The sequel. The sequel, especially to a successful, amazing and pop-culture creating original, has often been plagued by some form of a curse. Of course there are the occasional victories where the sequel excels its predecessor, but a lot of the time people will wish they had stopped at one. However, The Empire Strikes Back not only lives up to the pressure of matching the original, an almost impossible task in itself, but in my opinion, and I'm aware that the jury is still out on this, is even better than the original.
After the events of the first movie, things appeared to be slightly ok. The Death Star was destroyed and it seemed that the Rebellion was gaining some ground. However, when we hit the sequel we quickly find out that they're in trouble once again, hiding from the Empire on the ice planet Hoth while being ruthlessly sought after by Vader and the fleet. Once they're found, they are forced out of their new de facto home and into deep space. Due to the Millennium Falcon screwing up once more, Han, Leia and Chewbacca have to hide in an asteroid field while Luke crashes his X-wing into a swamp on Dagobah where he starts his training with the Jedi Master Yoda. Han pilots his group towards Bespin and safe haven with Lando Calrissian in order to get the hyperdrive repaired and Luke discovers how to access the force.
Going by the synopsis alone, the first movie is absolutely necessary in order to know just what the hell's going on, but Empire itself is standalone brilliance. A lot of this can be attributed to a changing of the guard in Irvin Kershner as the director. Don't get me wrong, George Lucas did a great job with the original; creating the far away galaxy itself along with some indelible images including the famous Darth Vader entrance and of course that fight scene with Obi Wan and Vader. But Kershner's subtle change in tone and style which increases as the film progresses gives the movie a darker, more enthralling mood which draws the audience in ways the first only managed at the height of its power. He shows no constraints of being in the shadow of Lucas, daring to imagine bigger and braver than ever before, pushing the effects to their stylistic limits. From Luke's abduction by a Wampa to the Millennium Falcon's experience in a "cave," every scene is packed with unforgettable moments provided by Kershner's epic and beautiful lens. The production design is also amazing, especially Bespin, a city in the clouds, which hangs like a beautifully textured satellite in an amber sky. These moments sparkle in the blu-ray conversion, each shot digitally scrubbed to perfection. But it's his handling of the undeniably darker moments which populate Empire which showcase his incredible talent. Moments like Luke's failure in the cave or Han's cold snap will stay with you long after the credits have rolled, made all the more memorable by Kershner's moody atmosphere.
John Williams, of course, delivers once more with a vibrant and rousing score which is impossible to forget. From the opening explosion of sound to the introduction of the now famous Imperial March (it's used for the first time in Empire), every single note is tailored to fit the action onscreen. He is our unseen narrator throughout the entire saga and some of his best work can be heard here. The nature of the music makes it possible to switch from heartfelt one moment to menacing the next, a signature of most of Williams' film scores and exemplified in the Empire Strikes Back.
Leigh Bracket and Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay is brilliantly executed; funny when it wants to be, tender when it feels like it. They manage to nail the characters as well, especially considering the throughline being messed with here. It's a tough ask; moving the characters along just far enough so they still have somewhere to go but not letting them stay where they used to be. Han and Leia's relationship grows more complex but is as funny and natural as ever. Luke's evolution is particularly well done, after his slight air of childishness in the original, his character now becomes a man, becoming more complex and showing more depth. His journey on Dagobah shows this perfectly, as does his encounter with Vader later on in the film. Bracket and Kasdan certainly put him through the ringer in this one, but they have the confidence to put off the resolution until the next film. In the end, despite the characters having achieved some sort of next level, nothing here is resolved and there are more problems than ever before, a bold move by the writers who obviously have enough confidence in their audience to believe that they'll come back for the next one.
Of course, a huge part of Star Wars is the characters themselves, and the cast does not disappoint. Mark Hamill shows off his depth with his character's darker storyline, leaving behind a lot of the childish innocence of the original for a more mature but not quite functional Jedi. He also has a chance to let his humour shine through in moments like Leia's antagonistic kiss or his various encounters with Yoda. Carrie Fisher is pure fire as Leia, keeping up the quick talking impatient mode from the previous film. It helps that she's given a brilliant script by Bracket and Kasdan but in moments like her eventual kiss with Han, she is sheer perfection. But it's Harrison Ford here who really shines, in the role of a lifetime among all of his other roles of a lifetime, he looks like he's having the time of his life, shouting and grumbling about his ship's state of disrepair or trying desperately to make a relationship with Leia at some point. He's equal parts hilarious and heroic, a brilliant character played by an actor having way too much fun. Billy Dee Williams also turns in a great performance as Lando Calrissian, though he doesn't get the screen time he deserves until Return of the Jedi. And, as always, it's the unseen James Earl Jones who casts his shadow over the entire proceedings with the baddest bad guy of them all, Darth Vader. His wheezing mechanical breath is still as iconic as ever and his shocking twist brings a whole new level of depth to the film. He even gets his own theme song now! He is ruthless and calculating, as any villain should be, but he has an advantage in the fact that he has the coolest costume ever.
Whether you're in the purist's camp and will never say that Empire is better than the original or not, there's no denying the brilliance of The Empire Stirkes Back, what may be one of the greatest sequels of all time. Kershner's amazing direction, John William's score and everything going to hell in that ending: perfection.
Despite the draw of Vader and Luke's battle in Bespin, I'm gonna go with Han's freezing. Chewie's anguished cry, that exchange of "I love you," "I know." Star Wars at its best.
This is no cave.
I have a bad feeling about this.
I am altering the deal, pray I don't alter it any further.
Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder!
Who's scruffy looking?
Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.
Never tell me the odds!
I don't believe it!
That is why you fail.
Don't get excited.
Captain, being held by you isn't quite enough to get me excited.
Sorry sweetheart, I haven't got time for anything else.
That's a good story. I think you just can't bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight.
I don't know where you get your delusions, laser brain.
Laugh it up fuzzball!
You have your moments. Not many of them, but you do have them.
Sir, it's quite possible this asteroid is not entirely stable.
Not entirely stable. I'm glad you're here to tell us these things. Chewie! Take the Professor in back and plug him into the hyperdrive!
Would it help if I got out and pushed?
You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't enough scoundrels in your life.
I won't fail you. I'm not afraid.
You will be. You will be.