If you were looking for the perfect example of how to construct a sequel, you couldn't do better than 'The Empire Strikes Back'. It isn't an exaggeration that the film had everything against it, for no other reason than it was following one of the most instantly beloved and successful films of all time, and yet the degree to which it matches - and in many cases, betters - its predecessor still feels revelatory. Perhaps its greatest achievement is that 'Empire' is that rare kind of sequel, like 'The Godfather Part II' or 'Toy Story 2' - a perfect continuation and an incredible film in its own right.
I didn't discover the 'Star Wars' films until I was nine years old, and when I did, I did so in completely the wrong order. My mum took me to the video store in our small country town, and they had all three of the original films on VHS in their original form (the Special Editions were only a year or so away). What I should have done was started with the battered old copy of 'Star Wars'. Instead, I picked the much newer copy of 'The Empire Strikes Back', took it home and watched it without any context as to who Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Darth Vader or Obi-Wan Kenobi were. I had inadvertently dropped myself right in the middle of the story, just because I liked the cover of this one better.
It's a testament to just how incredible a film 'Empire' is that, despite some slight confusion, I was instantly hooked. The narrative was arresting, the action was swift and beautifully executed, and the scope of the film was everything we now associate with 'Star Wars' but something I hadn't seen before at the time - sweeping, classical and romantic. Where the film truly excels though - and what I think really captured my imagination at the time - are its characters. 'Star Wars', in all its fairytale/mythological glory, is essentially a story populated by archetypes, recognisable figures from the traditional hero's journey narrative, albeit with some witty and inspired variations. 'Empire' is where they become characters, with hopes and dreams, fears, paranoias, anxieties, flaws and, most importantly, histories. If the first film begins the saga as a fairy tale, 'Empire' elevates it to an opera.
'Empire' is often referred to as the darkest of the 'Star Wars' films, but I think what we're referring to is its thematic richness and weight. There's a heaviness to the film, a weariness. We become aware of it as part of a much larger story, extending much further back than Luke looking at those twin suns on Tattoine, a story that neither we nor the characters know but that they and we are starting to become aware of. The action set pieces are even more breathtaking than 'Star Wars', the tone and humour even more refined, and the film bounds with the confidence of storytellers now in control of their story. Spectacle and narrative become secondary to the characters, driving it rather than serving it, and the advantage of being a film without either a beginning or an end allows for a moment of consolidation and reflection. 'Empire' has a much grander visual scale and even more jaw-dropping set pieces than 'Star Wars', but it balances that by being far more intimate, maybe the most intimate Star Wars has ever been. Its best scenes are characters in conversations, either in small spaces unable to escape one another, or dwarfed against staggering backdrops. These become the true moments of spectacle, the moments that define the film 'Empire' is, and I would argue are the reason many consider it the finest of the series.
For producer George Lucas, screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan and director Irwin Kirshner, there was no interest in repeating the same tricks as in 1977. What 'Star Wars' offered is the setup for a grand story of legacy, heroism and sacrifice, where the battle between the light and the dark doesn't happen in space ships against the stars but within the human soul - to stay or flee, to fight or surrender, to live or die. In 'Empire', those choices are no longer clear. When Luke (Mark Hamill) arrives on Dagobah, he expects clarity and direction, but what Yoda (Frank Oz) offers is more valuable; questions around the consequences of actions, our reasoning, how our past can dictate our future, how emotion can lead to understanding or destruction. Following your heart can sometimes lead you to the right choice, but as the Bible says, the heart is also deceitful above all things, in that it can cloud our judgement and be manipulated. Understanding the difference becomes imperative to the drama of 'Empire', and where in 'Star Wars' the threat was easy to spot with fascist uniforms and floating battle stations, here the threat can be our own selves. Will the romance between Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han (Harrison Ford) cloud their judgement, or be what finally leads them towards a greater understanding of themselves? Will Luke's black and white belief in good and evil lead to his victory or the destruction of all? And what will win in Darth Vader at the moment of truth, his ambition or the last shreds of his humanity?
'Empire' is a film where you feel that anything can happen, where life and death are actively at play, where the wrong action could lead to grave consequences.
The grand super-narrative of the Star Wars saga is legacy, the communion of the past with the present to create the future, and whether who we are is defined by our history or by our own choices. It's in 'Empire' where those themes step to the foreground, culminating in the legendary moment where Luke's parentage is revealed. It's a monumental twist, one of the best in Western storytelling, but the true overwhelming horror of it is how much it becomes the key to unlocking the great conflict at the heart of the story - how much it makes absolute sense. We met Luke as a plucky young farmboy and have watched him grow into a hero, but the revelation throws into chaos his whole sense of self. How can he be the saviour when his parentage is so flawed? Is that same darkness that now rips the galaxy apart also in him? The genius of the film is that it is so carefully woven into the filmmaking that the revelation from Darth Vader is as much an inevitability as it is a shock. There is self-doubt in Luke whether he is capable of the balance he so desperately needs to be a warrior, to rid himself of the weight of his part. The problem is, it is a past he knows nothing about, a darkness within him he doesn't have a name for, and the risk that comes with naming it and facing it is whether he can conquer it before it conquers him. The film has no interest in resolving this conflict, but in giving it the time and space to properly develop.
The stakes are so much higher, but that has little to do with larger Star Destroyers. Suddenly the matters of life and death are personal, and the actions of each character have direct effect on the others. The film could have simply focused on its spectacle, but without characters we can believe in or root for or be terrified of, the spectacle becomes empty. There's a palpable sense of danger, perhaps more so than any other film in the saga, because we now care so much more deeply for these characters. We've seen Luke crumble, seen Han terrified, seen Leia drop her defences and the armour with which she protects herself and allow herself to be vulnerable. They are no longer archetypes or fairytale characters but human, relatable, us. 'Empire' is a film where you feel that anything can happen, where life and death are actively at play, where the wrong action could lead to grave consequences. Every narrative decision feels correct and earned, but that doesn't make them feel any less bold. And the delicious result, the final masterful hand it plays in its final moments, is to push all its characters to the edge and leave them there, hanging listless in the unknown. Even Darth Vader, the inhuman villain of the series, has let slip a moment of vulnerable humanity, an ability to choose, a decision driven by a deep emotion rather than cold calculation. We have no idea where this can possibly go next, and while this would have been frustrating in a lesser film, here it feels symphonic, satisfying and one hundred per cent earned.
Two months ago, I rewatched all of the films in the 'Star Wars' saga again chronologically. I've now seen them all many times, know their every beat and every motif. For the rest of them, their comfort is in their familiarity. What still takes my breath away with 'The Empire Strikes Back' is its persistent ability to surprise. You still feel every shock and twist, hear the crackling electricity, tingle at its moments of operatic bravura. It still feels dangerous, like the rules are being rewritten before our very eyes, dazzling us with its imagination and daring. Where 'Star Wars' takes us to the skies, flew us deep back into time and myth, 'Empire' reminds us of what lies at the very heart of the 'Star Wars' saga and brings us back to the most thrilling of all the theatres of storytelling - ourselves.