Why ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ Is the Greatest Sequel of All Time
There was no way, absolutely no way it could possibly be true. He had to be lying, right? My young brain simply could not fathom any other possibility. I had seen Star Wars on TV a few times and knew the simple truth: Luke Skywalker was the good guy and Darth Vader was the bad guy. But here I was, seeing the impossible truth laid out before me by the ultimate villain of the universe. “I am your father.” My reaction was somewhere near Luke’s in this scene. “No, that’s not true. That’s impossible!” But somehow deep down, after searching my feelings, I knew it to be true.
This greatest character twist of modern film is only one tiny piece of what makes The Empire Strikes Back the greatest sequel of all time. I don’t necessarily think it is the best sequel ever, Bride of Frankenstein or The Godfather, Part II most likely lays claim to that title, but it certainly casts the longest and most influential shadow. It proved that a popular film like Star Wars could even have a sequel that played in the same league financially as an original. Even successful sequels had never done business anywhere near the original up to that point. Empire also proved that popcorn entertainment could retain the fun of its predecessor while still injecting a great deal of thematic complexity and pathos into its story and characters.
Empire ups the ante in every possible way from Star Wars. The film had a significantly larger budget than the previous film, but not an outlandish one. Because of this, there are great production values but still plenty of the rebellious, scrappy spirit of the original. The script, acting, and directing are all stronger, as George Lucas took a more behind the scenes approach to this film. Lucas gave writing duties over to Leigh Brackett, who passed away after turning in a first draft, before taking a crack at it himself. According to the many persuasive arguments by Mark Kaminski in his book The Secret History of Star Wars, this is likely where the climactic twist first came into play.
Despite later insisting that this was always the plan, early interviews between 1976 and 1979 make it clear that Darth Vader was not originally Luke’s father. In the first film, Vader was the henchman, every bit the Pitbull at the end of Tarkin’s leash that Princess Leia alludes to. But on-screen and in Lucas’s mind, Vader was also the one who killed Anakin Skywalker, and not depending on “a certain point of view.” The popularity of the character, and the fact that he survived the first film, made Vader the logical choice for the main heavy of the sequel. Lucas apparently made him Luke’s father because he had written himself into a corner. This revelation was a daring move that, for Empire, worked out beautifully. But it also makes it necessary for Obi-Wan Kenobi to do quite a bit of explaining in Return of the Jedi and for Lucas to do backflips to make the story work out in the prequels.
Lucas’s draft is also when the plot point of “another” that Yoda speaks of was first included. Originally, this was to be a seed planted for a sequel trilogy that would follow a third film of this current trilogy. The other was to be Luke’s sister, but at the time, Luke’s sister was emphatically not Leia Organa. When Return of the Jedi came around, Lucas—stretched professionally and personally, overworked, and weary of the galaxy he had created, fearing he would be stuck making Star Wars movies for the rest of his life—chose Leia as the easiest option to tie up that particular loose end. After finishing his draft, Lucas handed it over to Lawrence Kasdan who infused the script with humour, romance, and powerful thematic subtlety.
Directing duties went to veteran filmmaker Irvin Kershner, who delivered the best-directed film in the entire Star Wars universe. Kershner strikes the perfect balance for every element of the film. There is real fun but also a true sense of suspense and danger when needed. It is filled with humour, but it never detracts from the deep darkness infused into the film. Producer Gary Kurtz must also be given credit for a great deal of the film’s feel. He created the space for Kershner to work and backed up his balancing act of humour and darkness that makes the film so memorable.
With a team headed up by visual effects legends Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, and stop motion wizard Phil Tippett, the special effects are next level in Empire. Stop motion was heavily employed for the first, and really only, time in the series. Starting in Return of the Jedi, the saga employed Tippett’s “go motion” technique which, with the aid of computers, added a motion blur to the classical stop motion techniques. Empire essentially used the same methods created by Willis O’Brien for The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) and perfected by the great Ray Harryhausen for its iconic Battle of Hoth sequence.
The imposing four-legged AT-AT’s remain one of the most iconic and beloved creations in all of Star Wars, reused with updated designs in The Last Jedi and Rogue One, while also making a brief cameo in Return of the Jedi. The Battle of Hoth is still as exciting as ever, with some of the most memorable moments in the entire franchise. It set the stage for everything that was to come for land battle sequences through the decades, from Endor to Geonosis, to Crait and, in many ways, stands above all of them.
