The Rebellion against the Empire is faltering as their main base has been discovered and the Rebels are scattered to various points across the galaxy while their foes hunt them down ruthlessly. But Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse and James Earl Jones), who answers to no one but the Emperor, has become preoccupied with tracking down one of the Rebels in particular: young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and to do so has sent robotic probes to every planet he thinks Luke might be hidden on. One arrives on the icy world of Hoth, which happens to be the correct location for Vader's quarry, but first Luke has a more pressing problem: he has been captured by an example of the native wildlife...
Now that you can watch any Star Wars film you wish, whenever you wish, the three-year wait between the original Star Wars and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back seems unimaginable. But it didn't seem quite as long a wait between the cliffhanger ending of this instalment and Return of the Jedi which followed three years later: it really felt like a more downbeat version of the serials producer George Lucas loved to watch in his youth. While the previous film had been revolutionary, this one had to exist in a cinematic landscape that was post-Star Wars, and as a result had to up the ante as far as thrills went. In many fans' opinions, that's exactly what they carried off.
Much of the credit must go to the emphasis on character Empire brought to the table, something which ironically the more simplistic original had eschewed. This was down to a more sympathetic director, Irvin Kershner, and a writing team comprised of veteran Leigh Brackett and up and coming talent Lawrence Kasdan who built upon all the good work Lucas had offered (the storyline was his) and deepened the links between both heroes and villains. Thankfully, the attempts at humour - never a strong point of the series - were more successful too, and the odd silliness aside didn't distract, but added texture to a rich mix.
The Darth Vader of Episode V is even more driven, yet more obsessed. Now he has lost the calming influence of right hand man Tarkin from the first film, he is a megalomaniac, killing off the officers who show signs of failure (using his throat-crushing techniques of The Force). His counterpart is not Luke, who for most of the story pinballs around in the thrall of his "destiny", but a little green man called Yoda (a puppet acted and voiced by Frank Oz) who Luke dutifully visits on his swamp planet after receiving a ghostly message from Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness returning for a cameo). Yoda is this unlikely-looking Jedi master whose abilities with The Force will teach Luke as a potential saviour of the galaxy.
That's all depending on whether Luke can take Yoda's advice and not heed the call of his friends, who are outnumbered and in desperate trouble. The Empire Strikes Back is more complex than a fight between good and evil, there's duty, loyalty and love to complicate matters as Luke is foiled in his attempt to save all of his friends and the relationship between Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) blossoms reluctantly into romance. I tell you, it's all here, and taken as seriously as the film's followers do which explains the respect the film commands. Not only that, but there are spectacular battle sequences, exciting chases through an asteroid field and a climactic light sabre duel that left fans reeling when Vader reveals exactly his interest in Luke. All that and one of John Williams' greatest scores to impress on the audience the importance of what we were witnessing. So the next episode, the grand finale, had to be the best of all... hadn't it?