After the runaway success of Star Wars, George Lucas handed the directing reigns to Irvin Kirshner for the sequel which is still seen by many as the franchise's best instalment.
The Empire Strikes Back, as the title suggests, is not the upbeat adventure with the fairy-tale ending the first film was. This time, the Empire gets its revenge following the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope and our heroes suffer for it. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), after having a bad run-in with a Wampa (some abominable snowman-looking beast) and a chat with the ghost of Alec Guinness, departs for the Dagobah System to learn the ways of the Force from Yoda (Frank Oz) leaving Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewie (Peter Mayhew) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) to be betrayed by old friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). This gives ample opportunity for galactic badass Darth Vader to plot against our heroes.
Character development-wise, a romance finally brews between Solo and Leia, Luke goes from being just a whiny kid to being a whiny kid who takes on Darth Vader by himself and Calrissian soon regrets making a deal with the enemy. The action takes place mostly on land, interestingly, as the rebels fight the Empire in the battle of Hoth where we meet AT-AT Walkers and other mechanical wonders then we follow part of the gang to Cloud City where Solo and Leia are ambushed by Vader and bounty hunter Boba Fett. Luke eventually puts his training aside to go and help his friends who are in danger and this leads to the series' most iconic lightsaber battle as Luke and Vader finally go head to head. Talk about intense, as if the fight itself wasn't nail-biting enough, what follows is one of the great movie twists of our time.
There are a few reasons why Empire remains the most beloved Star Wars film around. For one thing, it's easily the most even of all the films: there's very little you'd want to cut out of this one. Very few space battles surprisingly save for a chase through an asteroid field but what it lacks in space opera... spacey things, it makes up for in gritty on-the-ground action. The tone of the film is overall darker and seeing those particular characters losing body parts, being frozen in carbonite, having daddy issues makes for edge-of-your-seat melodrama. By the end, you're not sure if anything's going to work out and you're aching to see the next instalment. It helps that this movie also doesn't overdo it in terms of puppets and goofy shenanigans (here's looking at you, Return Of The Jedi), though it does introduce one important puppet indeed. The addition of Yoda could have easily made Empire too kid-friendly but the little guy is instantly loveable and is still obviously one of the franchise's most lasting and memorable characters.
The Empire Strikes Back is not only a great Star Wars film but it's a great flick full stop. Barring a couple of cheesy lines here and there, it has certainly stood the test of time and holds up as a sci-fi classic.
Empire is where it's AT-AT.