Today marks the 40th anniversary of what is widely considered to be one of the best if not the best film sequels of all time, The Empire Strikes Back. What was known as the second Star Wars movie before it was released and is now Episode V of the Skywalker Saga. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back it should be noted this film is iconic and highly regarded both as a followup to George Lucas’ wildly successful first Star Wars film and also, on its own. a sci-fi classic. It also demonstrated, both in its story and ideas, how to make a successful follow up in contrast to other “part 2s” that merely regurgitated what came before.
The story picks up three years after the destruction of the Death Star in the first film and has the Rebels hiding on the ice world of Hoth, and Luke Skywalker continuing his training as a Jedi Knight. The epic ground battle that ensued between the Rebels and the Galactic Empire on Hoth was a highlight and something unique in action films where a climactic battle happened near the beginning of a movie. This is something that sets The Empire Strikes Back apart from other films, and also lets the audience know that Lucas was doing something different.
Rather than just make a carbon copy of A New Hope, George Lucas was building a universe and telling a long-form story; The Empire Strikes Back was the second act or a larger tale, not just your typical sequel. This was shown further when our heroes Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca escaped to the cloud world of Bespin and meeting Han’s old smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian. They then encountered danger and despair at the hands of legendary villain Darth Vader, who carried out his search for Luke and showcased his sinister dark side powers to the extreme. Meanwhile, Luke journeys to the swamp world of Dagobah and meets the now-famous Jedi Master Yoda, who deepened Luke’s training and understanding of the Force. Eventually the protagonists met up on Bespin, but still found defeat and uncertainty at the film’s conclusion.
This is another unique aspect of The Empire Strikes Back, in that it concluded with a cliffhanger ending and a shocking plot twist with Vader revealing that he was Luke’s father, all of which is well known now, but at the time was very risky for Lucas to do. Sequels usually just retell the same story but add a few extra things. This Star Wars sequel really changed all of that and broadened the scope of the mythology of Star Wars and led to pretty much everything that Star Wars is known for. From John Williams’ iconic Imperial March theme, to the towering AT-AT walkers on Hoth, to Master Yoda, as well as other fan favorites like bounty hunter Boba Fett and the aforementioned Lando.
All of these events and people in this film now define the franchise and continue to influence Star Wars films and TV shows. Rey’s journey to Jedi Knighthood in the sequel trilogy echoes Luke’s which really jumped into high gear in The Empire Strikes Back. The success of The Mandalorian TV series obviously is due to the big appeal of Boba Fett and his mysterious nature, which again got started in The Empire Strikes Back. Also, Lando’s return in The Rise of Skywalker was a treat to see, since it harkened back to his introduction in the very first Star Wars sequel.
Overall, the appeal and influence of The Empire Strikes Back is massive and long lasting seeing as how it is just as beloved now 40 years later as ever. It is now commonly considered as the best Star Wars film and will probably continue to claim that mantle for the foreseeable future. There are many reasons why the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back is being commemorated. This is a character driven film that also has exciting set pieces, as well as interesting and thoughtful ideas. The Empire Strikes Back paved the way for other Star Wars and genre films, and set the bar incredibly high for all sequels to follow.