Paradoxically, writing about something so familiar is rather difficult to do. Suggesting obscure foreign films is easier by comparison because one can assume some degree of ignorance on the part of the reader, but who is there with a familiarity with movies and yet isn’t acquainted with Star Wars writ large? The inclination one has, and much of the commentary on this creation of George Lucas, is to place each individual film in the context of a larger whole. That is, for one to discuss the merits of each film as a part of a grander artistic endeavor that spans many years and many movies. Sure, and that idea has merit. They are pieces of a larger whole, but it can subsume the virtues they have as individual stories within the overall quality of the saga.
At the time of Empire‘s release, much of this world had yet to be created, and its eventual existence was not assured much less contemplated. While the enormous success of Star Wars a few years earlier put the second film on a firmer footing from the start, I’d be surprised if it was made with complete certainty that the third installment would exist. (The decision to commit to at least a trilogy of films before the reception of even the first was known would begin about 20 years later with Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings.)
As such, there is a need to have the film be able not just to substantially stand alone, but create something of an ending that could at least be reasonably satisfying without any further films. Granted, it’s not quite the bow tied at the end of the first film (and re-tied at the end of the third film…and seventh film…), but it’s something. Frankly the very similarity between the bookends of the original trilogy make the quality of the middle shine all the brighter. The revelations about Skywalkers in the other two movies pale in comparison with this one. (Not to mention the retroactive ick-factor Lucas added in the last film when he destroyed the obvious love-triangle established in the first two movies.)
The one most memorable and defining line from all the movies is in this film (even if it’s almost inevitably misquoted). If you’ve ever shown this to your children, the power of the reveal can’t be denied. They may like the other films in the series more. They might even consider Jar Jar their favorite character, but nothing blows the mind quite like the reveal of Luke’s father.
Here the emperor has yet to undercut Vader as the big bad. This is the movie that introduces us to Lando, Boba Fett, Admiral Piett, Yoda, AT-ATs, and more. Maybe it eventually doesn’t make as much sense in the larger narrative, but the individual character arcs are solid. Lando’s face-heel-face turn is excellent. Luke’s slow maturation into a competent leader is a convincing extension of his arc in the first movie. Han is also persuasive as he gains the upper hand in the competition for Leia’s affections. (Darn you, Lucas! You don’t have to retcon everything!)
Look, maybe it’s not a great film in the history of the art form. I get it. It’s probably hardly as good as anything else on this list. (Well, maybe a few things.) It’s no mystery to me, though, why I like it as much as I do. I first saw it at some point as a young boy and it fired my imagination. Perhaps it falls under “damning with faint praise”, but this is the best movie in what has become a sprawling, bloated, incomprehensible monstrosity of a “universe”. It’s a relic of a leaner, more thoughtful, artistic time. It might be lacking, but it had aspirations and made the effort and I’ll always have a soft spot for fine craftsmanship even if it doesn’t quite rise to the level of art.