Which Star Wars movie is the best? It’s a constant source of debate among the franchise’s fandom. Indeed, it may very well be one of its friendlier debates. Although, that’s not saying much.
Again, it’s ultimately down to personal opinion as to what Star Wars movie is the best. However, The Empire Strikes Back remains the correct answer. And here are ten reasons why:
10. It Expands the Franchise’s Universe
Like any good franchise sequel, the Empire Strikes Back expands the universe of its predecessor. But you may be thinking, “Well, duh, every Star Wars movie introduces new planets and concepts! Not exactly mind-blowing!” And, indeed, you’d be correct to make that observation.
However, Empire does this the best – by subtly expanding its universe without hurting the main narrative. The appearance of Boba Fett and other mercenaries gives us a brief but startling insight into the prominence of bounty hunting in the Star Wars universe. The fact that Cloud City remains independent tells us that the Empire is willing to compromise regarding imperial occupation – for a price. And, of course, our time with Yoda reveals the arduous nature of learning the Force.
9. John Williams’ Finest Work
Now, this is not to say that John Williams didn’t score the hell out of the other movies. In fact, in some Star Wars films (i.e., the prequels), Williams’ compositions are its best feature. However, the Empire Strikes Back score is just impeccable beyond belief.
The standouts include the Force-shattering ‘Imperial March’ (as if the Empire weren’t menacing enough in this movie!) and the beautiful love theme of Han Solo and the Princess. Then there’s Yoda’s theme, laced with orchestral, otherwordly wonder – and these examples are only the tip of the iceberg.
8. It Expertly Juggles Multiple Storylines
If you’ve watched your fair share of films, you’ll know it’s hard to create one that can handle multiple storylines at once. Yet, Empire achieves this almost flawlessly. While Luke is separate from Han, Leia, and Vader for a good portion of the movie, every arc receives satisfying development.
We feel for Luke as he struggles to learn the Force. And we smirk at the banter between Han and Leia before they fall in love. Amazingly, the film has us intrigued by the complexity of Lando Calrissian, even as it intimidates us through Darth Vader. Miraculously, the pacing never slows down with all these storylines, keeping Episode V a phenomenal flowing action movie.
7. It Has The Best Lines in Star Wars
A New Hope has plenty of zingers, but nowhere near as good as Empire. Thanks to Lawrence Kasdan’s brilliant script, which effortlessly treads the line between dark and quirky, Han Solo, Vader and newcomer Yoda get some truly unforgettable quotes.
From Han Solo’s defiant badass “Never tell me the odds!” to Yoda’s iconic “Do or do not, there is no try” and, of course, “Luke, I am your father,” Empire is endlessly quotable. It’s truly a shame because, since Empire, the Star Wars movies lost their quotable magic (well, apart from Episode II‘s ‘I hate sand’ speech – but that’s remembered for being unbelievably terrible).
6. Darth Vader Is At His Most Menacing
Not to say that ol’ Darth wasn’t intimidating in A New Hope (that movie’s opening sequence comes to mind), but Empire really makes him a force to be reckoned with. We see him as a man on a mission, unwilling to let anything get in the way of his pursuit of Skywalker – and the destruction of the Rebellion.
The movie achieves Vader’s monstrous authority by having him kill and threaten the imperial officers who fail him. It also does this via more subtle ways – like giving us a brief glimpse of the back of his head un-helmeted. But ultimately, he’s never more intimidating than when he’s nonchalantly toying with Luke during their lightsaber duel. Vader never becomes more menacing than he is in this movie.
5. The Ending Is Truly Bittersweet
No Star Wars movie has quite the downer ending that Empire has. Luke learns that Vader is his father – and gets a mechanical hand after said dad chops his off. Han Solo is encased in carbonite and is in Jabba’s hands. Leia has lost the man she loves. And the last time we saw the Rebellion, they survived by a mere margin.
The ending is surely one of the most anxiety-inducing cliffhangers in cinematic history. It’s the sort of cliffhanger that leaves you gagging for the next episode, because the characters lose the battle and you want to see if they rebound. In other words, the title The Empire Strikes Back is not a joke. The Empire truly strike back and knock down all the pins in this round.
4. It Shows How Difficult the Force is
The Empire Strikes Back is only the second-ever Star Wars movie ever produced. And yet, 42 years later, and many movies and shows later, it’s still the most in-depth in exploring the Force. And it’s done brilliantly through the eyes of Luke.
As impatient and impulsive as his old man, Luke struggles to learn the Force in Dagobah. He takes his lightsaber into the cave, ignoring Yoda’s advice, inadvertently conjuring the Darth Vader apparition. Then, he loses focus due to his visions of his friends suffering. Empire gives us a glimpse at this oft-glossed-over process.
3. The Han-Leia Romance
The lovable pirate and the royal princess. Hardly the most natural of romances – and yet, Empire pulls it off. This is perhaps thanks to the chemistry between Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher (not surprising – they did the ‘thing’ in real life too).
The Han-Leia romance is excellent because it makes sense when you think about it. After all, Leia has always had a tomboyish personality, and Han himself is a tough guy with practical instincts. Although they have differing ways to tackling situations, they have similar values and care deeply for one another.
2. It’s the Darkest Star Wars film
When we make a franchise entry ‘darker’, it can one of two ways. It can change the franchise to the point of being unrecognizable (i.e., Riverdale based on Archie Comics), or it can heighten the stakes of the story while retaining the series’ identity. Empire Strikes Back is purely the latter and this is why it works.
Whereas A New Hope, for example, gave us a ‘gung-ho!’ ending where the Death Star is destroyed, Empire shows us that things are still bad for the Rebels. We constantly get the sense that the Rebels are vulnerable and outgunned – the Battle of Hoth being a prime example. And then there are the character arcs – Vader endeavoring to corrupt his son, the bounty hunters closing in on Han, and the question of whether Luke has what it takes to take down Vader.
1. Fleshes out Luke Skywalker and co.
Out of the original trilogy (well, out of all the Star Wars movies, frankly), Empire is the film that fleshes its characters out the most. While A New Hope had us fall in love with the characters, Empire helps us connect with them even more. This is usually the sign of a great film sequel.
We learn about Han Solo’s shady past and the people he used to mix with (i.e., Lando). We see Han and Leia develop an unlikely romance. We see Luke struggle with his impatience and impulsivity. We even see the young hero learn the truth about his family, and we witness its effect on him. Empire helps us connect with characters we learned to love in the previous film.
But that’s our take. Do you think The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie? Why/why not?