It’s strange how often conversations about “the greatest films of all time” and “the greatest sequels of all time” are kept separate. Usually this is because the latter parts of a film series will be considered just as good and part of the same over-arching story, where simply mentioning the first entry will imply an unspoken inclusion of the later chapters (ex. Toy Story, Lord Of The Rings). This is not always the case, as no one brings up Batman Begins (2005) when one praises The Dark Knight (2008) and The Godfather Part II (1974) is so good that it can be discussed separately from the first. Star Wars, due to the inability to distinguish it as separate from pop culture, simultaneously manages to fit this exclusion while transcending it. The previously mentioned examples, as well as other great sequels, are considered great films on their own despite being sequels; because they are such departures from what came before that they might as well be their own film sans franchise, along with the usual rule of sequels being inferior. The Empire Strikes Back (1980), retroactively titled “Episode V,” is a great film because and despite it is a sequel. It’s a sequel that uses visual storytelling so excellently, that is written so well, and develops its established universe in such a brilliant and imaginative way that it is by and far considered the best film of the franchise and one of the best films ever made by fans and film academia alike. It’s a film with quotes so memorable that volumes of philosophy books have been written analyzing their meaning, one of which being the most well-known twist of all time.
If you were first introduced to Star Wars through Empire, I could understand feeling left out of some details that aren’t explained through expository dialogue until later in the film. You wouldn’t know that the telekinetic power Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) uses to fight off the wampa is called “the Force,” or why there is the ghost of an old man called Ben (Alec Guinness) telling him to go to a “Jedi Master,” which is a thing. These seemingly important details do not ultimately hamper one’s experience of Empire and actually serve to world-build in a way that doesn’t slow down the pacing of the film. Luke pulling his lightsaber from the snow establishes the ever-present fantasy element in the Star Wars universe of the Force, something that Luke is learning about along with the audience. Ben Kenobi telling Luke to go to Dagobah and find Yoda, two things that we know as much about as Luke, incites a call to action for our protagonist that doubles as a mystery that further puts us in his shoes.
The entire film is filled with brilliant instances like this of using visuals to tell a story. It never condescends to its audience by re-explaining concepts or character relationships with terrible dialogue. The roguish Han Solo (Harrison Ford) flirting with a no-nonsense Leia (Carrie Fisher) in the icy rebel base tunnels gives you an idea of their dynamic and how they behave as characters, which makes their budding relationship over the course of the film that much more romantic and dramatic. They never realize their feelings for each other through awkward cheesy dialogue while being alone in romantic vistas (I’m looking at you, Attack Of The Clones). It speaks volumes to their performances when something as rudimentary as Leia helping to fix the Millennium Falcon while hiding from the Empire in an asteroid field can lead to a romantic moment with Han. Whatever the hell she’s doing to fix the ship doesn’t matter either, and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) interrupting the swell of John Williams’ romantic score during their kiss by saying that he’s isolated the reverse-power-flux-coupling doesn’t mean squat to me or anyone watching this movie. All I care about is seeing a standoffish Leia lower her defenses so she can smooch a handsome bad boy.
Their romance is certainly one you hope to see succeed because it is a glimmer of happiness in an otherwise dark story. The Empire is doubling down on defeating the rebellion after the destruction of their super weapon, the Death Star, by having Darth Vader lead the Imperial army from his super star destroyer. They easily defeat the small, ragtag rebel army with a mere five AT-AT walkers in an exhilarating battle during the first third of the film and they remain a looming threat for the rest of the film, proving long before Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) that having a chase last throughout the entire movie is a great way to create tension in your film. Well, technically it’s not so much “they” as much as it is exclusively Darth Vader. The evil boardroom of Empire brass from A New Hope is replaced with a slew of various military leaders, whose internal squabbling and ineffectiveness at capturing one measly ship leads to their body count rising at the hand of Vader’s iconic Force-choke. Vader is no longer the right hand SS general to a Grand Moff; he is in command and will punish any insolence getting in the way of fulfilling his vendetta against the two rebels who defeated him at the Death Star: Han Solo and the mysterious Force-sensitive boy. However, as we learn through our first encounter with the Emperor himself, there is more of a reason behind capturing Skywalker.