One of the most daring elements of Empire is that it breaks up our core group of heroes into two factions. After the Battle of Hoth, Luke Skywalker flies off to Dagobah with R2-D2 to learn the ways of the Force from Yoda, while Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3P0 try to outrun the Empire in the Millennium Falcon. Luke’s sequences with Yoda are often sombre and contemplative, moods the first film barely touched, even in the training sequences with Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Because of Lucas’s last-minute decision for Kenobi to die at the hands of his former student at the end of the previous film, a new character had to be created. The result was the aged, wise, and slightly insane Jedi Master Yoda, a being stronger in the Force than had even been hinted at before. Frank Oz’s puppetry and voice work with the character was so compelling that Lucas, Kershner, and producer Gary Kurtz lobbied for him to receive an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but the Academy refused, citing that puppetry was not the same as acting.
The scenes between Luke and Yoda are fascinating and unusually intimate for such a sprawling epic. They begin with a great deal of humour as Yoda tests Luke’s patience before eventually realizing that the annoying little creature that is stalling him from his mission is in fact the Jedi Master he seeks. The two most powerful moments of the training sequences are Luke’s failure in the cave and Yoda proving to him that “size matters not.” When Luke faces the shadow of Darth Vader in the underground cave, he thinks he is taking revenge on the man who killed his mentor. When he cuts off Vader’s head, the facemask blows away to reveal Luke’s own face. This serves two purposes. First, and most obviously upon repeat viewings, it foreshadows the film’s climactic revelation. Secondly, it reveals that if Luke gives in to his anger and hatred, he will find himself on the same path as his Dark Father.
Later, while standing on his hands, with Yoda balancing on one of his feet, Luke is distracted by R2’s beeping and realizes that his ship has sunk even further into the Dagobah swamp, where he crash-landed when first arriving on the planet. Expanding beautifully upon Obi-Wan’s explanation of the Force in the first film, Yoda poetically describes the film’s central philosophy. “My ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” Luke is unmoved by Yoda’s words, saying he asks the impossible. Yoda simply closes his eyes and raises a hand and Luke’s X-Wing lifts out of the swamp onto dry land. Luke is flabbergasted, “I don’t believe it,” he says. Yoda answers solemnly, “that…is why you fail.” As pithy and cliched as all Yoda’s statements have become over the years, they are still moving and work in the context of the film. They get to the heart of the teacher/student dynamic and remain somehow inspiring over forty years later.
The other group fleeing the Empire supplies most of the action set-pieces as well as a romantic dynamic that was mostly missing from the original. The space battle sequences are incredible here and a huge step up from the first film. The ships move with remarkable agility and the sense of scale from the TIE fighters to the Falcon to the Star Destroyers is used to great effect. When Vader’s Super Star Destroyer, the Executor, is introduced it is speaking a veritable “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” to the audience. The opening shot of the first film features the introduction of the Star Destroyer, a ship that just kept going, and going, and going, wowing audiences with its awesome size. The Executor casts its shadow over several of these ships before finally being revealed as essentially a triangular flying city, dwarfing the other Star Destroyers in the fleet.
This also serves to reintroduce Darth Vader as a truly titanic villain whose power was only barely glimpsed at in the first film. Here he is no one’s servant. Vader’s cold wrath is palpable, though he never loses his temper, at least outwardly. We see that he is able to use his Force chokehold, demonstrated in the first film, at will and across the divide of space and a viewscreen. He does not suffer fools like Admiral Ozzel or Captain Needa, he simply disposes of them. Vader is master over all that he observes, a towering and looming figure. He bows his head and drops his knee to only one, the Emperor, who is also finally seen for the first time in this film.
On the Falcon, Lawrence Kasdan clearly enjoyed writing the banter and relationship between Han Solo and Princess Leia. Despite a kiss attempting to make Han jealous that did not age well come Return of the Jedi, there is no love triangle in The Empire Strikes Back. Leia clearly has strong romantic feelings for the “stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder” as that scoundrel does for her. The interplay is right out of a classic movie with a very Hawksian, His Girl Friday kind of chemistry that is funny, charmingly antagonistic, and devastatingly romantic. Both Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher give easily their best performances in the saga. They are more comfortable with the characters here than in Star Wars and more invested in what they are given to do than in Jedi. And it all culminates in one of the great improvisations ever captured on film, the one that made Ford a superstar: “I love you.” “I know.”
Great sequels know that they not only need to honour the characters, situations, and myth-making established in the first film and build on them but introduce new characters that become just as beloved. Empire introduces three. We have already discussed the wise hero Master Yoda. The most memorable new villain introduced is the bounty hunter Boba Fett. Though given very little screen time, the character instantly became an indelible part of the Star Wars universe. His armour, ship—Slave I, and cold relentlessness brought about endless discussion among fans as to his mysterious backstory. Some of the power of that mystery was robbed in the prequel trilogy, but there has been a great attempt to restore it in extensions to the Star Wars universe including comics, books, and The Mandalorian television series.
By far the most complex character of the film, and possibly all of Star Wars, was also introduced in Empire—Han Solo’s old friend and fellow rogue Lando Calrissian, fantastically played by Billy Dee Williams. He has one of the greatest arcs of any character in the series, maybe even greater than Luke or Han. He moves convincingly from enigma, to traitor, to hero in a relatively minuscule amount of screen time, proof of the lightning efficiency of Kasdan’s final script and the skill of Williams’s performance. Calrissian is one of the truly fascinating characters in pop culture: a scoundrel, a romantic, a villain, and ultimately a hero. Besides Darth Vader himself, he is a great example of one of the trilogy’s central themes—redemption. Though touched on in the character of Han Solo in the first film as well, he is the illustration of George Lucas’s apparent central belief that a person can truly change for the better given the right circumstances and relationships.
Of course, the film’s culmination in its dark ending is the riskiest element of the film. Yes, Star Wars was a massive hit, but there were no guarantees that Empire would be as well. Long before Avengers: Infinity War, to end the film with multiple cliffhangers and unanswered questions was incredibly daring. One of our main heroes ends the film in a block of carbonite—a frozen metallic substance—and shipped off to the gangster Jabba the Hutt. Another is revealed to be the son of the most vicious villain in the galaxy after losing his hand in a showdown with that villain. At the end of the film, the heroes have escaped, but only barely. The rebel alliance remains on the run and on the brink of extinction while the evil Galactic Empire is stronger than ever and Vader even more determined to turn Luke to the dark side of the Force.
No film up to that point had the guts to make such a wager on its own success. A failure would have meant financial ruin for both Lucasfilm as a company and George Lucas personally as he put up much of his own money to ensure artistic independence. He even defied the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) to sustain continuity with the original by starting the film without a director’s credit. When the union fined the production and its director, Lucas resigned from the guild in protest, paid the fines himself, and staunchly defended Irvin Kershner to assure his ability to remain in the DGA. This also led to the need to hire a non-union director for Return of the Jedi. Lucas had originally planned for the third instalment to be helmed by his good friend Steven Spielberg, but these disputes with the DGA made that impossible.
The final touch of greatness brought to The Empire Strikes Back is the transcendent score by the great John Williams. His score for the original became instantly iconic and it seemed impossible that he could ever top it. In Empire, he does in every way. Not only does Williams replicate the greatest elements of the first score but builds on them with new themes, some of them the best pieces of music in the entire saga. Of course, the Main Title, the Force, and rebel fleet themes all return in memorable ways, but he adds a sweeping love theme for Han and Leia, a lovely and mysterious melody for Yoda, and a fun and jaunty one for the droids. The pursuit through the asteroid field is accompanied by music that is quite unconventional for an action sequence in that it is very lyrical and more about the wonders of space than the speed and movement itself. Most memorable of all is Darth Vader’s theme, “The Imperial March,” truly one of the greatest single pieces of music ever written for a film. It is instantly recognisable, giving a sense of grandeur and character that can only be expressed through these most unique and mysterious art forms.
Every blockbuster sequel to come owes something to The Empire Strikes Back and few have ever equalled it. It stands up to uncountable viewings, endless debate and discussion, and incessant analysis. Above all, though, it remains a great entertainment, but one that offers depths and challenges along the way. Few blockbusters have been willing to explore human darkness quite as much as Empire and do so as successfully. When a film becomes so engrained in culture that we take it for granted, it is easy to ask if it is really that good. With Empire, there is simply no question. It really is that good, its influence really that great, and its reputation really that deserved. Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
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