Star Wars. That was step one in re-watching all the earlier films, in anticipation of The Force Awakens. Yes, I realize I'll need to seriously step up the pace to get it done. But I have now taken that next step; this week, I watched The Empire Strikes Back.
Once upon a time, Empire was my favorite of the Star Wars films. I remember when I was younger, borrowing a VHS copy from the library and playing it again and again and again before we had to return it. (If every borrower used it like I did, the tape wouldn't have lasted for more than about four people.) I still consider Empire to be one of the best sequels ever released. (I'd say Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan edges it out just a hair; but then, we'd all prefer to pretend there was no Star Trek: The Motion Picture, wouldn't we?)
There are many ways in which Empire improves upon the original Star Wars. The dialogue is worlds better, by far the best of all the Star Wars films. This is because George Lucas only provided the story; the script is credited to Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Brackett died before the film made it to theaters, but she definitely brought a crackle to the script that all the other Star Wars films lacked (in varying degrees).
Not only is the dialogue better -- sharper, funnier, tighter -- so is the characterization. People were certainly well established in the first Star Wars, but they feel more real and natural in Empire. And there's more going on here than pure adventure. There's a touch of mystery, a touch of romance, even a touch of horror (in what happens to Han Solo), and it all fits well into the whole.
Because they had a good script, the actors are better here than in any other Star Wars movie. Thanks to the melodrama inherent in Luke's Dagobah training (and the big revelation from Darth Vader), Mark Hamill has the heaviest lifting to do -- and he does much better with it than he did with the often cheesy lines of the first Star Wars. Harrison Ford has mastered the space between smarm and charm. Carrie Fisher is prickly as Leia, but less nasty than in Star Wars; thoroughly likeable.
Also doing his best work of the franchise is composer John Williams. There is so much amazing music in Empire, from the Walker battle to the asteroid pursuit to the final hyperdrive escape of the Millennium Falcon. The new theme for Yoda is rich and moving. And it's all but impossible to imagine that Darth Vader didn't really have a theme until here, with the arrival of the iconic Imperial March.
Yet for all that, I think that today, I prefer the original Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back. And I think it's ultimately because while Empire's script may be better, its story is not. Empire feels like a loosely gathered collection of mini-episodes: the Wampa encounter, the Battle of Hoth, the asteroid chase, Luke's training (at least it's not a cheesy montage), the Cloud City betrayal and subsequent escape. Sure, Star Wars had you in a seedy bar one moment and a garbage compactor the next, but it still felt unified. Empire's "episodes" don't flow together quite as smoothly. And they keep all the characters we love apart for the entire movie. (Luke and Han have what, two minutes together in the whole film?)
And then there's the ending. It's novel and brave (particularly for 1980) to end the movie on a cliffhanger... and with the villains decidedly having the upper hand. Yet there also isn't much of narrative theme to hold this film together as its own entity, save the loose notion that the Rebels are losing and/or on the run for the entire film.
Don't get me wrong -- The Empire Strikes Back is an excellent film. I give it an A without reservation. But the original Star Wars has slightly surpassed it in my esteem. Still, whichever you prefer, we can surely agree they're both at a level which the next four films failed to reach.