Deepening and expanding the lore of any fantasy story requires commitment. Sometimes these choices to change the lore can destroy a fanbase. Other times, they can completely upend the perception of that series. For Star Wars, expectations were extremely high as it entered its second chapter. Empire Strikes Back faced the challenge of living up to a phenomenon unlike any other.
The Empire Strikes Back picks up the story of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his friends as they fight for survival on the ice planet Hoth. After they narrowly escape ice monsters and Darth Vader, the group separates. Luke goes to Dagobah to find a Jedi Master by the name of Yoda (Frank Oz). Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) seek shelter as they outrun the Empire. To escape, Han brings the group to a former rival, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).
No film in Star Wars cares as much about exploring its characters as The Empire Strikes Back. The film strips action set pieces in favor of giving its talent showcase moments. Embracing the humor of the story and the grandiosity of its fantastical elements, The Empire Strikes Back is at its best in the personal moments. Much of this credit goes to Irvin Kirshner, Leigh Brackett, and Lawrence Kasden. While George Lucas remained involved in shaping the narrative and writing a second draft, much of the film was present in Brackett’s draft. She passed away during the writing stage and could never revise her original ideas. Using her script as a springboard, Lucas took a pass at the script, adding Luke’s parentage reveal. Kasden and Kirshner added their own input, opting for darker and more serious textures.
Kirshner’s direction gives the film an extra flare that Star Wars did not have. With the blueprint laid out and Lucas having laid a foundation, Kirshner got to make things bigger, both physically and in terms of the ideas at play. The addition of Yoda truly elevates the mythology of the Jedi. He confirms many of the ideas upon which the franchise was born. Anyone can change their world around them, even if the appearances are deceiving. Taking those ideas to heart, Kirshner also pushed the technical feats possible. The sound, cinematography, and visual effects are even better this time out. He’s able to create some of the most striking images of the franchise, elevating already great material to new and unknown territory.
The biggest boost of the film goes to Ford and Fisher. The two young stars display absolutely electric chemistry. In every glance, every line, you feel the tension between them. The resulting storyline creates one of the best moments of any cinematic romance. Fisher gets many of the best moments laid at her feet, but she, unfortunately, takes a backseat in the second half of the film. Meanwhile, Ford’s at his best in this film. He gives the performance his full effort, and even though it was clear he would be helming his own franchise soon (Raiders of the Lost Ark would release the next year), he plays Solo as if his career is on the line. If this had been the final performance of the character, it would still be an all-time great character. His ability to squeeze the potential out of every second of screentime makes him an icon.
Hamill cooks with fire as Luke. His performance in Empire often gets underrated, especially because he’s acting against a puppet and a man in a costume. Oz slays as Yoda, who becomes the philosophical backbone of the film. Oz’s expert puppeteering and transformative vocal performance sell the big ideas of the franchise. Yet the story holds an emotional grace that can only be present if Hamill sells us on his training. Even though future films would show Jedi training as a far more laborious act, Hamill looks like he’s been a gym rat for years. You can read the physical and mental exhaustion in his face. Even in a condensed timeframe, we see Luke grow as a leader and as a person.
That makes the end of the film even more devastating. As he finally steps up to meet Vader, we know that Luke’s life could end. In a way, the life that Luke could have enjoyed dies in the duel. The crushing emotion on his face sells the magnitude of the reveal. The joy leaves his eyes and his life will never be the same. Without his masters there to counsel him, Luke must choose his own path for the first time. Faced with the temptation of having a relationship with his father, he stays true to his training and his heart. This is why we fall in love with these stories, and why Empire has become a gold standard for franchise storytelling.
The Empire Strikes Back earns its place as the greatest film in franchise history. It’s lean and every moment builds towards the trilogies conclusion. Everything on the screen serves the characters and the larger stories. Apart from pulling off the greatest twist in film history, it revels in the connections between its heroes and villains. Few films can serve as love letters to their own characters, all while putting them through hell. Yet every moment of Empire, you can feel the warmth of its creators. When this many creative people can come together for something this spectacular, you can feel something seismic brewing. Empire Strikes Back became a generational story that reverberates throughout the ages.