SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen The Empire Strikes Back, I encourage you to go watch it before you read this review. This movie does have a major plot twist, though you probably know what it is even if you haven't seen the film. Still, it is worth experiencing for yourself.
Few films capture you so quickly and enthusiastically as the Star Wars films. From the moment you hear that famous John Williams score as the iconic screen crawl begins, you're hooked.
The Star Wars films are the first films I remember seeing in the theater. They were re-released at my hometown theater in the late 90s. I ate it up. I had the toys, I played the video games, and I even had an idea for how to turn my Dad's car into the Millennium Falcon. It's a testament to my parents that they encouraged my creativity enough to take me to Radio Shack for the antenna that I needed to supposedly complete the transformation. I could never get around the pesky problem of jumping to hyperspeed, though. Oh well.
All that to say, these films are extremely nostalgic for me, as they are for so many. But they are far more than pure nostalgia. The original trilogy (especially the first two films) are simply great films. Why?
First and foremost, it is a great story.
The battle between good and evil is certainly a well-worn theme. But Star Wars, and specifically The Empire Strikes Back, do two things to make it fresh. First, you have this amazing new world that George Lucas created. It is fully realized and inhabited by fascinating creatures and characters. Second, and most important in my mind, is the fact that the battle between good and evil becomes very personal. We see that struggle in the macro sense (Rebels vs. Empire) but then we also see it in the Skywalker family and even within Luke himself. We are able to relate to these themes because they are universal. We may be in "a galaxy far, far away" but the story is near to our experience. I find The Empire Strikes Back to be the film which investigates these themes in a more poignant way than any of the other films. It is one reason why I consider this movie to be the greatest Star Wars film.
We begin on the planet Hoth. The Rebel Alliance has retreated to this base after the destruction of the Death Star in the first movie. It is an icy landscape full of harsh conditions and creatures. Here we are given some very memorable moments from the trilogy. There's Luke's run in with the Wampa - a hideous looking ice creature. We also see Han using his Tauntaun for its body warmth in a scene that could pass for an episode of Man vs. Wild. And we're given a greater hint at the burgeoning romantic relationship between Han and Leia, though it is paused early on in this movie by one of the more cringe-worthy kisses in movie history (though you have to see the whole trilogy before you notice why it is particularly cringe-inducing).
This scene also brings to life the famous Imperial Walkers. I remember having these toys as a kid. And I definitely remember fighting them in various video game versions of Star Wars. They are an iconic representation of the Empire.
The Rebels are forced to evacuate their base when the Empire attacks. They barely make it out alive. Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO flee in the Millennium Falcon while Luke and R2-D2 take his X-Wing.
Aboard the Millennium Falcon, Han realizes that his hyperdrive is damaged. This is a major issue with the Empire close on their tail. They decide to try to evade them in a nearby asteroid field, and I remember this being a particularly exciting scene when I was younger. As I said, I've always held a special place in my heart for the Millennium Falcon, and seeing it zip through the asteroid field was absolutely mesmerizing to my young eyes.
This movie also gives us one of the greatest Star Wars characters among so many memorable ones - Yoda. The Empire Strikes Back is the first time we meet the little green sage with inverted speech patterns. His first scene with Luke is where we begin to sense the inner struggle that Luke is carrying. Yoda knows the backstory of Luke's family that even Luke does not. Yoda understands more than maybe anyone else the struggle that faces this young Jedi.
Back in the asteroid field, the crew aboard the Millennium Falcon have decided to hide in what they assumed to be a massive cave on one of the space rocks. They came to find out, however, that it is no cave at all. In reality, they are in the esophagus of a large slug-like creature. They come to the realization just soon enough, as they shoot out of its mouth before it can consume them. Again, this is a scene that is burned into my memory from a young age. I always cringed at the thought of unknowingly being inside that slug's mouth.
A nearby Star Destroyer has been searching for the Falcon, and the villanous Darth Vader is aboard. He sees Han and crew flee the asteroid, and he has the Star Destroyer chase after them. Han makes a rash decision - as is his wont. He decides to assume attack position against the vastly larger ship. But, instead of attacking, Han does some artful maneuvering to trick his captors.
