Well, after watching the original version of 1977’s Star Wars (later subtitled A New Hope), the next logical step would be to look over the sequel. 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back brought the cast of the first film back for more ADVENTURE!, and was very clearly on its way to being a series, adding “Episode V” to the opening Wall of Text and ending on one hell of a cliffhanger. The pieces were set, the budget was bigger and a new director, Irvin Kershner was at the helm of Lucas’ baby. Blowing up the DEATH STAR (again, going with how the title crawl spelled it) set a big precedent for this movie to live up to.
The Empire is pissed about its defeat in the first movie, and proceeds to kick down the rebels’ snow fort and chase them into space, while Luke goes walkabout and everybody on the Millennium Falcon has a really bad day. And THEN shit gets real. It may not sound like much when put that way, but this movie definitely plays on the ramifications of the first film. Darth Vader survived the explosion of the Death Star, and he is pissed. While it may not “go big” in the same way that the first one did, it ratchets up the tension by throwing the main characters into serious life threatening situations from the start and also throws some interesting twists into the works.
Luke Skywalker: The Hero continues his journey. He’s a little more experienced now, but a near death experience at the beginning of the movie causes him to seek out training for his jedi abilities. Luke learns a lot in this film, and not all of the revelations are welcome.
Han Solo: By this film, he & Luke are bro’s, and he’s becoming a lot more respectable in the eyes of the rebellion. Unfortunately, he’s still got that bounty hanging over his head and means to pay it off somehow. Han’s arc continues his discover that there’s something worth fighting for beyond self preservation, except in this case its someone worth fighting for.
Princess Leia: Our plucky heroine continues to be a fiery presence within the rebellion. This time around she’s with Han for most of the movie, and the sparks fly between them. Then she gets captured again (though to be fair, so does Han, Chewie & Threepio)
R2-D2: Artoo ends up with Luke on his spirit journey, side kicking for the Jedi-to-be, but unable to sample the peyote himself.
C-3PO: Threepio ends up separated from Artoo, becoming someone for Han to yell at when things go wrong. He’s very much comic relief for the crew of the Falcon, but then again he also gets shot, so he gets a little pathos too.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Still dead, but still on-screen. Ben goes into full-on mentor mode when Luke gets to Dagobah, since he’s incorporeal now.
Lando Calrissian: Lando’s awesome. A smooth talking administrator with ties to Han’s past, Lando gets his own character arc where he finds out he’s gotten more than he’s bargained for (or rather, less).
Yoda: The new mentor figure for Luke, and one of the best realized puppets on film. Yoda’s first impression is of an insane little swamp dwelling alien that doesn’t take no to Luke telling him to go away, then he reveals himself as a Jedi master (like it’s a spoiler anymore). Voiced and operated by Frank Oz, Yoda’s an old hermit who’s taught centuries of Jedi trainees and gives the impression of a wise old samurai, imparting his wisdom, is about as far away from Kermit & Co. as you can get.
Darth Vader: This film’s badass, without question. Vader continues his favorite hobby of chocking people out, welshing on deals and generally doing whatever the hell he wants. Tarkin’s dead and we only see the Emperor in a holographic teleconference, so this film is Vader’s playground. Aside from that, we also get hints at his true nature, only hinted at in the first movie. A quick glance into his evil little snow globe shows that he has been seriously messed up at some point in the past. Of course, not like it’s a big surprise anymore, but he also drops the biggest bombshell in the movie on Luke.
The success of the first movie combined with three years of technological improvements resulted in just as many if not more effects. There’s a lot more stop motion for creatures like Tauntauns, and the Battle of Hoth has a lot more visceral visual energy than the Battle of Yavin (the ships move faster). Yoda is a masterwork, and the planets (Hoth, Dagobah and Bespin) are all plausible looking and distinctive. In terms of directing, I will be very honest and say that I think that this movie is better than Star Wars. I think its better framed, there’s a much more dynamic use of color and lighting by the final act on Cloud City, and in general is a lot tighter in jumping from scene to scene. Irvin Kershner really deserves a lot more credit than he seems to get.
Decidedly improved over the last film. As the “darker, second act” the movie ends up in a really dark place that leaves you wanting for a resolution. However, despite that whole darker image, its also a much funnier movie, probably because for the audience, this movie has heaps of Schadenfreude. The dialogue is snappier, the characters feel more comfortable, and putting C-3PO with Han Solo is pretty much guaranteed comedy. It wasn’t just Lucas working on the script this time, and it paid off. Also, Empire features some nifty new twists on things. For one, the usually accepted policy of Hero gets the Princess gets turned aside because Leia and Han turn into an item (the other reason why it wouldn’t work gets revealed later). Then there’s the paternal reveal which really threw audiences for a loop back then. Darth Vader is what!? Whether everything was plotted out beforehand for the trilogy or not doesn’t matter. This movie is better written than the first because the story starts to bob and weave around the audience in a good way.
Still top notch. Sound effects are still top shelf and the score by John Williams takes things up a bit by introducing the Imperial March. Again, without either of those elements, the immersion would be incomplete.
As a kid, Empire was my least favorite of the trilogy, maybe because of the downer ending. As a pretentious adult, I have to admit that The Empire Strikes Back is a much finer crafted film than Star Wars. Everything from the acting to the pacing to the framing feels tighter. Obviously, if you’ve watched the first film, you should see this one, and once again, it’s a slice of cinema history to enjoy the theatrical original cut.