How do you follow up Star Wars? That was the question facing George Lucas after the first film surpassed every expectation and gave birth to what we now know as one of cinema’s most important (and lucrative) franchises.
Thankfully, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back delivered in spades – becoming one of those rarities that’s considered by many to be a sequel superior to its original. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the second-highest-grossing sequel of all-time. But it didn’t always look so likely to succeed, even for Lucas, who had hired a writer to initially pen a sequel to Star Wars in novel form that would tie up loose ends if the first film bombed.
Scrapping that after the overwhelming positivity surrounding the first entry in the saga, Lucas financed the sequel himself with $33 million, much of which was obtained from loans. This risk also gave him complete creative autonomy, which he used to install Irvin Kershner as director – a man known for smaller-scale movies who felt unprepared for the task of directing Empire. Lucas also famously fell out with the Writers and Directors Guilds of America owing to the lack of credits at the movie’s beginning, instead opting for the same opening scroll style as the original Star Wars.
The rest, as they say, is history. Despite mixed reviews initially, The Empire Strikes Back expertly weaves multiple narratives while offering more character-driven moments and genuine motivation. The film charts Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) continued training alongside exiled Jedi master Yoda, the struggles of the Rebel Alliance against the now more imposing Galactic Empire, as well as strengthening the blossoming relationship between Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher).
Factor in some of the most beloved setpieces in the saga (specifically the Battle of Hoth and the lightsaber duel in Cloud City), the arrival of everyone’s favorite bounty hunter Boba Fett, and the first appearance of Emperor Palpatine (albeit by hologram), and the movie’s 124-minute run time seems to absolutely fly by.
Three years on from the Death Star being blown to smithereens, the Rebel Alliance is located on the snow planet of Hoth when the base is discovered covered by an Imperial probe droid. A recently injured Luke Skywalker has a vision of Obi-Wan, who tells him to go to Dagobah. An Imperial assault begins, providing our first look at the now historic AT-AT walkers, and in the ensuing evacuation Han and Leia depart from the Rebel forces and Luke takes himself to Dagobah in search of Yoda, a mysterious Jedi master.
Of course, the rest is almost a story as old as time at this point. Luke trains with Yoda, before cutting his training short when Han and Leia are ambushed by Darth Vader while hiding out in Cloud City. What follows is arguably the most famous plot twist in cinematic history, as Vader reveals himself to be Luke’s dad, before setting up Return of the Jedi with one hell of a bleak, cliffhanger ending.
Of course, John Williams’ soundtrack reaches through every frame of the movie and heightens every scene. It’s the first time we hear the proper “Imperial March” (prequel reprises notwithstanding), a piece of music that has become pervasive in every walk of life at this point, while “Yoda’s Theme” remains an understated classic, too.
Despite Boba Fett’s popularity, he plays a minor role here – he appears as a bounty hunter in a lineup of several others, but aside from being the character tasked with delivering Han Solo to Jabba at the movie’s conclusion, he doesn’t really do a lot. On the other hand, the mysterious Dark Side of the Force gets some fun new tidbits here – we see the Emperor appear in a hologram, but also get an insight into just what is under Darth Vader’s helmet when he’s sitting in his meditation pod. It wouldn’t be until Return of the Jedi that both would be fully revealed, but these fleeting hints at two evil forces that clearly aren’t quite human preserve the mystique of both “big bad” characters.
The real reveal as far as Vader is concerned is obviously the big twist, and it’s delivered masterfully – and received painfully – by both Vader and Luke. Hamill was famously told nothing until moments before filming the scene, while allegedly Harrison Ford had no idea until he saw the completed movie.
Ford’s Han Solo carries much of his roguish charm from the original into Empire, and manages to walk the line between being a jerk, or a “nerf-herder”, and a loveable scoundrel. His relationship with Princess Leia feels earned, rooted in schoolyard teasing but with a clear amount of chemistry. His “I know” response to her admission of love for him remains one of the greatest improvised lines in movie history.
The Empire Strikes Back is a continuation of the original Star Wars story with no real end-cap – an approach that at the time divided audiences, who would need to wait three long years to find out what would happen to our heroes and villains. However, time has shown it to be a sci-fi masterpiece – a character-driven drama played among explosive action setpieces, with a fresh sense of scale, offering more action, better effects, a wider soundtrack, and more confident performances than the original Star Wars. For all those reasons, it’s undoubtedly one of cinema’s great sequels.
Best lightsaber bit: Luke may have felt confident enough to take on Vader in the middle of his Jedi training, but he was wrong to do so – Vader handily beats him, taunting him as he does so. After Obi-Wan’s short battle with the Sith Lord in the first film, you’d have thought Luke would have realized the task ahead of him.
Best non-lightsaber bit: Yoda’s demonstration of the Force, lifting Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamp on Dagobah, is truly awe-inspiring and goosebump-inducing when paired with Williams’ stirring soundtrack.
Jedi wisdom: “Do or do not, there is no try.” Arguably the most famous Jedi quote in the entire franchise, Yoda’s advice to Luke was recognized as one of the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie quotes.
Rules of the Force: It turns out that, just like anything in life, practice makes perfect – and as powerful as Luke may be, he needs a lot of training to reach his full potential as a Jedi Knight. A big part of that training turns out to be somersaults and stacking rocks using the Force, something that requires lots of patience and letting go of all emotion.
Who has a bad feeling about this? It’s Princess Leia this time, and she’s not wrong – when hiding from the Empire in the belly of a huge monstrosity living in an asteroid, she utters the immortal line just before the bat-like Mynocks attack the Millennium Falcon’s windscreen.
Galactic stop-offs: Plenty of sightseeing to do here, with the ice planet of Hoth and the swamp world of Dagobah making their debuts (and writing themselves into history), while the aforementioned asteroid field also proves a handy stop-off. Finally, there’s Bespin – a gas giant that is home to a mining complex called Cloud City, a floating civilization in the sky ruled over by Han’s backstabbing buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), where much of the movie’s final act takes place.
Who wins? The most definitive downer ending of the Original Trilogy, Empire leaves things on a sour note. Han is frozen in carbonite and on his way to Jabba to become a wall decoration (or worse), leaving Leia heartbroken, while Luke is half a Jedi having not completed his training, and with a hand missing, too – and that’s saying nothing of the psychological trauma of finding out your Dad is the worst monster in the galaxy. Meanwhile, the Rebel Fleet is scattered to the wind, Vader has sown the seeds of doubt in Luke’s head, and by the end of the movie he’s pretty much choked out a good percentage of the Empire’s high-ranking officers, too.
Listen to the latest Star Wars Blaster Canon podcast: