Something that always surprises me about Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is that it was met with largely mixed reviews when it debuted in 1980, but today many fans consider this to be the best Star Wars movie. I haven’t honestly looked too far into initial reviews to come up with a good explanation for this, but having just written a review of Toy Story 2 (that was met with more positive reviews than what fans typically think of in terms of that movie today) it’s just something interesting to think about, I guess. And it makes reviewing movies like these, that take place in the middle of a series, all the more interesting (and difficult to be honest) when you’re reviewing them randomly all these years later. (Also I don’t have tons of experience writing movie reviews, so this is probably going to be all over the place but let’s do this!)
Anyway, The Empire Strikes Back picks up three years after A New Hope and the destruction of the Death Star. The Rebels peace out of their base and head to Hoth (the ice planet and my personal stop on Star Tours), where they’re met with an attack by AT-ATs. (Side note: If you call them “at-ats” instead of “A-T-A-Ts” we can’t be friends. In that case what would you call an AT-ST?!) From there, Luke and R2-D2 head off to find Yoda to learn some much needed Jedi training while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO head off in the Millennium Falcon and are ultimately captured by Darth Vader. They’re ultimately used as a pawn for Darth Vader to get Luke over to them, where eventually *spoiler alert* we learn that Vader is Luke’s father (if you didn’t know this by now, I don’t know what to tell you…) This is also the film that inspired the “SEAGULLS! (Stop It Now)” bad lip reading video, so really we have lots of reasons to be thankful that The Empire Strikes Back exists.
In all seriousness though, the writing in The Empire Strikes Back is probably my personal favorite thing about this movie. I didn’t grow up with Star Wars (in fact I didn’t watch any of these movies until I was in my 20s) but going into The Empire Strikes Back I had already heard and at least somewhat understood the cultural impact of many of the film’s most iconic lines. This sequel also gives more depth to nearly all of the characters- I love seeing the dynamic between Han and Leia and I think Luke’s internal struggle with learning to better use the Force with Yoda while also wanting to get going and help the rest of the characters is very well done. And the “I love you” / “I know” exchange between Han and Leia is perhaps my favorite romantic moment of nearly any film.
As a quick note though- having so many of the iconic lines of this film be a regular part of pop culture is definitely a double edged sword, at least for me personally as someone who didn’t grow up on Star Wars. I’m sure many Star Wars fans got to fully experience the twists in this film one way or another, whether they saw it when it first came out or their parents introduced it to them as kids, but for me watching for the first time as an adult I essentially already knew most of the major spoilers. In general, spoilers don’t bother me. If the movie is good I really don’t think knowing spoilers should matter all that much, but where the cultural impact of this is so huge I can’t help but sometimes feel that I missed out on the moment of discovering some of these twists for the first time on my own.
The film packs in everything I’d be looking to get out of a Star Wars movie with a near perfect mix of action sequences, heartfelt moments, and even some little comedic moments- like when C-3PO interrupts Han and Leia’s kiss or when Lando Calrissian appears to ready a punch for Han when they first meet and instead opts for a hug. These moments that do provide a quick laugh are enjoyable but few and far between and for good reason. This is definitely one of the darker Star Wars films, and it has just enough lightheartedness spread throughout some of the character interactions to not keep it from being a near total downer.
Of course, one of the best parts of the movie is Darth Vader. Vader is certainly one of if not the best movie villains of all time in my opinion and the character is in his prime in The Empire Strikes Back. (The lightsaber battle between him and Luke REALLY makes me wish I was young enough to be in the Jedi Training Academy in Disney.) Vader succeeds at nearly everything a great villain should be, putting off an intimidating persona and instilling a sense of fear in essentially every other character in the film (or in the franchise as a whole for that matter) while still having lots of depth and avoiding being unlikable. I think for any kind of storytelling in general writing a villain like Darth Vader is honestly goals and The Empire Strikes Back definitely drives this point home for me.
Boba Fett is also introduced in The Empire Strikes Back (okay, I guess he’s technically featured in the Christmas special but let’s not go there for obvious reasons…) He’s a great character, although I guess with him comes the one gripe I can really come up with for the film and this is probably not even a fault against the film itself but just my own perceptions of Star Wars from being introduced to it outside the films first. Boba Fett is featured fairly often in Disney theme parks for how much actual screen time he gets, and after having met him during Star Wars weekends and seen him on a somewhat regular basis during the stage show at Hollywood Studios, I kind of expected more from him…I’m not even sure if it’s his role in The Empire Strikes Back or his rather anticlimactic death in Return of the Jedi that makes me feel that way, but as far as villainous characters go I think he’s got a neat look and a pretty cool backstory and I would have liked to see more of him in The Empire Strikes Back.
This movie really makes me wish I was on my way to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. With Hoth being my favorite destination on Star Tours, and the fact that there are just so many elements of this film that take me right back to Star Wars Weekends, rewatching this just has me ready to get on a plane to Orlando. And although the timeline is totally different, seeing Han, Leia, C-3PO, and Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon just makes me wish I could get right in line for Smuggler’s Run as I’m writing this. A couple of scenes in this movie are also featured during the Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular fireworks, and seriously if I lived anywhere close to the parks I’d seriously cancel all my plans tomorrow and get to the parks to see those now.
Is it the best Star Wars movie? Yes. I go back and forth about whether or not The Empire Strikes Back is my personal favorite, but objectively speaking this is the best. It has everything I think you’d want to get out of a Star Wars film with little of the downtime between action-packed sequences that you sometimes get in the others. The visuals are pretty awesome and there are just so many iconic scenes in this movie it’s hard to argue that it’s not the best Star Wars film on that premise alone. The character development builds upon the connections made in A New Hope in a way that I think would succeed in making even an extremely casual fan appreciate the creativity behind Star Wars, and while it’s certainly not a pick-me-up type of movie it works for this point in the trilogy and I have a really hard time finding anything actually wrong with it.