It’s always between this and the original film to decide what really is the best of the series. The original had the element of surprise, no film before it had looked and excited people in the way that A New Hope did, but when ‘Empire’ came out, it improved upon the original in terms of dialogue and story-telling. The scope is even broader, the characters developed better, and the action just as good. The sets on Empire Strikes Back are also a bit more involved because of a higher budget and more recognition. If you value the creativity and toughness of the first one, then it’s for you, but if you value the story-telling with context removed from the picture, this one is better. Either way, The Empire Strikes Back, like its predecessor, is one of the best adventure films ever made.
It’s been three years since Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) blew up the Death Star in the previous film, and now, he’s a major part of the rebel alliance against the Empire, along with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). Chewbacca, C3PO, and R2D2 return as well.
The rebels are stationed on Hoth, a snow planet that Darth Vader (David Prowse and James Earl Jones) figures out is the location when he sends droids to search for potential hot-spots across the galaxy. When investigating one of the droids, Luke Skywalker is ambushed by a large Wampa (essentially a big Yeti) and has to use the force and his lightsaber to eventually escape. When at the point of death from the cold, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s (Alec Guinness) spirit tells him to go visit Yoda (Frank Oz) the last remaining Jedi Master in the galaxy. Han rescues Luke, but it’s not long before the Empire begins an attack on the rebel base. They flee, after an amazing battle sequence, and Luke splits from the herd to go visit Yoda.
While Luke learns from Yoda over the period of weeks about how to be a Jedi, Han and Leia are captured by Bounty Hunter Boba Fett after their friend Lando (Billy Dee Williams) had struck a deal with Vader and the Empire. Luke then confronts Vader, while Han is taken prisoner, leaving a now disgusted Lando to escort Leia back to the rebels and forge a plan to rescue Han. The film ends on the sour note, Luke defeated, Han in custody, and paves the way for Return of the Jedi a few years later.
The main sets for the film, Bespin (the Cloud City), Hoth, and Yoda’s lair on Dagobah, are all extremely creative and aesthetically different from each other. Lucas’s world-building is one thing that really stands out from the rest, but with Lawrence Kasdan doing the script and a new director, Empire just works on a level above that of the original. Its craft is just a little bit stronger. The character of Darth Vader is a lot better in this one, and we feel how intimidating he is when he kills anyone who messes up on the attacks at the Rebels. I always found the idea that he was Luke’s father to be a little bit far-fetched considering things that happen in the original movie, and I always thought there was not really a temptation for Luke to go to the Dark Side in the first place, we’ll talk about that in the Sixth Film’s review, but Vader was good as a cold and distant leader, and the further we get into his backstory, the less intimidating he becomes. The lightsaber battle against him is excellent, because we chalk it up to good vs. evil, and it doesn’t have to be anywhere in between.
Many of the themes about how even someone as small and silly as Yoda being all-powerful shows the true mythology of the force, and why Luke’s training is so important to defeat someone as powerful as Vader. We know Luke’s speed and youth would be an advantage against Vader, but we know he has to be controlled against such an experienced villain. Then, when we have winding shots of the battle on Bespin, the scenery looks so clean and beautiful, and it doesn’t happen when we see Luke’s fight. The contrast of environments are beautiful, and the subtext in the story telling does make this, in my opinion, probably the best of the series.