The Empire Strikes Back ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Bigger, darker, and more exciting than Star Wars, this sequel is the masterpiece of the series. Clocking in at just over two hours, The Empire Strikes Back manages to feature an elaborate 40-minute opening attack on the Rebel base on Hoth, Luke's entire training from Yoda on Dagobah, and the final showdown in Cloud City (with some fun in-between), without anything feeling rushed or underdeveloped.

Here, we get the complicated notion of what a Jedi must be willing to give up, namely attachment to loved ones. When Luke asks if he should just let Han and Leia die, and Yoda tells him maybe he should, that is a tough pill to swallow not just for Luke but for an audience. It works here because it sets the stage for the possibility of Luke's fall to the Dark Side, but it also adds depth in terms of his family saga throughout the series. It was similar concerns that destroyed his father.

Benefiting from Irvin Kershner's less sunny direction and Lawrence Kasdan's more tonally-mature script, Empire boasts a claustrophobic setting that, despite traversing far across the galaxy, never feels safe from the Empire's reach. Gone are the archetypes of A New Hope, replaced with fully-fleshed characters whose feelings and relationships are rife with tension and contradictions. There is no Death Star to destroy in this film's finale, only a reckoning with personal and familial demons, with one's own sense of loyalty, and with the consequences of past actions. Not everyone makes it out in one piece.

I can't imagine how the twist in the film's third act must have blindsided audiences in 1980, not just for its betrayal of the established narrative so far and the complicating of Luke's perception of his father's legacy, but for the way it turned on its head the notion of how a movie could end. The depressing and perilous way the movie ends is not a sudden cliffhanger of the type that today's blockbuster franchises depend on when they split stories across multiple films. Rather it is a much more deliberate and sad type of ending, one that suggests, as Gordon Lightfoot did a decade prior, that heroes often fail.

Luke: I'm not afraid.
Yoda: You will be. You will be.

Shakespearean in its scope and themes and unrelenting in its dogged insistence in the tragedy of life, The Empire Strikes Back is mythic as hell.

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