The Empire Strikes Back has no business being as good as it is. Star Wars may have been great fun, but replicating great fun is not always easy. Replicating great fun while deepening your fictional universe and taking your characters in surprising and thrilling new directions is even harder. Making a bridging second film in a trilogy better than the introducing or concluding films ain’t easy either. When you further consider the fact that Lucas later got into the business of consistently running his franchises into the ground with appallingly bad sequels, it’s even more unbelievable. Yet, here it is, the best Star Wars film, and arguably the best science fiction film of all time.
I’ve always thought that a big part of the film’s success was the inclusion of a couple of veteran filmmakers: screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who wrote pulp sci-fi stories in the ‘40s and ‘50s but also wrote classic scripts for films like The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo,* and director Irvin Kershner. Add in young writer Lawrence Kasdan, who went on the write and direct films like The Big Chill, and you have the promise of witty dialogue and complex characters, certainly more than we ever saw in Star Wars before and after.
After an action-packed first act on the ice planet of Hoth, the film splits in two. Luke gets to explore the nature of being a Jedi with a muppet named Yoda in scenes that nicely balance slapstick humor with spiritual explorations. Han and Leia try to run from the Empire in a malfunctioning Millenium Falcon in a series of sequences that nicely recall the action-comedy of the escape from the Death Star in the first film while deepening the two characters’ relationship. Finally, we get much more on Darth Vader, possibly the most compelling villain in film history, as he searches for Luke. All three plot threads come together wonderfully in the final act at the stunning Cloud City of Bespin,** and the film ends with some great cliffhangers.
*though apparently some claim that nothing from Brackett’s script survives in the final film**Empire is also, by the way, the least annoying of the Special Editions, and some of the settings, like Bespin, do actually look better.