So I watched The Empire Strikes Back…
Sequels can be tricky. Trying to tap into the magic that made the original a hit whilst attempting to create new magic to set the follow-up apart is a fine art. Not many movies get it right. Empire Strikes Back is in an exclusive group of sequels that have not only matched the quality of the original but have surpassed it. Films like Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Dark Knight, The Godfather Part II. Sequels that are so well-made that, in many instances, they replace the original in our minds.
Okay, basic plot: After the destruction of The Death Star, at the hands of the Rebel Alliance, The Empire has greatly increased its efforts to destroy the rebellion. Young Luke Skywalker has become a prized target for The Empire with both Darth Vader and The Emperor recognising the potential power of this Jedi student. As Skywalker travels to Dagobah to be trained by Jedi master, Yoda; Vader pursues his friends – Han Solo and Princess Leia. With a confrontation between Skywalker and Vader looming, Luke must ensure that he completes his training in time or risk the lives of his friends.
Let’s begin with Darth Vader. As previously stated in my review of A New Hope, I didn’t enjoy the way the character was marginalised. I much prefer the way he’s depicted in this film. He’s far more menacing and has this ruthless determination about his character. This film, as the title suggests, is about The Empire firing back at The Rebellion and taking their revenge. It’s the next logical step in the story and feels like an organic continuation of the first film instead of a cash-hungry sequel. I loved the darker, more sombre tone this film chose to take. There are no grand parties or celebrations for our heroes; their victories (the few that they manage) are hard-fought and always come at a great expense.
This is probably the most personal story of the entire Star Wars saga. It’s Darth Vader hunting down Luke and his friends. The civil war between Rebels and Empire is pushed to the background and there’s a sharper focus on our heroes. Now with such a personal story being told and with no intergalactic battle raging on, you’d expect the stakes to be lowered; but, in fact, they’re actually higher than ever for two reasons. 1. We’re so heavily invested, emotionally, in the success of our heroes that losing them would feel catastrophic. 2. It’s becoming more and more clear that the battle between this group of heroes and Vader is what’s going to settle the war; not the thousands of soldiers and ships of their respective armies.
There’s also the introduction of Yoda who is, bar Mr Miyagi, probably the greatest film mentor of all time. Every word that comes out of his mouth – albeit in the wrong order – is pure gold. If you read my review on A New Hope, you’ll remember I said that I clearly remember the moment I fell in love with each movie from the original trilogy. The moment I fell in love with this movie is during Yoda’s instruction of Luke on the ways of The Force. He’s explaining to Luke the nature and power of The Force and during this speech he says one of my favourite lines from the entire saga.
“Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we; not this crude matter.”
I’m not joking when I say that listening to that line and appreciating what it meant was one of the most deeply religious moments of my life. Isn’t that what every religion is preaching to us? That we are more than just flesh and blood, that we are all connected by some higher power? That this higher power can heal us, guide us and make us into more than what we are? I love the time and care that was taken into explaining what The Force is without overcomplicating it or ruining it with midi-chlorians. Seriously, why did Lucas invent midi-chlorians but let’s save that discussion for my review of the prequels.
I’ve watched this film about three or four times and, even before I watched it, I already knew the big twist concerning Vader. It’s become such a large part of pop-culture and is referenced in so many places that there’s no way of avoiding it. Even with all of that, I still feel a bit of shock whenever I hear Vader reveal the full truth about his character. It’s such a well-written twist and is everything a good twist should be because it’s so unexpected. But when you look back at the first movie and certain comments made by characters, it makes perfect sense. A lot of movies nowadays try to have twists of this magnitude but often stretch the story to make the twist fit; instead of stretching the twist to make it fit the story.
Overall, The Empire Strikes Back gives us everything we loved about the original just bigger and better. Darth Vader reaches full badass status and owns this entire film. We get to see progression in all our favourite heroes, not only in their personalities but also in the relationships between them. This film is everything a sequel should be and another one of those movies that everyone needs to see. 9/10