Not knowing where the Falcon has gone, Darth Vader turns to another famous character who we see for the first time here - Boba Fett. He is a bounty hunter, and he is tasked with finding the Millenium Falcon. Han, Leia and Company escape and decide to make for the planet of Bespin. There, in the clouds, resides an old friend of Han's who he thinks will be able to help them despite an old fued. This friend is named Lando Calrissian (Seriously, how many classic characters can one movie introduce?!).
Meanwhile, Yoda is training Luke in the ways of the Force. Vader is always in the background of Luke's mind. He knows he must face him at some point. Yoda sends Luke to an old gnarled tree where he must face the Dark Side of the Force. There, Luke fights a vision of Darth Vader. Luke cuts off his hand and goes to remove Vader's mask. As it flies off, Luke is horrified when he sees his own face where Vader's should be. Yoda explains that giving into his impulses of anger will lead him to the same fate as that of Darth Vader.
Then, Luke has a vision of his friends in danger. He decides to forego the rest of his training and flee to save them. Yoda does not approve, as he feels that Luke does not to have the necessary training to resist the temptation of the Dark Side. But Luke leaves anyways.
And his friends are in trouble. They quickly realize on their arrival in Cloud City that all is not as it seems. Lando may not be so friendly. Han, Leia and Company are captured by Darth Vader and Boba Fett, who had tracked them to the city. Lando assures them that he was forced by the Empire to betray them. Vader uses them as bait to lure Luke.
Luke does come to Cloud City, but he is too late. Han has been frozen in carbonite, leaving him alive but in great pain. Han was the test subject to make sure the process would be non-fatal, as it had not been previously used on humans. Vader's plan is to freeze Luke and take him to the Emperor.
It is here where we are given one of the most famous and, at the same time, most erroneously-remembered interactions in movie history. Luke is forced to face Vader. The entire lightsaber battle is fantastic - maybe the best in the entire series. We get other famous lines like - "Impressive, most impressive."
But no line is held in quite such high esteem as "Luke, I am your father." But, did you know that Vader does not deliver the line quite like everyone quotes him? The actual line is "No, I am your father." It is similar in how it has been erroneously handed down in pop culture to another famous movie line in the film Casablanca (a film which has as many famous quotes as Star Wars has famous characters). Everyone quotes a line from that film as "Play it again, Sam." But the actual line there is "Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By."
Luke resists Vader's requests to join the Dark Side. These interactions are fascinating in how they showcase the struggle between bad and good - a struggle that we often see within ourselves. Finally, Luke jumps from the precarious ledge and is sucked into an air vent that leaves him hanging from the vane beneath the city. Below him are endless clouds. It really is a beautiful vista. As Star Wars settings go, Cloud City may just be the most pristine.
Lando, Leia, Chewbacca and the droids had fled aboard the Millennium Falcon. Leia feels Luke's distress, and she orders Lando to turn the ship around. They do so, and they find Luke hanging from the bottom of the city. He boards, and they leave to reunite with the Rebel Alliance.
The movie ends with our heroes deciding to search for Han, and the stage is set for the trilogy's third act. But it is the precarious and ambiguous ending to this film that really sets it apart from all the other Star Wars movies in my book. Our heroes are in trouble. Luke is engaged in a bitter struggle. We now know that Vader is Luke's father! This is a startling revelation on a first viewing of the film - though now the secret is probably out anyways through pop culture references. Still, this movie leaves us breathless and waiting for the trilogy's final film - The Return of the Jedi. It is a masterful piece of filmmaking and one of the key films of recent memory.
The Empire Strikes Back gives us so many images and pictures that look like they truly came from a galaxy far, far away. There is so much of it that is unique in that regard. But the power of this film is its ability to use those odd creatures and settings to draw out themes that are extremely familiar to us - love, friendship, family and the struggle between good and evil. These are things we know well because we feel them in our own lives. That is why The Empire Strikes Back is so beloved, and why it will surely be an enduring work for years to come.
Note on content: There is some violence in the film that stems from lightsaber battles and interactions of that sort. The most overtly violent moment of the film is when Darth Vader cuts off Luke's hand near the end. There may be some scenes (such as the "cave" or when Han is frozen in carbonite) that may be unsettling for younger viewers. The only sexual content to speak of is kissing. As I said, I watched these films when I was young. They certainly do not contain much content that would be deemed objectionable by today's standards.