George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) was lightning in a bottle. It was an unprecedented feat in visual storytelling that instantly captured the hearts of audiences across the world. Photos of the endless queues on the film’s opening night are now iconic, and the movie went on to be one of the highest grossing films of the time.
Expectations were therefore sky-high when Lucas Film announced Star Wars was getting a sequel: The Empire Strikes Back. Four decades on from its release, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is still widely considered one of the greatest films of all-time, and with good reason. Yet when people talk about The Empire Strikes Back, they often refer to its overall quality as a movie – which is admittedly great – but most overlook its legacy and long-term significance for cinema.
At the time of its release in 1980, sequels were mostly just slightly upgraded rehashes of the first film. They were commercial vehicles, capitalising on what audiences loved the first time around and sadly, it’s still often the case today. The Empire Strikes Back was the first instance in which a sequel dared to do something new from its predecessor.
With Star Wars, Lucas introduced a world with such unique concepts as the Force, droids and lightsabers. The Empire Strikes Back delved deeper into that mythology and world-building. It expanded its galaxy with new locations like Hoth and Dagobah; there were more dimensions brought to the Force; audiences were introduced to characters like Lando, Yoda, and Boba Fett. Even in narrative terms, The Empire Strikes Back could not be more different to Star Wars. Not to mention, the film also ends with the bad guys winning; at the end of Episode V, there is no silver lining or ray of hope for the protagonists. Han Solo is presumed dead and Luke has just found out that his father is his enemy.
Considering how monumentally acclaimed Star Wars was, no one could have expected The Empire Strikes Back to be that audacious. How could Lucas follow up on one of the biggest films of all time? The executive answer would be to “play it safe”, because the expectations are too high to possibly fulfil. Lucas’ approach was to “screw the expectations” and swing at the fences.
Of course, the filmmaker neither directed the sequel nor is he the credited writer, but he was ensuring that Lucas Film was a vehicle for creative liberty and license (it’s for the same reason that he did not come back for the prequel trilogy). Instead, he equipped a team with all the resources they would need to make a film that was as bold as it needed to be.
The Empire Strikes Back is, for that reason, a very exciting movie. It’s a film that challenged the status quo. While it is true that The Godfather Part II broke the sequel formula prior to Empire, it was the latter which truly propelled this forward-thinking mindset in the industry and proved that a sequel could deliver audiences with a much bigger vision, while still turning profits. It’s one thing to aim high, it’s another to pull it off. And The Empire Strikes Back did so with grace and aplomb – an exciting blockbuster that built upon the first in every way. Whether it be the thrilling opening on Hoth, the nail-biting lightsaber duel on Bespin, or the heartfelt camaraderie between the characters, The Empire Strikes Back just works.
The film’s audacity and success became a blueprint for Hollywood sequels. Bigger, scaled-up sequels were soon commonplace – Aliens; The Road Warrior; T2: Judgement Day. Darker, less optimistic sequels were also normalised – The Dark Knight; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and today most sequels follow in The Empire Strikes Back’s footsteps: Movies like John Wick Chapter 2 or The Raid 2 are prime examples of sequels taking the structure of their predecessor and expanding upon the lore of the world in which it’s set.
On the flip side however, the success of The Empire Strikes Back is perhaps partly to blame for the franchising of movies today. Every studio wants a slice of the money cake, and few big-budget films arrive today with the intent to exist as a solo film. Regardless, there is no underplaying the impact of The Empire Strikes Back, far beyond the Star Wars universe. It still stands as one of the best sequels in history, and laid out the road map for others to follow: If you’re going to go the sequel route, do it right. Do it different. Do it with boldness and courage. It’s the lesson Lucas immortalised with his sequel in 1980 and, 40 years on, it’s why the legacy of The Empire Strikes Back lives on.