If Star Wars: A New Hope led to a resurgence of science fiction storytelling in Hollywood. Then The Empire Strikes Back led to the creation of the onscreen saga. Taking the imagination and energy of the first instalment and injecting it with character development, love and diversity. In turn creating so much more than a sequel, as it expanded the Star Wars universe. While also embedding the Skywalker story that would go on to create a whole saga of adventures. Therefore, without Empire, there may have never been the universe of films, TV and media we now take for granted.
However, The Empire Strikes Back did not come into being without significant risk to George Lucas. Who chose to fund the film himself rather than use the usual studio system. Ensuring he maintained complete creative control in the process of filmmaking. While in turn placing the very future of his fledgeling Lucasfilm on the chopping block.
After the success of Star Wars audience expectations of the sequel were riding high, as was the potential for further merchandising revenue. But in order to deliver against these expectations, The Empire Strikes Back would need to push the boundaries of special effects even further. While also building the story of Luke, Han, Leia and Vader into something truly epic. No easy feat for any film, and one that very few movies prior to Empire had achieved; The Godfather Part II the only notable exception. However, Lucas believed in the project, despite its darker story and focus on the Empire above rebellion. Passing directing duties to Irvin Kershner to ensure he could concentrate on the evolution of ILM and the special effects work needed.
Kershner was a character-driven director, who believed in the need for The Empire Strikes Back to stand alone from Star Wars. Less an imitation of the first film, and more a distinct second act in an ongoing play. One where the audience was plunged into darkness before the light shone through in a potential third and final act. Taking inspiration from Shakespeare in ensuring Empire sat firmly as the connector between the birth of the rebellion and the redemption of Vader. While in turn providing George Lucas with a stable pair of hands in bringing his vision to life. With Kershner’s character-driven direction offering a more nuanced tone than the action and adventure of the first instalment.
The end result would divide public opinion on its release in 1980. With universal praise for the outstanding special effects work dovetailed with both positive and mediocre critical reviews. Something that is hard to believe when you look at Kershner and Lucas’ masterpiece forty years later. But equally something that has also haunted the recent middle picture of the sequels The Last Jedi. A film that very much took its cue from Empires structure.
In fact, when Return of the Jedi hit screens a few years after Empire, many praised the return to form of the third chapter. Almost choosing to forget that The Empire Strikes Back had even been released. Something that equally translated to the growing VHS video market here in the UK, where both Star Wars and Return of the Jedi were made available long before Empire. And yet in the proceeding years, it is The Empire Strikes Back that has risen to the top of the saga. Becoming a firm favourite among fans and the wider general public. Its darker focus and character-building narrative finally receiving the praise it so duly deserved. Of course, that does not mean Empire flopped at the box office, in fact adjusting for inflation it is still the second highest-grossing sequel of all time.
So why did Empire divide public opinion so much? and why is it now universally hailed as the best Star Wars film?
The answer to these questions lay in the brave decision to focus Empire on tragedy and loss, enabling the characters to build resilience and hope. While in turn giving birth to the tragic story of Anakin Skywalker. Echoing the drama and structure of William Shakespeares Henry VI Part One and Two, by allowing space for our young heroes to explore the darkness within. Alongside the family ties that would either feed their internal darkness or extinguish it. Ultimately providing us with a sequel that jettisons the traditional ending in favour of individual journey and personal growth. And just as Henry V would have had less significance without the preceding journey of young Hal and his inner turmoil. The Star Wars saga would have suffered without giving space to the exploration of loss, defeat and separation in achieving unity and hope.
Therefore it was not until the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, that the pure beauty of The Empire Strikes Back was visible. Its important themes only resonating with the general public on the completion of the overarching story. Where its place as the connector between rebellion and redemption could finally be appreciated in full. The Empire Strikes Back followed The Godfather Part II in embracing the structure of Shakespearean drama on screen. Creating the darker and more character focussed middle film in a trilogy or saga. Something audiences have since grown accustomed to in films ranging from The Dark Knight to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
But aside from the theoretical reasons for Empire becoming the definitive Star Wars movie. This is also a film that is truly epic in scale and vision. Pushing the boundaries of special effects even further than its predecessor. While introducing characters and worlds that helped further embed Star Wars in the public imagination. From the iconic Yoda to Bobba Fett and modernist landscape of Cloud City. While John Williams sublime score wraps each scene in a warm quilt of emotion, excitement and wonder. Ultimately creating a film that not only surpasses the beauty, imagination and effects of Star Wars. But ensured the birth of an entire saga of nine films and countless spin-offs. This is the film that built an Empire, and in turn, built a fan base like no other. Providing a Shakespearean continuation of a space opera that changed cinema and filmmaking forever.
Director: Irvin Kershner