Pity the sequel to a blockbuster first film.
Like the second sibling in a family where the eldest born cured cancer, fed the world’s poor and made successful and beneficial contact with aliens, all before the age of five, a sequel to a massively successful movie has an almost crushing weight of expectation heaped upon it.
Many falter under the pressure, but not so The Empire Strikes Back which adroitly manages that rare trick of keeping the story of its predecessor humming along, in this case, 1977’s Star Wars (later christened A New Hope when it became the fourth movie in The Skywalker Saga) while being very much its own self-contained and pleasing creation.
By all accounts, George Lucas had all three Star Wars films that he released from 1977 to 1983 sketched before commencing production on any of them, but even so, it must have been somewhat daunting to have a sequel staring you in the face after the success of a film that dominated the zeitgeist in a triumphantly comprehensive way.
Whatever his nerves at the time, the fact remains that The Empire Strikes Back more than holds its own, keeping the garrulous adventurous spirit of A New Hope well and truly alive while allowing some darkness to creep into a story which, let’s face it, was confronting some fairly dark subject matter areas anyway.
The fascist authoritarianism of the Empire is still very much in place with Darth Vader (David Prowse), in slavish service to the Emperor, and his often quickly dead minions, laying waste to all who dare to cross their path.
Theirs is the exercise of cruel, untrammeled power and it is most brazenly on display in Bespin City, the floating urban conurbation which posits itself as an independent mining colony.
It is to Bespin that Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), who have finally kissed and confirmed their love for each other (U.R.S.T. begone!), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) flee in the Millennium Falcon when they have to flee the overrun Rebel Alliance base on icy Hoth.
They have fled to Bespin, via a firefight with Empire forces overseen by Darth Vader and a near-escape from a hungry giant asteroid worm, because the city is run by Han’s old frenemy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and he is more likely than anyone to grant them relatively anonymous sanctuary.
Only Bespin is not quite so anonymous or off the Empire’s radar anymore, and Lando makes the classic mistake of thinking he can control a rapaciously fascistic monster which, of course, he can’t.
This sets in train a series of gripping scenes in which they try to save a carbonised Han from the Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) the bounty hunter who is ferrying him to Jabba the Hutt, and then failing in that endeavour to Leia’s and Chewie’s great anguish, race to escape bespin in the Millennium Falcon which is plagued by light speed issues right through the film.
For all the seriousness, and make no mistake The Empire Strikes Back is dark, there is still humour to be found and in surprising abundance.
The running joke about the state of the Millennium Falcon’s inner workings is one, as is the banter between Han and Leia who clearly love each other but can’t bring themselves to admit it.
Even the fleeing of Hoth, which comes with a big mammoth battle which it is always clear the Empire is going to win by sheer numerical superiority and advanced technological capability, comes with its moment of levity courtesy of a hilariously whiny C-3PO who comes close to being left behind and the inability of the Millennium Falcon to rise to the occasion until the last possible moment.
Having said that, the soul of The Empire Strikes Back, for all its swashbuckling bravura and high adventure (and romantic will-they, won’t-they) is serious, very serious, and never more so than when Luke is on Dagobah training to become a Jedi Master.
While Yoda (a Muppet voiced by the legendarily talented Frank Oz) is whimisical and playful at first, he soon becomes soberly focused on the task at hand, all too aware that while Luke is eager to learn, he is also impatient and impetuous, two qualities which do not a good Jedi make. (Yes, the Yoda-speak is quite deliberate.)
But at the urging of a ghostly Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), Yoda persists in trying to teach Luke to concentrate on lifting his X-Wing from the swamp and using the Force to control the world around him.
The one big thing Luke can’t control though is his deepest, darkest feelings, all of which are exposed in the Cave of Evil where the aspirant Jedi find he may not be so pure at heart, after all.
It’s disturbing stuff, and certainly, in the climactic scene, Darth Vader tries to use Luke’s inner agony to his own Dark Side-turning interests, but ultimately Luke stays the course, and Lord Vader, rarely stymied, is forced to regroup and summon his children (Yes, the “I am your father” scene is as resonant now as in 1980) by other means in a later film.
As sequels and middle films of a trilogy go, The Empire Strikes Back is one of the good ones, a film that isn’t so consumed by continuing the story so brilliantly begun in A New Hope that it can’t have its own vibe and personality.
It is the darker, more troubled cinematic child of the three, an engrossing film that serves up a number of separate story arcs that never feel as if they aren’t part of a cohesive whole, characters who grow in depth, humanity, and thus audience appeal throughout, vibrantly affecting music courtesy of the incomparable John Williams, and a sense of adventure that recognises that for all of life’s great inspiring moments, there are dark waystations along the way, all of which must be navigated if personal and collective destinies are to be realised and important battles won.