Star Wars… sigh, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, is the greatest standalone science-fiction movie of all time. It tells a complete story and you can enjoy it without watching another second of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Darth Vader, R2-D2 and company.
But in doing so, you’d deprive yourself of the greatest sci-fi film of all time — Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back — no qualifiers necessary.
I’ll probably pack this flashback/review with more hyperbole, but this is a generation-influencing masterpiece the likes of which we’ve rarely seen since.
It’s difficult to credit any one particular aspect as every element from the script, performances, special effects, John Williams’ unforgettable score and Irvin Kershner’s impeccable direction ranks as some of the best, not just in the genre, but in all of cinema. And there’s also the filmmakers’ incredibly risky decision to role-reverse the character dynamics for the sequel.
George Lucas hands the reins over to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who shifts the tone from a swashbuckling serial to a much more character-driven, desperate quest for survival.
Destroying the Death Star didn’t win the war for the Rebel Alliance. It just incredibly ticked off Darth Vader (David Prowse/voiced by James Earl Jones), who unleashes the Empire on a galaxy-wide quest to find and capture Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the daring pilot responsible for the Death Star’s destruction.
Kasdan quickly conveys that a beaten and humiliated Empire is far more dangerous than the evil tyranny that existed in A New Hope, while Kershner amps up their threat level immediately in the Empire’s establishing shot, revealing Vader basking in the might of his armada as they continue their pursuit of Skywalker.
After evading the Empire on the desolate ice world of Hoth, Luke and his faithful droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) travel to Dagobah to complete his use of the Force with Yoda (Frank Oz), the last surviving Jedi.
Unable to find his main prey, Vader stops at nothing to capture Luke’s allies Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) in hopes of using them as bait.
Growing ever more impatient with his officers, Vader recruits a group of bounty hunters, including the notorious Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), to aid in the search.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is Vader’s unyielding persistence. You could almost consider his never give up attitude as heroic if you were to look at it from a different perspective. Vader is willing to do anything to get Skywalker while to a degree, the Rebel Alliance are hiding out like the more traditional movie villains. And no matter what they try, they can’t get away. The fascinating underlying story is that you can only run from the big, bad bully for so long before you have to stand up and face him.
Kershner expertly escalates the threat to Luke and his friends so as soon as they handle one obstacle, they’re faced with a greater challenge. All roads converge on the majestic Cloud City, a mining colony under the leadership of Han’s old pal Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). With hope dwindling, Luke travels to Cloud City to confront Vader Vader in a physically- and emotionally-scarring lightsaber duel — the series’ best — to save his friends.
Too many sequels are content to just do what worked in the original, but Empire is a more personal, expansive look at the Star Wars universe and its limitless potential. The film explodes with creativity from the monstrous AT-AT walkers plodding through the hopelessly outmatched Rebel forces on Hoth to the dogfight in the asteroid field, the murky swamps of Dagobah leading to the sun-drenched Cloud City finale.
No matter the setting, the filmmakers doesn’t get lost in the action and spectacle giving Ford, Hamill and Fisher time to give their characters depth beyond what we expected of Han, Luke and Leia from A New Hope, making the film’s final act all the more impactful.
The new cast members easily fit in with Yoda being such a strong character it’s irrelevant that Oz is operating a puppet; Williams provides Lando so much complexity it’s easy to forget he’s only in the second half of the movie and Bulloch makes Fett an iconic character with even less lines.
Being the second act of a sci-fi masterpiece comes at some expense though.
While you could enjoy it without having seen ANH, Empire leaves you with a cliffhanger.
About the only thing Empire does wrong is be so wonderfully constructed that its sequel, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi is kind of a letdown. Not due to the Ewoks, (which I love mind you), but the jarring change of tone that fails to maintain the brilliance that came before it.
Empire is one of my two favorite films and the one that first triggered my immense love of the power of movies. Even if you’ve been weaned on other sci-fi/action franchises, this is the one that surpasses them all and warrants my highest recommendation. See it and prepare to be captivated by the most spellbinding sci-fi film of them all.
Rating: 10 out of 10
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