most iconic character makes his unforgettable debut here, teaching Luke to question the nature of good and evil in his own, grammar-defying way.
Han and Leia’s trip to Cloud City may not be quite so iconic, but their romance is, and Fisher and Ford’s chemistry (likely bolstered by their secret affair that Fisher recently went public with) is sweet and intense, particularly in light of the dramatic cliffhanger that the film ends on. The Empire Strikes Back is by far the most dramatic of the original films, with Han’s suave, double-crossing frenemy in the form of the brilliant Billy Dee Williams, the in-depth discussion of what it means to be good, and the biggest reveal in the history of cinema: “No, I am your father.” This tense, climactic scene is the pivotal moment of the entire franchise, the one that changed the future of storytelling, and even today it carries this weight with an unassuming grace: the most important reaction is Luke’s, in the moment.
But for all the drama, the film never loses its sense of action and fun; scenes aren’t bogged down by exposition, but are lifted up by Han’s quips, Leia’s insults and C3PO’s manic depressive one-liners. The starship chases are spectacular, as is Luke’s lightsaber fight with Darth Vader, and Han even manages to look cool as he’s about to be frozen in carbonite, scared yet effortless.
Truth is, you could try and criticise the Empire Strikes Back all you want, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great film. It mastered the great sequel conundrum that plagues Hollywood blockbusters today: it was bigger, and better, and still manages to have an intimate feel to it, focusing on the character drama, and not just setting characters up for situations. Of course, great movies are still being made today, but when it comes to big blockbusters, they don’t make them like they used to.
Photos taken from IMDB.com: