As the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker nears, so does the end of the third trilogy in the Star Wars saga. Thus, it is an ideal time to look back on each film that came before it, in chronological order, starting with the prequels. This is The Empire Strikes Back, which is still hailed as the high-point of the series.
The film’s three act structure corresponds with three wonderfully realised locations, each hosting one of the acts before the story moves on. After our re-introduction to the characters of Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) on the frozen Hoth, the film divides its characters for most of its runtime. On this planet we also get the first of many action sequences which populate the film.
Leia and Han spend their time evading the Empire in space, while a romance develops between the two of them. Both Fisher and Ford give strong performances and their characters do feel real, which is why it’s a shame that their romantic subplot is so devoid of life. Their relationship goes from bickering to love in a matter of a few scenes and the film never establishes a sense of meaningful connection between them.
In the meantime, on the other side of the galaxy Luke visits the swamps of Dagobah to train as a Jedi under master Yoda (Frank Oz). This entire sequence is, to put it simply, fantastic. The wise little green alien is a wonderful creature and as a mentor, he and Luke compliment each other, as he’s resentful about training him, while Luke is eager to prove himself to be a worthy padawan. Their relationship anchors the film as he teaches the young boy to understand the ways of the Force and become a Jedi, before facing Darth Vader (David Prowse, James Earl Jones).
The Empire Strikes Back culminates on Bespin, the cloud city. Han and Leia are met there with an old friend of Han’s, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), a charming ex-smuggler, who now acts as the leader of Bespin. Their romance undergoes a great challenge and a sacrifice, right as Luke’s entering the scene to save them. However, instead of his friends he finds Vader waiting for him. They duel in a beautiful sequence, courtesy of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (Eastern Promises). It is there, where Luke learns a dark truth about the past from his enemy. Speaking of Vader, he’s the standout character of The Empire Strikes Back, with multiple powerful moments and one scene that immortalised this film forever.
Compared to its predecessor, this film diverts from the family friendly aesthetic and delves into a darker territory, which proves to be a step in the right direction. It deepens not only the world building, but also the characters as they’re forced to cope with life-threatening situations during the entire runtime. The Empire Strikes Back is also much more action-heavy, featuring multiple amazing battle scenes. The opening fight on Hoth is among the best in the entire series, with miniatures blending in with cutting-edge visual effects, even if they certainly are a product of their time. It’s a massive battle with an amazing sense of scale and from there on the film focuses mainly on small combat, against hordes of stormtroopers.
The Empire Strikes Back is a sequel that not only broadens and deepens the world of the original, but works just as well on its own. With strong performances and iconic moments, the film can’t be denied its historical importance as it gave Star Wars the legendary status it still holds today.