Gaining any kind of distance on George Lucas’ sprawling Star Wars film universe is no easy task; the series kicked off in 1977 and broke ground in the arena of pop genre movies and pretty much defined the modern blockbuster, and the plots and quotes are so deeply carved into the collective subconscious of moviegoers that it’s easy to forget there was a time when kids didn’t know what a Jedi was. (If in the course of this retrospective I don’t enumerate certain plot points well enough or find myself skating over others, I can only ask forgiveness for being so caught up in a genuinely beautiful film that I forgot to heed my own warning.) And though that kind of ubiquity is in many ways a testament to the films’ sticking power, it also makes it easier to overlook just what really happens in the films, and how. The absolute best of the lot is 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the original trilogy, and as is often the case with the works of art that matter most, its existence and effect are matters of layered dichotomies. It’s not just its place in pop culture history, its achievements within its genre, its technical breakthroughs, or its stylistic marvels. It’s one of those handful of films that managed to put the lightning back in the bottle and become something greater than its first chapter could possibly have hinted at or imagined. Namely: It’s a sequel that bests its forerunner yet wouldn’t be possible without it, and it’s a visual revelation that nevertheless places a premium on character and story.
The best sequels are the ones that deepen the stories set forth by their predecessors, taking an already powerful tale and giving it newfound weight. In fact, the whole reason sequels are generally derided in the first place is not (just) a reaction to what’s usually a bald-faced attempt to cash in on a built-in market by churning out an ancillary story; it’s because deep down we know that the new film will in all likelihood not live up to the original, and that those characters and moments that became part of our cinematic history will have to suffer through something almost apocryphal in the way it dares the viewer to forget it and focus only on the older story. That’s why films that come to be universally regarded as good sequels — The Godfather: Part II being right up there, for instance — are so adored. They managed to stumble once again upon the glory of their own origins while taking the story to new heights; they did the impossible.
Everything about The Empire Strikes Back feeds into those ideas of challenge and loss, and the sense that nothing in life will ever turn out quite like you’d hoped. From the very first frame, it strives to recreate the authenticity of the first film while simultaneously shattering any expectations that things will be the same. After delivering a seemingly fatal blow to the evil Galactic Empire at the end of the previous movie, the ragged band of rebels have fled to the frozen ice planet Hoth, whose wintry climate isn’t just a reversal from the desert location that opened the previous film but also an intentional tonal shift into something cold, blistering, and uncompromising. The main characters are all still around — Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the hotshot pilot destined to lead the Rebellion; Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the arrogant smuggler turned mercenary; and Leia (Carrie Fisher), a princess whose home world was destroyed — but there’s a sense of disconnection between them and the world around them. It’s not that the characters aren’t as tightly bonded as before; it’s that they’ve had to move on from the afterglow of an apparent victory and once more take up arms against a swelling enemy. There’s an undertone of defeat to the Rebels’ decision to keep fighting, and that sense of weariness adds fantastic depth and resonance to the story, turning the characters into actual people who can tire, suffer, and be wounded.
The film’s first major action set piece is a battle on the ground of the ice planet between the Rebels, who are fighting even as they evacuate with plans to meet up at an established rendezvous point, and the oncoming Imperial forces, who have bolstered their army since the last go-round. The sequence is an impressive one considering the budget and technological restraints on genre filmmakers in the late 1970s, tightly edited by Paul Hirsch (with uncredited assists from George Lucas and then-wife Marcia) and propelled by John Williams’ influential symphonic score. But it’s also the film’s opportunity to begin to show the influence of screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. Brackett, a career sci-fi author, also wrote the scripts for a number of Howard Hawks’ Westerns, including Rio Bravo and El Dorado, and the script she turned into Lucas is a genuine space opera that mixes the sensibilities of both genres. After her death in March 1978, Lucas enlisted Kasdan to revise and finish the script. Kasdan would go on to write, among others, Raiders of the Lost Ark from a story by Lucas, but The Empire Strikes Back was his first screenplay, and it already showed the energy, buoyancy, and commitment to character that would define his best work. When Kasdan did Silverado a few years later, it was almost like he’d circled back to the story Brackett had begun.
The point is that the Hoth sequences that open the film aren’t just skillfully written or paced but that they demonstrate a classic economy of scenes and locations rarely seen in modern mainstream films. The first act of the film plays out on Hoth over the course of just a couple of days before Han and Leia take off in his ship, the Milennium Falcon, to evade the pursuing Empire while Luke travels to the planet Dagobah to be trained as a Jedi by an old master named Yoda. The lengthier second act cuts between these two settings — Luke on Dagobah, Han and Leia aboard the Falcon — before reuniting the storylines when Han and Leia eventually journey to the planet Bespin. Luke also travels there when he feels his friends are in danger, and it’s on Bespin that the film ends, with the capture and imprisonment of Han Solo and a gloomy, harrowing duel between Luke and Darth Vader, the dark lord second only to the Emperor. That’s it. Four principal locations: Hoth, Dagobah, the respective decks of the Falcon and enemy ships, and Bespin. The screenwriters have crafted a legitimate Western chase movie and set it in the stars, and the simplicity of the narration allows for a more direct and emotionally powerful film than one that shuttled between dozens of seemingly impressive planets or locations. It lets the story come shining through.