Darth Vader and the Emperor are determined to convert Luke to the dark side of the Force, and when Luke meets Yoda and begins to train, we learn how much of an actual possibility this is. I have been discussing Empire as an individual component in the franchise up until now, but Luke’s characterization in A New Hope is worth bringing up. We all remember his longing stare into the beautiful twin sunset on Tatooine, capturing in one moment his longing to leave his home world and his aspirations for a more fulfilling future. In his reveal as a Jedi Master, Yoda is quick to deny Luke Jedi training for this very reason. Mastering the Force allows for insight into premonitions of the future and visions of the past, and Yoda drops how he has been watching Luke since his days on Tatooine and disapproves of this mindset he has carried with him. Jedi are just straight up not adventurous by nature, and it’s important to let go of fears about the past and future so one’s mind can exist in the present in conjunction with the luminous Force. This all sounds like really obvious regurgitation of rhetoric, but much like how you can miss the meaning of a song by not paying attention to its lyrics you can do the same with nearly all of Yoda’s dialogue. There is a depth to his teachings that expounds much more on the nature of the Force and its capabilities, which is some of the most imaginative and interesting fantasy in fiction. Perhaps more importantly than this, it heightens the stakes of Luke turning evil.
Leading up to his training on Dagobah, we are given a very clear picture as to how headstrong and brutish Luke can be. He ignores his co-pilot during the Battle of Hoth and gets him killed and acts very aggressive and impatient towards Yoda. This is already a recipe for downfall, as proven by his vision of Darth Vader in the cave. When Luke sees visions of Han and Leia suffering on Cloud City, he fears for their safety and drops everything to save them as they did for him on Hoth, abandoning his promise to Yoda to finish his training. The Yoda at play here is not the sociopath that more or less created Vader in the prequels; in Empire he tells Luke to let go of his fear for their safety out of respect for what they’re fighting for. Yoda is no dummy and knows what’s at stake with the rebellion and Luke’s training in relation to it. Losing Luke to the dark side would be the ultimate failure and ensure defeat, even if “there is another.” Along with the fact that Luke had to be rescued by Han from the ice-storm on Hoth in the first act, he struggles to stack rocks and pick up an X-wing in the second act while Vader blocks laser blasts with his hand and crushes wind pipes with a mere thought. It makes for the most dramatic and suspenseful third act in the history of cinema.
Everything in every single scene in Empire has a set up and a pay off. Every element flows into the next wonderfully, and it ends up being an exciting film that still manages to be artistic and intelligent in very subtle ways and culminates in a memorable and tension-filled climactic clash between good and evil. It has everything for everybody and continues to be one of the best films ever made. It even has the distinction of being the most watchable of the special editions. Granted, the Emperor being replaced with a scary demon-faced Ian McDirmind spouting lousy dialogue and Luke screaming as he falls down the shaft in Cloud City are both terrible, but the shots of the wampa with blood dripping from its face lurking towards Luke actually heighten the tension of the scene a bit, and the establishing shots of Cloud City are beautiful. Even the supporting cast are all memorable, from the always cool Billy D. Williams as Lando, to Lobot and General Rieekan, and even Boba Fett, who I previously gave grief towards but will admit makes his presence known whenever he is on screen and earns his keep by outsmarting Han Solo.
If you’re strapped for time and can’t watch every single Star Wars film like us here at GoodBadTaste before The Last Jedi, you absolutely have to make a point to watch The Empire Strikes Back. Not only because The Last Jedi is going to inevitably lift a lot of its visuals and plot (with some variations of course), but because this is just an incredible movie that you can watch again and again and it will always be as fun, romantic, and terrifying as the first viewing. Episode V is the gold standard of cinema, and it’s the Star Wars film that George Lucas had the least creative involvement in, so, uh, take that as you will.