Column: ‘Empire’ still striking after 40 years

Adam Tumino, Editor-in-Chief

Over the last 43 years, the “Star Wars’ franchise has been a cornerstone in American popular culture. It has produced 11 films, most of which are very good.

Some of the magic has been sucked out of the franchise in recent years by a ravenous fandom and tedious fan theories that run amok online, but one thing nearly all “Star Wars” fans can agree on is this: “The Empire Strikes Back” is fantastic.

Thursday marked 40 years since the theatrical release of “Empire,” which was at the time not episode five, but the sequel to one of the most popular and most influential films ever made.

It remarkably surpassed its predecessor, and is now the most beloved movie of the franchise.

“Empire” improved on the original in every way. The special effects are stunning and still hold up in the age of incredible CGI. The story is more engrossing, the emotional stakes are higher, the performances are superior and the climactic plot twist is one of the most iconic and most quoted scenes in film history.

After writing the first installment of the series, George Lucas passed the task along to screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. Their screenplay is the second best in the franchise, trailing only Rian Johnson’s work in 2017’s “The Last Jedi”

The conversations feel more natural that in the first film and the dialogue is funnier and wittier. Harrison Ford is given many of the best lines and turns in the best of his four performances as Han Solo.

Luke Skywalker is also a better character in “Empire.” In the original, Skywalker is a slightly whiny and idealistic kid whose obstacles were mostly physical. But in “Empire,” he faces emotional challenges that test his patience and character. Mark Hamill is very effective, especially in the second half of the film.

Not only did “Empire” improve on its established characters, it introduced three new compelling characters.

The one given the least screen time is the armor-clad bounty hunter Boba Fett. Despite having only three lines, Fett became one of the most recognizable characters in the “Star Wars” universe.

Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian is another good character: a cape-wearing, mustached former con man now running a mining company

The best of the new characters is the reclusive, 900-year-old Jedi master Yoda. He is perhaps the franchise’s most-beloved character, with his wrinkly green face and odd speech patterns.

Yoda’s scenes are the best of the film. They provide respite from the action of the rest of the movie as he attempts to train an increasingly frustrated Skywalker.

“Empire” also introduces several new and exciting locations into the “Star Wars” franchise.

Creating fresh and exotic planets has been one of the franchise’s most successful components. In “Empire,” the audience is brought to the icy planet Hoth, the film’s opening location and the setting for its most impressive action sequence.

The dark and swampy world of Dagobah, where Yoda is in exile, and a seemingly endless cave inside a massive asteroid are highlights as well.

But they fall short to the amazing Cloud City, floating in a beautiful orange sky. In the bowels of city is a completely different world, where precarious catwalks play host to the film’s climactic battle.

Tying the whole movie together is the perfect musical score of John Williams. It is the best work of his illustrious career. He was nominated for an Academy Award for it, one of 52 Oscar nominations for Williams in his career. Yes. 52. Only Walt Disney has more nominations.

It remarkably did not win despite introducing the iconic “Imperial March,” one of the best pieces of music ever written for a movie.

All of the components work together so well that only one “Star Wars” film has ever equaled “Empire.” It is the previously mentioned “The Last Jedi.” Despite sparking debate among franchise’s divisive fan base, it was a daring and exciting film, perhaps too much so for its own good.

But as the “Star Wars” universe keeps expanding in new movies and TV series, it is unlikely that “Empire” will be challenged or equaled again, and it will continue its 40-year reign atop the franchise.