In our contemporary review of Star Wars, a paradigm was established in which The Empire Strikes Back, also known as Star Wars: Episode V, could only be viewed as it relates to its historical predecessors. If it is readily accepted that Star Wars emerged as an elaborate world-building exercise replete with groundbreaking special effects and an entertaining central conceit, The Empire Strikes Back could not be a success if it merely copied its antecedent; the makers would have to find some way to elevate the material to another level.
In short, they did.
Our adventure opens with the Rebellion in full swing, our protagonists hiding out on an ice world as they await the Galactic Empire’s next move following the destruction of the Death Star. A violent bender sends Luke Skywalker on a quest to advance his Jedi training, giving Han Solo and Princess Leia some getting-to-know-you time. However, Darth Vader is determined to find Luke, and his ever-tightening grasp on the galaxy threatens to defile anyone who stands in his way, including his friends.
Is this an adequate advancement? Sure. But what has changed?
For starters, George Lucas relinquished his role as director for The Empire Strikes Back, a move scarcely noticed by the average filmgoer that nevertheless registered seismic tremors in the film, the series, and cinematic history. Relieved of his directing duties, Lucas eliminated the biggest problem in Star Wars: bad acting. Irvin Kershner’s name may not set anyone’s hair on fire, but the man had directed a dozen character-driven dramas and understood his performers. With the world-building out of the way, Lucas could focus on constructing more story and building more special effects without the nuisance of giving screen direction.
Next, Lucas surrendered his ego enough to hire additional writers. Sci-fi scribe Leigh Brackett’s contributions to The Empire Strikes Back are debated, but Lawrence Kasdan would later prove to be a purveyor of character-driven stories, like The Big Chill and Silverado, that nevertheless became crowd pleasers. His work so improved the film, it made him an inevitable choice when J.J. Abrams sought to re-write The Force Awakens. Thus, with Kasdan to flesh out the characters and Kershner to realize them, the archetypes introduced in the original would benefit enormously. The result is Star Wars on the next level.
The romantic entanglements only teased in the original are given natural, complex progressions. Solo’s gambling debts catch up to him. Old friends are corrupted by galactic revolutions. Luke’s path to enlightenment takes him dangerously close to the dark side, culminating in the tensest, rawest, most emotionally fraught duel in the entire series, or perhaps even cinema history. The legendary revelation gleaned by its conclusion is so ingeniously conceived that it is not only a natural progression for the saga, it is inevitable. It doesn’t matter that Lucas didn’t plan for Darth Vader to be Luke Skywalker’s father when he made Star Wars; the thematic and practical elements were there, it was merely his prerogative to exploit them.
In spite of all the swashbuckling antics, The Empire Strikes Back is a coup as a cinematic blockbuster because each character must pay for their hubris; Han believes that his simple tricks and nonsense will help him evade a lethal bounty, Leia seems assured that her status as a champion of the rebellion immunizes her emotional stake, Lando surrenders essential liberty to purchase a little safety, and Luke’s priming from Obi-Wan and Yoda is nevertheless shown to be empty bravado when his clever dodges fall short of Vader’s wisdom. Not only do these characters pay, they do so dearly, but in spite of this big step back, they each learn from their mistakes and begin their path to redemption; thus the ending stings, but leaves you aching for more.
This is perhaps the most important consideration of The Empire Strikes Back: its wake leaves directions for a path forward. There can be no doubt that The Empire Strikes Back doubles up on the action, thrills, excitement, romance, humor, and mythos of Star Wars, but it also forges a complete story that nevertheless remains unfinished. When every single facet of an opening entry to a series is improved upon by its successor, it creates an impossible scenario in the expectations for its third derivation.
While this is certainly true of Star Wars, it fails to diminish the accomplishments of what may be the greatest sequel of all time: The Empire Strikes Back is not merely a terrific second chapter, it successfully points to an untold future rich with possibilities that its downtrodden protagonists may struggle to grasp, a perspective undoubtedly shared by an audience who prays for such catharsis each and every day. What better entertainment could there possibly be?