The Empire Strikes Back is generally acclaimed as the best movie in the Star Wars canon. To fully understand why, we need to look at its intentions and how it continues to amaze decades later.
Functioning as the middle piece of a trilogy, it’s vital for the viewer to watch the original Star Wars and Return of the Jedi as they introduce and conclude the character stories. If you just want a standalone movie that perfectly encapsulates what it means to be a blockbuster, you want Star Wars. But Empire? Empire transcends being a single film in a franchise to become part of a bigger universe, establishing itself as a definitive sequel installment in the pantheon of Hollywood blockbusters. The implications of a statement like that would generally relate to world-building and expanding the canvas of fantasy landscapes. Empire doesn’t go bigger, it goes deeper.
Three years after the destruction of the Death Star, the rebels are still on the run from the wrath of the Empire – it’s the equivalent of a group of French Resistance fighters blowing up the most important Nazi stronghold in WWII. Darth Vader being the sole survivor of the Death Star’s destruction is scouring the galaxy for the rebels, but really, he’s looking for Luke Skywalker. The Sith lord senses the force is strong with this young man. Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, C3-PO and R2D2 are hiding with the rebels on the ice planet of Hoth, as John Williams “Imperial March” theme plays to excite our nerves in anticipation for what’s to come.
What most sequels would do is play a rinse/repeat version of the first film with more space ships, more explosions, and even more characters. Instead, what follows is a reverse arc of the first film.
In the original Star Wars, we open a small-scale fight between two spaceships with fights inside the narrow hallways of a tiny spaceship, build up what would come to be known as a traditional hero’s journey, gather our group of supporting characters, and end on a giant space battle before the infamous award ceremony.
In The Empire Strikes Back we start with our former friends (now practically family) share bashful interplay with one another. the huge battle between the rebels and the Empire forces on Hoth, as everything we had just seen them fight to protect falls apart. Our heroes are on the run for the entirety of the movie. Luke now has to learn more than just to fight, he must learn when not to. Han and Leia begin a fruitful romance before being betrayed by the single new supporting character in Lando Calrissian (the smoothest, coolest pilot in the galaxy) before the movie climaxes with a showdown in a narrow hallway in the city above the clouds.
The Empire Strikes Back could even be summed up further by saying, “Luke, Han, and Leia run around a lot and Darth Vader wins. The end.” That’s really squandering the goodness to be found within but that’s basically the movie. There’s no traditional structure here to speak of. Star Wars is rising action, The Empire Strikes Back is about falling action.
Any movie that decides to end on a small-scale or personal level over explosive action climax instantly deserves our attention (note: the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but few know how to incorporate both). The decision to allow a hundred million dollar blockbuster to work this well on its own terms while knowing the expectation of the sequel curse “more = better” there’s a reason why this is the most discussed sequel in the history of movies. Seriously, just Google “Best Sequel Ever” and you’ll see a bunch of lists pop up. Guess what movie is at or near the top of every single list?
The staying power of The Empire Strikes Back feels like a no-brainer, but I was only born with half a brain, so I’m going to explain that too. It’s a sequel that strives to be more than just a copy of its predecessor. The often sterile and oppressively cold environments of The Empire Strikes Back present the inverse of the scrappy adventurous spirit of our first voyage into a galaxy far, far away. Furthermore, it’s a relatively simple movie aimed at destroying what we loved about the first movie, only to build it up again in a wholly new fashion. As Master Yoda says, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” It boasts one of cinema’s greatest plot twists. At this point in our cultural history is there anyone who doesn’t know the line, “No, Luke. I am your father” beyond infants? I feel like even little humans are born with that knowledge encoded into their craniums.
What I know for certain is we all love movie magic. We love the communal experience of enjoying a cinematic experience (and why we hate when other people don’t share our views). The world of Middle-Earth, the magic of Harry Potter, the writing of Gremlins 2: The New Batch, are among the fictional creations that have somehow left their mark as cultural touchstones because they bind ties from the screen to their audiences. Only the first two of the aforementioned fictional creations come close to achieving the universal understanding and acceptance as pure movie magic from audiences (don’t worry, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, you too will have your time in the sun).
For me, the single best scene in the entire Star Wars saga is between Yoda and Luke. As Yoda tries to teach Luke how to not only believe in himself, but in the higher power of the force. The small and powerful Jedi Master explains, “Its energy flows around us,” trying to convince Luke to see the universe as a true Jedi should. Luke naturally fails and talks of these tasks as the impossible before Yoda gets him to shut up by raising his X-Wing out of the swamps of Dagobah.
It’s a definitive scene for both characters, The Empire Strikes Back and the Star Wars universe. We aren’t just watching scenes in a movie anymore. We’re experiencing the birth of something beyond Luke’s (and the audience’s) understanding. Like Luke’s yearning for adventure in the original New Hope, Luke must now realize his place in a grander universe; one that will continue with or without him.
Then Luke gets his fucking hand cut off because he won’t listen to a 900-year-old Jedi Master. You know how Yoda got to be nearly 1000 years old, Luke? Not like with that attitude, he didn’t.
The Empire Strikes Back is not a standalone movie. It doesn’t intend to hold to traditional movie rules. The rules are tossed aside leaving the land fresh for the Star Wars series to jump into cinematic legend as the greatest cinematic saga ever told. The force will be with us, always. We must only remember to embrace its growth and evolution.