Forty years ago in a galaxy not so far away, George Lucas’ daring sequel to his epic space opera Star Wars debuted and would change the landscape of cinema forever. Empire Strikes Back was released three years after its predecessor took the film industry by storm, and with that came hype never before seen for a sequel. Lucas was able to capitalize on the first installment’s success and was given a greater budget, full support by production company 20th Century Fox, and total creative freedom.
His backyard effects company Industrial Light & Magic, established at a piece of land he owned titled Skywalker Ranch, had also seen notoriety for cutting edge practical effects and revolutionizing the effects seen in film. Deciding to take on a more managerial role and avoid much of the stress of the first film, Lucas decided not to direct the sequel and instead tasked director Irvin Kershner. This would prove to be an excellent decision afterwards. Now forty years later and much like its predecessor, Empire Strikes Back has taken on the legacy of being one of the greatest sequels ever made. But what exactly makes this such a wonderful film (and my favorite Star Wars film)? Let’s take a closer look.
Introduction Of New Characters
Empire Strikes Back added more layers to existing characters but also famously introduced new ones to the fandom. The first being Boba Fett. Fett is a henchmen for gangster Jabba the Hutt and a notorious bounty hunter, dawned in Mandalorian armor. While his role in the original trilogy is brief and his lines scarce, he is often a beloved original character (and let’s pretend he didn’t actually make his debut in the Holiday Special).
Another notable new face is that of Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams. Lando would also become a fan-favorite for his charming personality, fashion, and smooth talking. He is introduced by Han not to be trusted and fans immediately fall in love with him after that. Seeing Han jealous of his flirtatious activity with Leia provided comic relief in an otherwise tense film. Emperor Palpatine, the sith lord and Darth Vader’s master, also made his onscreen debut in this film. Viewers were intrigued at the sight of Vader having a mysterious hooded master, and meeting the maniacal mastermind for the first time raised many questions. What would he have in store for our heroes?
Last but certainly not least, the most notable and significant new character in this film is Jedi Master Yoda, puppeteered by legendary Muppets puppeteer Frank Oz. Luke first learned of Yoda when Ben Kenobi came to him in ghost form and told him to find the old Jedi master on the Dagobah system. Luke does so and is first annoyed by not finding him, or so he initially thought. He encountered a small alien creature living on the planet as a hermit that talked backwards and attempted to steal his food. This hermit would then be suddenly revealed as Yoda, and Luke’s formal jedi training would begin.
Yoda’s character added further wisdom and mystique to the ancient way of the Jedi, as well as provided more details about the ways of the force. He pushed Luke and motivated him when he lost faith in himself, uttering famous words such as “Do or do not. There is no try.” Yoda happens to be my favorite character for this reason because I feel we have all been in Luke’s position before and wanting to give up or try to do something else, but instead we had a Yoda in our own life to provide motivation. Through this, Yoda creates one of Star Wars‘ most famous moments in lifting Luke’s X-Wing with the force. Who knew such a tiny character could be so important? Well of course, Yoda did. Judge me by my size, do you?
Introduction Of New Musical Themes/Pieces
It is impossible to discuss a Star Wars film without mentioning the work of John Williams. He delivered another tremendous score for this film. Most notable pieces include “Yoda’s Theme,” “The Imperial March,” “Asteroid Field,” “Han Solo and the Princess,” and “Departure of Boba Fett.” Each new leitmotif was raw and powerful in its own right, and served as the soul of the film. “Yoda’s Theme” for example was full of hope and promise, and cemented the idea of Yoda and the “good guys” believing balance would come to the galaxy and the force once again.
Empire’s strongest element was its storytelling, which came from George Lucas’ primary focus on the narrative. It built on its predecessor’s elements of good and evil, and expanded on what each side meant. Are all characters truly one or the other? How do personal motives come to play? It also progressed the Han and Leia love angle in a fluid and organic way without forcing the audience to believe it. No character felt wasted or lost in the overall story, and all played a satisfying role in the final cut. The writing was also crisp and dialogue meaningful as exemplified in the Dagobah scenes with Luke and Yoda.
The most regarded element of the story (***40 YEAR SPOILER INCOMING***) was how it allowed evil to win in the end, a rarity in those times. Luke and our heroes left their encounter with Vader and the empire empty-handed (particularly in Luke’s case) and not on the high in which the first installment left them. They had been defeated and Han’s future was in question as well, and fans were left puzzled with how each character’s story would continue. This daring story was also cemented with one of the greatest plot-twists and (and often misquoted) line of all time, with Darth Vader being revealed as Luke’s father: “No, I am your father”. While this twist is known worldwide now by all (Star Wars fans and not), it shocked moviegoers around the world when first unveiled and set the precedent for plot twists of the future.
Empire Strikes Back remains an excellent film forty years later and perhaps the greatest Star Wars movie ever made. With exceptional storytelling, score, effects, galaxy building, character development, and theme representation, its legacy will only continue to grow for years to come.