Sequels usually follow the law of dimishing returns. Look at The Matrix sequels, which went from pretentious fluff to execrable nuisance in record time. Starting from Star Trek II (because honestly, who really wants to start with The Motion Picture?), the next time we got a truly worthwhile Star Trek film was VI; I may have emotional attachment to The Final Frontier and Star Trek IV was an entertaining "expanded television episode," but the truth is the truth.
The Law of Increasing Expectations
The Empire Strikes Back is arguably the first film to really buck the trend. It not only bucks it, it raises the bar for what a good sequel to be. It’s not just a re-hash of past triumph; the characters go in interesting directions, the villain is given a more robust treatment and the technical craft is refined.
This is not to say that Empire is completely flawless, as many fanboys would like to proclaim. Even hinting this can often lead to heated arguments, if not other fans proclaiming your apostasy. The Party Line is that The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect film. Kevin Smith said so!
The part where Luke is attacked by the Wampa feels unnecessary. The legend of Mark Hamill’s accident that left him so scarred they had to adapt the movie for it notwithstanding, it feels crammed into place. There are many other ways that they could have had Ben appear to Luke, in many other circumstances, and they would have rung just as true and would have gotten us to the meat of the story a bit quicker.
After the thrilling battle with the AT-AT walkers, the pacing suffers a bit in the middle. The story loses a little focus, and while Han and Leia’s love story becomes more Gone with the Wind, it feels like there’s too much time spent getting there. Luke’s time on Dagobah is momentous, but there’s some dawdling while Yoda espouses philosophy like a stoned college roommate.
The only slow part I won’t particularly hound upon is where Chewbacca re-attaches C-3P0’s head. To borrow the words of the director, the scene is supposed to call to mind the “Alas Poor Yorrick” scene from Hamlet. It does, and when viewed through that lens, it’s actually fairly brilliant.
Where It Delivers
What Empire does have is a brilliant ending. The duel is thrilling, the chase is magnificently executed and a lot of the choices are unexpected. There’s an element of complexity introduced that shows more confidence in having mutliple storylines and resolutions; whereas A New Hope is very linear, Empire experiments with more parallels.
It also introduces some truly interesting side characters. Lando Calrissian is on deck and ready to replace Han Solo should the position open. Boba Fett struts onto the scene, with awesome armor and the sound of gunfighter’s spurs when he walks. The Imperial Captains and Admirals add a flavor to Vader that gives him a much more sinister edge than the original, when he was seemingly restrained by Governor Tarkin.
Of course, who doesn’t love Yoda? A wise muppet, brought to life not only through technical expertise but the subtler interactions from Mark Hammil. I could muse a bit on how a fictional character speaking in fortune cookie feel-good sayings seems to have shifted the spiritual beliefs of an entire generation, but that’s another topic for another time.
Special Edition Changes
I’m not a huge fan of the Wampa insert just because they didn’t get the lighting right. The other changes, especially the expansion of Cloud City, I welcome. And the mystery of Luke’s 1997 yell as he fell? To quote a poster from my old days at the starwars.com message boards: “Best Un-Change Ever.”
The other small changes took a little adjustment. Of course, no one was going to complain when they fixed the problem of reversed film with Admiral Piett at the end. Digital trickery saves the day! (Now if only they’ll do the fix for Obi-Wan’s braid in The Phantom Menace and Threepio’s eye wires in A New Hope.)
The Final Analysis
What they had the sense to do with Empire was to finish strong. The audience walks out of the theatre wanting more. In a sense, that’s how Attack of the Clones mirrors this one: exciting open, wandering middle and thrilling end.
But that wandering middle does get to me. I’m no enemy of exposition, but what really makes the middle of Empire a sticking point for me is the part where they’re stuck in the slug’s belly. Not so much being detoured into the cave, but the forced point of making it a worm’s belly that suddenly they have to escape to further the plot along. Seems to me that there should’ve been a lot of other possibilities there.
And of course, even though it’s been played into the ground, The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) remains one of the greatest musical cues in the history of anything.