Welcome to the “Star Wars” countdown and may the Force be with you. Each week leading up to the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” The Pitt News will retroactively review the “Star Wars” movies chronologically. The countdown continues this week with “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.”
Don’t let its place within the original trilogy distract you — “The Empire Strikes Back” is the golden standard for Hollywood sequels.
The first installment of any trilogy has to spend a certain amount of time setting things up: It has to introduce its roster of characters, establish locations and develop a world within the film. “Empire” expands on the universe “A New Hope” established without succumbing to formulaic tropes and irrelevant new characters. But with sequels, the filmmakers can hop right back into the action, free of having to set up everything. Sequels, though not always successfully, have the ability to take what was great about the first film and expand — but not duplicate.
Unlike later installments in the “Star Wars” franchise, “Empire’s” dialogue is snappy, the inevitable romance is believable, stray lines of Jedi wisdom actually seem wise and the surprises are enough to raise eyebrows every time — but when it was first released in 1980, “The Empire Strikes Back” received mixed reviews from critics.
Some criticized its story structure, as the middle section of an epic trilogy, as being without a beginning or end. Thirty-five years later, “Empire” is considered the best of the “Star Wars” saga, and it seems like every film sequel since has tried to emulate its second-installment approach.
The film starts off three years after the events of “A New Hope,” and the rebels, led by Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and a restless Han Solo, have set up camp on the frozen tundra-like planet Hoth, beautifully designed by the effects team.
The scrolling text informs us that destroying the Death Star has not ended the war by any means, and Darth Vader continues to search for the rebels — specifically Luke.
Meanwhile, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s spirit commands Luke to continue on his Jedi path by finding and learning from Master Yoda on the planet Dagobah. He is surprised, as perhaps audiences were on initial viewing, to find Yoda is a small innocuous-looking green monster portrayed by Frank Oz’s puppetry. Yoda represents one of the biggest keys to a sequel surpassing its predecessor — new scene-stealing characters.
Not only does Yoda become the face of “Empire,” but he is today arguably the most iconic character in all of “Star Wars” — and he doesn’t enter until well into the second episode.
“Empire” also doesn’t let its character relationships detract from the plot. This is the chapter where Han Solo and Princess Leia develop a romance as they bicker from scene to scene. The first film played with the idea of a love triangle between the three heroes, but that dissolves in “Empire.”
Their antagonistic romance, while cliche, is engaging and fun even through some serious dramatic sequences. The dialogue is playful and light — something “Attack of the Clones” was not — which goes a long way in developing the tone not just of individual relationships, but of the entire film.
Of the three films in the original triology, “Empire” harbors some of the most iconic lines of the entire franchise. From Han’s bittersweet goodbye just before he’s dipped into carbonite, where Leia’s desperate “I love you” is met with a sheepish “I know,” to the big, resounding “I am your father.” And don’t forget Yoda’s often quoted, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
The story culminates in Cloud City, one of the saga’s most memorable locations. The lightsaber duelling climax between Luke and Vader, while often lampooned as campy, is unforgettably epic — without any grunts and a minimal score, only the clash and hum of the lightsabers. It’s pure suspense, even as Vader heavily outmatches Luke.
Unlike “A New Hope,” it’s the good guys that are sent packing by the end, not the baddies. With Vader having sliced off Luke’s hand and Han Solo now space gangster Jabba the Hutt’s latest mantel decoration, we would have to wait a tantalizing three years to learn the rebels’ fates. Of course, this doesn’t apply to today’s binge-watching society, but the principle remains.
Anyone drawn into the “Star Wars” universe from “A New Hope” was even more drawn in with “The Empire Strikes Back’s” originality and continuation of the galaxy far, far away.