By the time it was time to make a sequel to the biggest film in the world, George Lucas backed out.
The sheer stress of getting Star Wars made had traumatised poor George to the extent that he couldn’t actually bring himself to direct anymore and bring in someone to do the day to day job while he oversaw on set. The man he hired was his USC mentor Irvin Kershner because of his strong character work but instead of being a willing mouthpiece (like Richard Marquand was on Return Of The Jedi) Lucas found himself butting heads with his chosen director.
If you heard a behind the scenes story like that today, you’d automatically write the finished film off unseen, as a blatant trainwreck and yet from the broiling on-set tensions and frequent frustrations emerged one of the greatest movies ever made. A sequel that expands the scope of it’s universe exponentially, yet still is versatile enough to narrow it’s focus to flesh out much loved characters even further, The Empire Strikes Back is a wonderful example of a franchise maturing before your very eyes. Every character goes through an emotional wringer and comes out the other side fundamentally changed to their very core, every set-piece stretching the very limits to what movies can achieve and the addition of new characters enriches the universe rather than cluttering it. And, most importantly, it remains empathetically Star Wars throughout.
After the Rebel Alliance’s massive victory against the evil Empire by detonating the Death Star like a moon-sized piñata things have decidedly gone south. Getting their butts handed to at every turn, the Rebels have retreated to the icy wastelands of the planet Hoth but a fleet led by Darth Vader (no longer playing second fiddle to Peter Cushing and upping his villain score a thousand-fold) isn’t far behind. Meanwhile, after a rather unpleasant encounter with one of Hoth’s indigenous predators, Luke Skywalker gets a message from the force-ghost of his dead Jedi mentor to go to the planet of Dagobah and seek out the Jedi master known as Yoda. As for the rest of the gang, Chewie is having trouble fixing a defective Millenium Falcon and the sexual tension between Han and Leia is reaching critical levels. Of course it’s at this point the Empire appears with their giant, Kaiju-esque Imperial Walkers and what ensues is one of the greatest battle sequences OF ALL TIME. In the chaos the group split, Luke and R2 head off in search of Yoda (kudos to Hamill for putting in such a performance opposite what essentially is a beeping trash can and a hand puppet without losing his mind) and are stunned by what they find and the rest lead the Empire in a butt-clenching (and utterly exhilarating) chase through and asteroid field en-route to and old friend of Han’s who can possibly give them shelter. Needless to say things don’t go as planned and betrayal, loss and a one on one confrontation between Darth Vader himself and a hopelessly unprepared Luke are on the cards, but worse may yet be to come with a twist revelation that will change things forever.
And change things do, as The Empire Strikes Back’s additions are monumental: Yoda, Boba Fett, Lando, The Emperor (in shadowy hologram form), John Williams’ “Empire theme”, as the years have gone by each one has become as important to the build block that make up the Star Wars universe as R2-D2 or Chewbacca and that’s not even mentioning THAT twist and THAT cliffhanger…
The maturity that Kirshner brings doesn’t stop at the story or character either as he brings a visual style to proceedings not truly seem again until J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens. Darth Vader is under lit with vibrant, demonic oranges in the harrowing Bespin scenes and the epic, insanely emotional climatic lightsaber clash is harsh and brutal, filmed in cold greys and blues.
A go-to guide for every sequel made since, whether it’s set in a Galaxy far, far away or not, The Empire Strikes Back not only equals it’s near flawless predecessor but arguably exceeds it in nearly every way.
Don’t believe me? Search your feelings, you KNOW it to be true.