Written by: Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels
When essentially all other film sequels get compared to a singular movie, the impact it had over the years cannot be questioned. The Empire Strikes Back has received this commendation and has cemented its place amongst Star Wars fans as the greatest the series has and will ever produce. With the craft and storytelling excellence this film provides, it certainly displays quality but a myriad of issues does not allow me to fully embrace it as a masterpiece.
Following the rebel victory of blowing up the Death Star, the rebels are on the run from The Empire led by Darth Vader (James Earl Jones). The lead characters now go on their own journey in preparing to confront The Empire again as Luke (Mark Hamill) seeks to continue his training while Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) begin a romance.
Believing The Empire Strikes Back is not the greatest Star Wars film may be sacrilege to some, but it does contain some odd pitfalls in its storytelling that need to be pointed out. One thing that should be made very clear, I still find this to be a very well made film, which I will go into first, as there’s a reason many believe it to be the best within this franchise. One of its biggest highlights comes from the audacity of its storytelling ambition, especially in the time when it was released. After Star Wars became a smash hit in the box office and even being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, this franchise had a winning formula it could follow into perpetuity. This film, however, decided to throw all of that out and go for a more grim approach. Sure, it certainly still had comedic bits and moments children can glob onto, but the tone and narrative decisions try very hard to ensure the audience feels the underdog position of the protagonists.
Additionally, they set up some great characters in the previous film and then decided to split them up as they go on separate journeys in order to fight off The Empire. Luke heads off to be trained by Yoda (Frank Oz) while Han and Leia seek help in other ways. With the cross cutting between them, it demonstrates the different battles they each need to face. A bold move narratively, which explains what has made this film so popular. It completely redefined what a sequel could be and did so in style.
The craftwork on display in this feature uses an excellent blend of miniatures and special effects in order to create a unique experience. Even with it not aging as well, the effort of what they created during this time truly still looks definable and enjoyable. Particularly the moments with the At-At Walkers displays one of the finest moments the entire series of films had to offer. Certainly ahead of its time and vision with its construction, and how it made the battles feel grand and perilous for the heroes.
With the decision to split up the heroes of the previous film, it ultimately resulted in two faulty storylines that did not carry nearly enough intrigue as they hoped. Han and Leia have been heralded as one of the great cinematic couples but the juvenile nature of their supposed romance really felt immature. I understand these stories are mostly intended for a very young audience but you have to give them more credit than what these two characters were given. From the instances where Han would chide Leia to admitting she liked him in childish ways, you could easily forget these are supposed to be two adults speaking to each other. It becomes the inverse of the common issues when writing child characters. Screenwriters rarely hit their dialogue correctly, as they either skew them too young or make them sound like philosophers. In the case of Han and Leia, these were two adults expressing themselves as fourth graders, which caused endless eye rolls on my part seeing as I’m meant to root for this relationship somehow.
Luke heads to Dagobah to learn from Yoda and while the sequence has some strong ideas about the ways of the Jedi and how it clashes with Luke’s ideas, the way it gets filmed contains no energy. Not sure if other mitigating factors came into play but the first two times I watched this film, I fell asleep during the scenes between Luke and Yoda. I say this not to be facetious but rather to demonstrate how the dreary look and slowly-paced nature of these scenes do not match the content on display. Even the third time around where I forced myself to push through, it truly did not carry as much intrigue as written on paper.
The Empire Strikes Back lacked the energy of having Luke, Leia, and Han together, which led to two inferior plotlines. It only gets reconciled when Luke catches up with them again and the epic fight between Vader and the young Jedi transpires. All of those moments carry the emotional weight of what occurs along with one of the biggest revelations ever made in film history when factoring the popularity of the franchise and how it upended the way these stories looked. Again, this film has excellent elements to it where it shows a sequel can be darker and bring higher stakes to a story. However, when there’s a whole second act I can do without, I cannot possibly say I love it.