30 Years After The Empire Strikes Back

It has been thirty years since The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters.  The original Star Wars was a phenomenon that redefined the meaning of cinematic blockbuster, sparking the imagination of an entire generation, but its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, raised the bar on science fiction and fantasy storytelling. I would argue that it set the standard for the entire saga, becoming the measuring rod by which the other episodes in the Star Wars tale are judged.  I would also argue that no other Star Wars film has really lived up to the greatness of Episode V.  Of course the prequels are easily bashed, but not even A New Hope or Return of the Jedi had the scope, gravitas, and amazing story arc of The Empire Strikes Back.

Although many people now recognize Empire as being a great film, it should be noted that it faced criticism during its release.  Some critics felt it was too dark and lacked the charm of the first Star Wars.  Some did not like the cliffhanger ending.  It did not earn as much money in the box office as the other episodes in the franchise.  Yet, its positive impact on the saga is what has elevated Star Wars as a whole in the eyes and hearts of fans to a higher level beyond the fun but sometimes flawed popcorn escapism of its other chapters.

The Empire Strikes Back was a masterful accomplishment by director Irvin Kershner, producer and story writer George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (and the rest of the production crew).  It blended seemingly non-stop action sequences, from the opening battle on the ice planet Hoth to the Millennium Falcon's race through an asteroid field to the final iconic lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, with moments of calmer storytelling that proved to be the heart and soul of the film.  Those moments included Han Solo rescuing Luke from the Wampa creature, the training sequence on planet Dagobah, and the love story between Han and Leia.  All the favorite characters from the first film were back, but brand new characters were introduced and quickly become part of the Star Wars lore -- Yoda, Boba Fett, Lando Calrissian, and the brief but tantalizing appearance of Emperor Palpatine.

The first movie made me a fan of cinema, but The Empire Strikes Back woke me up to the potential of mythic storytelling.  It proved that sequels needn't be point-by-point retreads of the previous film, that they could actually advance the story and reveal plot points that made us look at the prior adventure in a whole new light.  While there had been plenty of movie sequels before, the arrival of Empire signaled a new trend in Hollywood in which trilogies suddenly became an expected storytelling option in moviemaking. 

While other sequels have managed to surpass their predecessors (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), few films have come close to matching the brilliance of The Empire Strikes Back which took the unprecedented success of Star Wars and turned it on its head through a daring and inventive story by which the saga has been compared to ever since.