The Empire Strikes Back
When a film makes a ton of money and acclaim for a studio it is only natural that sequels will be spawned. Basically, there are two approaches to go with sequels, first, use the same characters in a stand alone film only loosely connected to the original. Such franchises like the Indiana Jones and Die Hard flicks fall into this category. Then there is the extension of the original story such as done in the Lord of the Rings. This way of doing things is more difficult, requires pre-planning and greater attention to continuity so naturally Hollywood tends to avoid it. With Star Wars creator George Lucas allows envisioned a set of nine stories to tell the entire tale so naturally he chose the more difficult approach. With The Empire Strikes Back the Lucas not only extends the pre-existing plot lines but he added inventive twists that are no part of our culture. Trilogies like this take on the aspects of a finely tuned three act play. The first act is the set up, it introduces the characters and main themes, and the second is typically darker and places the leads in the direst of circumstances while the third is more liberating, the resolutions are at hand and there is the infamous closure.
True to the formula Empire is the darkest of the three films in the original trilogy. While the Rebels have struck a huge blow to the evil empire they have not done more than wounded them. The Empire is more resolved than ever to destroy the rebels and be rid of the mess. Darth Vader also is on a blood quest for our little band of heroes that thwarted him. As we learn later in the film there is a far more personal reason for his desire to find Luke. There is a lot of character growth in this installment. Luke goes from the innocent farm boy to a general in the rebel army. He also is driven to follow his fatherís footsteps and become a true Jedi knight. This sets the story up for a classic theme, the mentor/apprentice relationship. With the introduction of Master Yoda not only does Luke find a path to his Jedi goal but he has a connection with his father and his surrogate father, Obi Wan. Where Uncle Owen stunted Luke Yoda challenges him forcing him to reach farther than Luke ever believed he could go. Mark Hamill displays an emotional depth with his portrayal of Luke. Although he is learning to master the force he is still an uncertain and scared individual. When he is faced with the truth that Vader is his father he would rather die than live as his enemyís son.
Han Solo is also permitted great growth in this second act. While Harrison Ford played him as cynical and self centered in the first movie, here, Han has grown into his responsibility as a rebel general and more importantly, a person capable of being a real friend to Luke. Since Han is now a responsible person we need a new rake in the mix. Enter Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). In many ways he is the mirror for Han, a former roust about that is now a responsible city administrator. This gives Han a glimpse at the path he is now on.
Even Vader takes on a deeper character here. The audience begins to see some of the motivation behind Vader. While he is bound to serve his master, the Emperor, he hopes that with his son he can replace his master as ruler of the galaxy. The only unchanging characters are the two robots. CP3O and R2D2 remain the comic relief for the film and also as a catalyst to stir up the action.
This film is expertly paced as few films are. Keeping with the darker nature Lucas slowly surrounds the heroes with their impending doom. Rather than rush head long into danger there is enough time permitted to allow the characters to develop and the story lines to be extended. Because of this by the time the then shocking revelation of Vaderís paternity the audience is almost emotionally drained. The audience reflects the exhaustion displayed in Luke and we left the theater in an uncertain state. Lucas managed to play the emotions of the audience perfectly balancing satisfaction with this installment and yet driven to know what happens next. Lucas also ingenuously gets out of a typical dilemma found in a second act. A main character usually has to sacrifice himself to save the others. The solution was somewhat thrust upon Lucas. Harrison Ford by this time was famous not only as Han Solo but as Indiana Jones. Ford was reluctant to commit to a third film but Lucas wanted to keep his options open. The solution was to freeze Han in Metal effectively giving us the apparent death of a lead character, providing the required sacrifice and yet keeping the door open if Ford should decide to return. Although Lucas did not direct this film, that honor went to Irvin Kershner, there was no doubt that Lucas controlled even the smallest aspects of the production.
At the time Empire was made Lucasí special effects team, Industrial Lights and Magic, was a group of finely honed experts. They were able to stir the imagination of the audience in excess of even the first film. The sets used went from the beauty of the sky city to the dark depths of the battle cruiser. Each setting fit naturally into the film and took us away from the many problems we faced in the eighties.
With high marks for writing, acting and special effects this is considered by many to be the best of the bunch and rightfully so. This movie is an emotional roller coaster that serves not only as a connection between the first and third (or forth and sixth if you prefer), it stands on its own as a film worthy of the highest praise. Empire is dark and foreboding yet there are elements of growing romance, friendship and hope serving as an undercurrent. Although he has tons more money at his disposal and modern special effects it is doubtful that Lucas will surpass this film. The original may have changed movie making forever but this film is more emotionally challenging.