And so here we are: The best of all the Star Wars films (seven, as I write this). That's the conventional wisdom, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. The Empire Strikes Back showed what a sequel could and should be by taking the runaway success that was the first film and not simply cynically capitalizing on it as a property, but ambitiously advancing it as a part of a timeless storytelling saga. It's evident that director Irvin Kershner and the Lucas company wanted to deliver a worthy successor, and they most definitely did. This is a sequel that transcends the original in virtually every way.
Acting, directing, visual effects, production design, music, storytelling — you name it, and Empire steps it up into the stratosphere of an epic. Darth Vader, now obsessed with finding young Luke Skywalker, is more cold-hearted and terrifying than ever (dispatching and replacing admirals at the first sign of failure, which is good for some dark humor). If the original offered up a new hope and a major victory for the Rebellion, it was decidedly short-lived, as the Rebellion has now desperately holed up on the ice world of Hoth (which provides a nice contrast to the desert locales of the first film's Tatooine).
Everything about Empire oozes a darker and more moody atmosphere. John Williams, whose score of the original film was already legendary, composes here a masterpiece of unforgettable cinema symphonics, with the big, bold, iconic "Imperial March" as the signature centerpiece. I mean, wow, that score. It's emblematic of what you can do with the middle chapter of a trilogy. Now that we know who these people and what their stakes are, we can drop them into the middle of a very big and dramatic mess that doesn't have to be cleaned up until part three (or Episode VI, if you must). In the meantime, we get to really live inside and explore this universe and go to the most dramatically potent places.
After the big set-piece that is the Rebellion's escape from Hoth (and what an entertaining battle it is, showing how the franchise was determined to continue to raise the bar in terms of both the conceptualization and execution of the action sequences), we split up the band into multi-tiered character-and-plot building arcs centering on the budding Han/Leia romance as they attempt to evade Vader's fleet of star destroyers, and Luke's adventures on Dagobah to learn the ways of the Force from Jedi Master Yoda.
So we get a great action sequence that involves the Millennium Falcon flying through an asteroid field while being chased by TIE fighters. It plays like an exhilarating rollercoaster ride. With exploding TIE fighters. And then there's the frying-pan-to-fire realization when our heroes understand the nature of the cave they've attempted to hide inside. Great stuff. In the meantime, the Han/Leia romantic material is handled with the right modulation of grounded characterization and tempered restraint that allows it to flourish rather than flounder amid painful dialogue (I'm looking at you, Anakin and Padme).
Empire's realization of Yoda is proof that you can appeal to kids with a lovable creature without sacrificing a credible character and your adult audience's intelligence in the process (I'm looking at you, Jar Jar). Yoda is a brilliant design of puppetry, wonderfully performed by Frank Oz. He's as or more believable than many human characters in many movies. Yoda's monologues about the Force and the Dark Side are at the very core of the Star Wars mythos. Luke's inability to grasp Yoda's lessons put him in the audience role of skeptic, with Yoda turning us into believers.
All roads point to Cloud City, where all the plot lines converge into a masterful package of sci-fi adventure featuring terrible (for now, at least) fates for our protagonists. Han is betrayed by Lando (who tries futilely to band-aid all the bad things going on), frozen in carbonite, and handed over to Boba Fett for delivery to Jabba. Leia, Chewy, and the droids nearly get turned over to the Empire. And in what is one of the great twists in cinema history, Luke faces off in a much-anticipated lightsaber duel against Darth Vader (all exceptionally executed with great tension and atmosphere) only to learn that Vader is his father. If there's a greater moment of grand, shocking melodrama in a movie with this kind of profile, I'm at a loss to think of it.
And that's why Empire is the cream of the Star Wars crop. Amid a sensational storytelling journey and a brisk adventure ride, it goes all in, goes dark, takes our characters to the brink, and then leaves us thirsting for more. Every time I get to the end of The Empire Strikes Back, I immediately want to watch Return of the Jedi.