It’s generally agreed that The Empire Strikes Back is the best film of George Lucas’ initial trilogy. It’s not a sequel as such, but the next part of a continuing story, Empire marks enormous progression both in terms of the mythos of the series and in the filmmaking quality itself.
No longer tethered by the need to establish this fabulous universe wrapped in the arcane mysticism of the Force, this is a film far more sophisticated, awe-inspiring and daring. The actors too, reassured this was not some throw away sci-fi quickie, have settled comfortably into their characters. Which is a good thing given the nightmare created for them the writers. All at once, Empire is more graceful and melancholic than its predecessor, the mood of impending tragedy is enhanced with an array of inhospitable worlds (we travel from the icescape of Hoth to the swamp of Dagobah to a sleek, sterile city in the clouds). The Cloud City, the most awesome of any of the Star Wars arenas, is a beautiful exterior with a dark heart. The film culminates in a whirl of emotional intensity and the infernal machines of the carbon freezing chamber. With John Williams’ breathtaking score and the dark hellish lighting, the whole feel is dark and epic.
Then there is the devastating confrontation between Luke and Vader. Masterfully choreographed, their duel culminates on a thin scaffold protruding out over the vast depths that are the hollow core of the Cloud City, it is magnificently visualised, the dizzying vertiginous terror of the moment encapsulating Luke’s disorientation and horror at Vader’s revelation of paternalism is just, perfect. Significantly, Luke chooses death over the outstretched hand of the dark side and is eventually born again as a Jedi.
But the whole film is never consumed by darkness. There is comedy: C-3PO is still fussily camp as the Shakespearean chorus; Solo cracks wiser than ever before and Yoda’s knack of getting straight-to-the-point via the syntactical equivalent of Spaghetti Junction (“No! Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.”) is pure delight. Effects-wise, it offers unforgettable, if sometimes impractical, marvels: the awesome AT-ATs marching on the rebel base on Hoth, or Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon straight into an asteroid field.
It is on a psychological level, though, where Empire really reaches beyond its brethren. On Dagobah, where Luke is tutored in Jedi philosophy by the rubbery icon, Yoda, the notion of the Force turns from the simple good/bad divide of Star Wars into a sea of moral haziness. Luke must fight the urges of anger and emotion to find the true path. In the film’s (and probably the series’) most weird sequence Luke descends into a metaphorical dream state, a representation of his unacknowledged fears. Here, prophetically, he confronts Darth Vader and discovers his own face beneath the mask. This is dark stuff, way beyond funny robots and knights in space.
Where as A New Hope and The Return of the Jedi were nice little bookends to the original star wars trilogy, Empire is what made Star Wars what it is today, for me it is a cut above all the rest giving a real deep feel to the mythos and ensuring Star Wars a place in film legend for all time.