Retro Review: “The Empire Strikes Back”

Empire Strikes Back poster

After A New Hope became the most successful film of all time, it was inevitable that a sequel would be developed; the question remained as to how such a sequel would be executed. The safe option would be to reproduce the first film with a slightly different story, but that won’t necessarily guarantee franchise longevity. Producing a wholly original story, on the other hand…

Since the events in the last Star Wars film, the Rebels have fled to the ice planet of Hoth, hoping to have escaped the wrath of the Galactic Empire. On a routine patrol not far from base, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is knocked unconscious by an indigenous creature and taken to its cave. In said cave, Skywalker uses his telekinetic powers – which before now, he had no knowledge of – to escape, only to collapse in the snowstorm outside. In his deteriorating condition, he sees visions of his mentor Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) speaking of a Jedi Master named Yoda.

Luke is shortly after located by his friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who arrives to find Luke suffering from severe hypothermia. Han and Luke return to base, where Luke is nursed back to full health and all seems well with the rebellion. That is until Imperial forces, led by Darth Vader (David Prowse; voice of James Earl Jones), begin their assault on the rebel base. The suddenness and intensity of the attack takes the rebels by surprise, splitting the characters into two groups – Han with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) in his spaceship, the Millennium Falcon; and Luke with his droid Artoo (Kenny Baker) in an X-wing aircraft.

Having been separated from his friends, Luke flies to the Dagobah system, there looking to meet with the Yoda spoken of in his vision. Upon arrival, Yoda is revealed to be a short, green creature who speaks in strangely-structured sentences. Meanwhile, the Millennium Falcon is being chased by Vader’s forces through the far reaches of space. Solo attempts to outrun his pursuers, but with the hyperdrive function broken, he doesn’t have much luck. To eradicate this problem, Solo suggests the crew take a detour to Cloud City, where the ship can safely dock for repairs.

Empire Strikes Back - Yoda
Yoda, as he appears in The Empire Strikes Back

Working on the original Star Wars took its toll on the mental health of director George Lucas – cast and crew noted how exhausted he looked, even in production. For The Empire Strikes Back, he limited himself to writing the plot outline, leaving the screenplay to Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, and direction to Irvin Kershner. Thankfully, even though he has less involvement in this project, that Lucas magic – that same feeling of child-like glee – is still present throughout. It’s there when the Snowspeeders destroy and Imperial Walker, when the Millennium Falcon navigates an asteroid field, and during the climactic lightsaber battle with Darth Vader.

Speaking of whom, Darth Vader has a far more active role in The Empire Strikes Back than he did in his original outing. His character has been developed to reflect a more complex personality – cold and menacing, but also vulnerable. As well as that, there are some new face to interact with the characters of old. One already mentioned is Yoda, voiced and puppeteered by Muppet Show alum Frank Oz; another is Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the handsome, suave leader of Cloud City.

Many Star Wars fans regard Empire as the best film in the saga, with good reason – it has better action sequences than A New Hope and superior special effects. But it does have flaws that weren’t at all present in the last film. The romantic relationship between Han and Leia, which consists mostly of bickering and denial that one is attracted to the other, is annoying rather than charming, and the pacing of the film is just that little bit too fast. That said, neither flaw is enough to spoil the experience.

Today, The Empire Strikes Back is the film all sequels draw inspiration from, and so it should be. It forwent retelling the same story to further develop our heroes and move the Star Wars franchise forward in a bold, original way. Most remarkable of all is how, despite lacking the stewardship of George Lucas, the movie feels like it belongs in the Star Wars universe, even with the changes that have been made – it doesn’t feel disconnected from the series, as is often the case with movie sequels.

Retaining the best elements of the series yet unique enough to be different, The Empire Strikes Back is a near-perfect follow-up to a perfect blockbuster. Its action scenes are entertaining, its antagonist is intimidating, and its characters remain as endearing as they were the first time around.

4-5-stars

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