It’s 40 years this month since The Empire Strikes Back was released, and for most of that time the second film in the Star Wars series has been enshrined as the best: the darkest, the most complex, the most mature. Directed by Irvin Kershner, it’s the Star Wars episode with the highest score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes (94%) and from viewers on Imdb (8.7), and the one that is said to elevate the saga as a whole. “It is because of the emotions stirred in Empire,” wrote Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times when the film was re-released in 1997, “that the entire series takes on a mythic quality that resonates back to the first and ahead to the third. This is the heart.”
This article was originally published in May 2020.
More like this:
I wish I could agree. This might come across as a contrarian hot take, but it seems obvious to me that the best film in the Star Wars series is, in fact, Star Wars. (I know we’re supposed to call it ‘A New Hope’ these days, but it was called Star Wars when it came out in 1977, so that’s good enough for me.) What’s more, it seems obvious that The Empire Strikes Back is the source of all the franchise’s problems. Whatever issues we geeks grumble about when we’re discussing the numerous prequels and sequels, they can all be traced back to 1980.
The Empire Strikes Back is a gloomier, more convoluted and repetitive film than Star Wars – and its production design isn’t on the same level
I should add, before too many people attempt a Darth Vader-style Force choke through the internet, that I wouldn’t be saying this if I wasn’t in awe of what George Lucas accomplished as the writer, director and producer of the original Star Wars. That swashbuckling adventure! Those iconic characters! That lived-in world with its wealth of history, mythology, politics and technology! I’m not completely happy with Alec Guinness’s toupee, but otherwise Lucas’s masterpiece gets more astonishing with every re-watch.
Then came The Empire Strikes Back – a gloomier film, admittedly, but also a slower, stodgier, more contrived, convoluted and repetitive one. Again, I’m not being perverse here. In 1980, several critics were underwhelmed, including Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who stated that the sequel wasn’t “as fresh and funny and surprising and witty” as Star Wars. It was, he believed, “a big, expensive, time-consuming, essentially mechanical operation”.
Narrative logic suggests that Obi-Wan should continue training Luke, but he is cold-shouldered in favour of Yoda
I wouldn’t go that far, but let’s be sensible about this. The production design is clearly not on the same level as Star Wars. The Rebel base on the ice planet looks roughly what you’d expect a Rebel base on an ice planet to look like; the plain white plastic corridors of Cloud City could have been salvaged from the studio bins after a Star Trek film had wrapped. These shortcomings are disguised by Peter Suschitzky’s atmospheric cinematography. (A master of shadows, reflections and deep colour, he would go on to be David Cronenberg’s regular director of photography.) But not even Suschitzky’s spine-tingling work could improve the derivative story.
It betrays Star Wars, trashing so much of the good work that was done three years earlier
Key events in Star Wars include Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) being knocked unconscious by a wilderness alien; Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) being captured by Darth Vader (Dave Prowse’s body paired with James Earl Jones’s voice); Luke learning about the Force from a Jedi master in a remote cave; a lightsaber duel that ends badly for the good guys; a ‘scoundrel’ abandoning the Rebels before having a change of heart; and a protracted battle between the ranks of the Rebel Alliance and the heavily armed Empire. Switch around the order of those events, and you’ve got The Empire Strikes Back. And while the screenwriters, Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, did a clever job of revising and reshuffling our favourite scenes, that hardly compares to Lucas’s achievement of dreaming up those scenes in the first place.
‘Setting a bad example’
But here’s where things get tricky. My grievance with The Empire Strikes Back isn’t that it sticks to the winning formula established by Star Wars: that’s what most sequels do, after all. My grievance is that it also betrays Star Wars, trashing so much of the good work that was done three years earlier. My un-Jedi-like anger bubbles up even before the first scene – at the beginning of the ‘opening crawl’ of introductory text, to be precise. “It is a dark time for the Rebellion,” says this prose preamble. “Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy.”
Haaaaang on a minute. “Although the Death Star has been destroyed”? “Although”? The sole aim of the heroes and heroines in Star Wars was to destroy the Death Star, a humungous planet-pulverising spaceship of crucial strategic importance to the Empire. One of their big cheeses announced that “fear of this battle station” would keep every dissenter in line. Another hailed it as “the ultimate power in the universe”. But now the Rebels’ demolishing of the ultimate power in the universe is waved aside with an “although”? That, frankly, is not on. And it’s just the first of many instances when The Empire Strikes Back asks us to pretend that Star Wars didn’t happen.
The screenwriters of The Empire Strikes Back reshuffled and reordered the plot of Star Wars
Remember that scene in Star Wars when an Imperial admiral mocked Darth Vader for his “sad devotion to that ancient [Jedi] religion”? Forget it – because in The Empire Strikes Back we’re told that the Emperor himself is devoted to the same religion. And what about Obi-Wan Kenobi? Remember how he started training Luke to be a Jedi knight partly because his previous pupil, Darth Vader, turned to the Dark Side of the Force? Narrative logic demands that the ghostly Obi-Wan should keep on training Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, and send his new apprentice into combat against his old one. Forget it. The poor chap is cold-shouldered so that Yoda can train Luke instead.
It twists the saga from the political to the personal, from space opera to soap opera
Watching Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back one after the other is like watching a hijacking: you’re seeing a juggernaut being held up and driven in another direction. You can sense that Lucas and his team aren’t focusing on the current film any more – they’re setting up the third part in what would now be a trilogy – and they are no longer interested in wars in the stars. Despite its title, The Empire Strikes Back is rarely about the Alliance v the Empire, it’s about who is related to whom and who is in love with whom (the two sometimes overlap). It twists the saga from the political to the personal, from space opera to soap opera. Is it possible to say whether the Empire is better or worse off at the end of the film, after all that supposed striking back? Not really. None of that matters, apparently, compared to the booming declaration: “I am your father!”
If The Empire Strikes Back had been a one-off, I could have forgiven it by now. But what about all the many films that have used it as a model – all the films that have tarnished Star Wars by contradicting its mythos and obsessing over its family trees? All the tiresome dramatic revelations which have tried and failed to be as mind-blowing as the one about Luke’s lineage? I was annoyed when Qui-Gon Jinn was shoehorned into Obi Wan’s past in The Phantom Menace, annoyed when Rey became Palpatine’s granddaughter (or something) in The Rise of Skywalker, annoyed when the emergence of the all-conquering First Order in The Force Awakens reduced everything done by Luke, Leia and Han Solo to a footnote. But I accept that the writers and directors of those films were only following The Empire Strikes Back’s bad example.
It’s not just Star Wars films that have made the exasperating mistake of prioritising franchise-building over simply making a good film, either.. Think of all those films and TV shows that assume we’ll jump for joy when the villain is revealed to be Sherlock Holmes’ sister or James Bond’s childhood pal. Think of all those superhero blockbusters that waste time teeing up the next instalment in the series. I’m sorry, but The Empire Strikes Back has to take the blame for all of them. Search your feelings, you know it to be true.
Love film and TV? Join BBC Culture Film and TV Club on Facebook, a community for cinephiles all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.