As we know, by 1980 STAR WARS was already a pop culture phenomenon and a merchandising juggernaut. It had even been rereleased once, with the subtitle "Episode IV: A New Hope". George Lucas made enough money to effectively finance the sequels himself (though Fox would end up throwing in completion funds for this entry when it went over budget), and the question became whether the sequel would be anywhere near as impressive. The standard was still for a sequel to be a reprise of the original with just enough variation to qualify as a new movie, and though there were notable exceptions already, it must have seemed just as probable that the next STAR WARS would be closer to JAWS 2 than THE GODFATHER PART II. But the creative team behind THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK- which included Lucas (acting as story writer, executive producer and general showrunner), director Irvin Kershner, and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett (a notable science fiction author who died shortly after completion of an early draft)- treated the film not as a retread but as the second act in a trilogy, working from ideas Lucas had sketched out years ago to create a challenging, complex film that stands out as the most popular example of a sequel that's better than the original. Bringing nuance and shades of grey to a black-and-white space opera, the film may just be the finest FLASH GORDON chapter ever made.
We open some years after the destruction of the Death Star at the end of A NEW HOPE. Despite their initial victory, the Rebels are on the run from rebounding Imperial forces, and have hidden out on the remote ice world of Hoth. Luke Skywalker, after falling afoul of a hideous ice monster, has a vision of his departed mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, who tells him to go to the Dagobah system and seek instruction from the ancient Jedi Master Yoda. Meanwhile, Darth Vader has been leading the Imperial fleet on a hunt for the Rebels which seems specifically to be a hunt for Skywalker, and they soon discover the hidden base. An Imperial assault headed by giant metallic snow walkers forces the Rebels to evacuate, and Luke heads to Dagobah with R2-D2 while Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3P0 try to flee the system in the Millennium Falcon. Unfortunately, the ship's hyperdrive is on the blink, limiting its ability to go anywhere, and Han and company must dodge asteroids, TIE fighters, space monsters and bounty hunters in their quest for safety. Meanwhile, Luke meets the eccentric alien creature Yoda (a particularly well-articulated puppet voiced by Frank Oz) and begins to learn more about the nature of the Force.
Easily the darkest chapter in the original trilogy (its status as regards the entire series is more debatable), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK basically takes the "flight to safety" portion of your average serial and makes it almost the entire feature. The action is dominated by Han and his friends trying to escape the Empire's attentions, and as such the group of characters seldom acts because they're too busy being acted upon. Contrasting this is Luke's more proactive attempt to become a Jedi, something he decided upon in the first movie, but even then he finds himself influenced by a larger destiny. Buffeted about by fate, the characters nonetheless find some time for internal growth. Han and Leia begin a classically antagonistic romance, while Han wrestles with the questions of responsibility he again began facing in the last episode (he has decided to leave the Rebels at the start, still having a debt to his boss Jabba the Hutt, but is forced to stay to rescue Luke from freezing to death in the open and later becomes wrapped up in the evacuation effort.) When Luke faces Darth Vader in the depths of Cloud City, the villain acts as a tempter, trying to defeat Luke in combat and/or turn him to the Dark Side, finally letting slip a particularly earth-shattering piece of information as an extra lure. Chances are you know what it is.
What really makes the film work, though, is balance. It's dark, but it's still pulpy and vaguely hopeful, the series of unfortunate events balanced by the quietly astonishing scenes wherein Yoda demonstrates the powers of the Force and its nature as a transcendental connection between all things. If the heroes can't win this round, they can at least endure and resist and, for the most part, escape. The choice of Kershner- who had taught Lucas at film school and had mostly made small, character-driven films- as director helps this fairly delicate mixture of old movie conventions and operatic drama and subtle character development. Kershner proves adept at both the big and small stuff, and this time around both really had to work.
Another neat trick the film accomplishes- and one that was instrumental in the series retaining the fan following it has today- is its expansion of the "universe" of STAR WARS. The first film, trying to get out a self-contained story in about two hours on limited budgetary resources, stuck to the basics. Young farmboy, backwater world, mysterious mentor, beautiful princess, lovable scoundrel, etc. We saw some strange creatures in a cantina, a bit of Jedi swordplay, and references to the Emperor and the Old Republic, but the film was focused on presenting a seemingly complete hero's journey. Now, with more money and an audience already hooked, things could open up. We see entirely new worlds, stranger creatures, the Emperor himself (played in the original version by an old woman, the eyes of a chimpanzee and the voice of Clive Revill, and yeah, in the long run just putting some makeup on Ian McDiarmid was probably the better choice), new ships and gadgets, life in a Rebel base, the altogether more perilous life on board an Imperial Star Destroyer, weird midget-pig men, and in the long run, enough to turn "Star Wars" into its own unique science fiction universe. We sci-fi fans love this stuff. We like good individual stories, but show us a vast and endless starscape and we'll fill in all the blanks. To an extent, the film has its own look; cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (later a regular collaborator with David Cronenberg) emphasizes the grime and the wear and the overall detail of the world we're looking into, giving the film a vaguely realistic look. And again, there's balance. Despite the different look, and all the new stuff, it's all recognizably of a piece with what we saw in the first movie. It's the same universe, just another corner. Another superb John Williams score also helps hold things together while introducing new motifs, particularly the famous "Imperial March."
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK ensured that STAR WARS would end up being a genuine mythic saga, and a cultural touchstone for at least a generation. (It would also start an unfortunate "the darker the better" view of dramatic storytelling among science fiction aficionados, something for which we are still paying. But I didn't blame A NEW HOPE for killing the New Hollywood and I'm not gonna blame this one for anything either.) Moreover, it was and is a genuine masterpiece of science fiction cinema, proving the dramatic potential of one of its least-esteemed subgenres. Had the film somehow flopped, and the franchise ended there, it would still stand as a towering achievement. But it didn't end there, and though we've already covered the best entry, there's still plenty to chew on.