Those scenes with Luke and Yoda — a puppet brought to convincing life by technician Frank Oz — underscore the theme of change that dominates the film and that would eventually be subdued by 1983’s Return of the Jedi, which traded Luke’s introspective complexity for a flatly drawn savior. The power of The Empire Strikes Back is that it raises the stakes for Luke (and the others) by showing him just how far he has to go to begin being able to fight against the enemy that will never stop hunting him. What’s more, it takes a character who was narratively worshipped in the first film and puts him in stark isolation away from his friends, forcing him to grow up on his own as he struggles to control the Force, the unseen energy that binds all living things. Yoda warns that this is a “dangerous” time for Luke because it’s when he’ll be most tempted by the dark side of the Force, and the story forces Luke to deal with the choice between the quick and the good. Perhaps the best character moment for Luke is when he discerns that Han and Leia are in danger and worries with whether he can intervene in time to save them. Yoda counsels him: “If you leave now, help them you could. But you would destroy all for which they have fought and suffered.” This is the true meaning of tragedy: When attaining what you most desire leads to its very destruction.
Additionally, creator George Lucas’ world, so pristine in the 1977 film, has become grimy and lived-in for the second installment. Part of that can be attributed to a tonal shift in science-fiction spearheaded by Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979, but it’s largely the work of gifted cinematographer Peter Suschitzky under the direction of Irvin Kershner. The film is gorgeously lit and beautifully shot, a triumphant and genuine work of art whose composition shatters that of every other film in Lucas’ franchise. Suschitzky is probably best known for his collaborations with director David Cronenberg, who started using the d.p. on 1988’s Dead Ringers and has relied on him since. Suschitsky’s camera work and staging are immaculate, using oblique angles and lovingly adorning every inch of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio with bold dashes of light and shadow. The original Star Wars, shot by Gilbert Taylor, had a much flatter look that relied too much on bright, cheap lights, and though part of that can be chalked up to the fact that Lucas was working on a shoestring budget with the first film, it still gives the first chapter the feeling of something ultimately amateurish, no matter how polished the final product. But Suschitsky and Kershner’s work was infinitely more visually complex, utilizing depth of field in a way that radically matured the fictional universe and made it more cinematically compelling and visually stimulating. The bold lighting choices, with characters often lit sparsely from beneath, also highlighted the emotional upheaval and change present in the story, serving as subtle cues that things will quite literally be turned upside-down for the characters. Suschitzky loads the film with amazing compositions:
Suschitsky relies heavily on blues and whites to emphasize the coolness (temperature-wise) of space and its environs, and he turns the main deck of the Falcon from a basic set to a living, breathing thing, pulsing with energy and heat. But it’s his compositions in the film’s third-act confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, and the sad fate of Han Solo, that truly set the film apart from the rest of the series. He mixes blues and oranges to dazzling effect, tossing in elegant strokes of green and white to create something altogether breathtaking:
That epic confrontation between Luke and Vader contains no music until the very end, focusing solely on the intensity of the sequence and the dazzling sound design. The silence of some of those moments, and the abject failure of Luke’s attempt to defeat Vader, drive home the film’s lesson: Sometimes you have to fight your battles alone, and sometimes you will lose. Big. However, the absence of music in certain scenes also serves as a reminder of just how good composer John Williams’ score is for the entire film. This is the entry in the Star Wars series where Williams introduced the Imperial March, the piece of music perhaps most easily identifiable from and closely linked to the films outside the opening fanfare. The march is a stirring and iconic theme, and it’s no coincidence that it’s the calling card for the bad guys. However, Williams’ real stunner is the suite “Han Solo and the Princess,” which is woven throughout the movie as Han and Leia spend more time together and eventually realize they’re in love. It’s put to heartbreaking use at one of the darkest moments of the film, when Han and the rest are captured by Vader’s forces and Han is frozen in a stasis-inducing chemical before being turned over to a bounty hunter. He kisses her as he’s pulled away, the music swelling beneath them in a moment of bliss and loss. The suite is romantic and lush but never quite resolves, always landing somewhere minor or discordant; like the film itself, it’s propulsive but dark, resonant but unresting.
It’s difficult — almost impossible — to imagine modern mainstream film without the influence of Lucas’ original Star Wars, but it’s The Empire Strikes Back that’s really the keeper. Its existence is impossible without the first film, but it’s infinitely superior to its predecessor in every way: The story is more willing to take emotional and physical risks with the characters, and to wonder what it means to keep fighting when defeat is all but guaranteed. It’s a solid sci-fi action movie, a tale of doomed romance, and a coming-of-age story all in one. It’s a neo noir that bravely takes its narrative into dark and foreboding territory unmatched by its bookends and not even remotely copied by Lucas’ prequel trilogy two decades later, which boasted more special effects than anyone could have dreamed of in 1980 but never recaptured the fidelity of character and genuine heart of the earlier stories. The Empire Strikes Back is a dark tale of bruised heroes, a genre story of defiance in the face of death and of the bittersweet union of love and death. It’s a stunning sequel because it manages to recreate the splendor of its source, but it’s a magnificent movie because of what it achieves all on its own.