Few films have ever been as anticipated as The Empire Strikes Back, the follow-up to the massively successful Star Wars. Audiences who went in expecting more swashbuckling adventure in the tradition of Errol Flynn or Buck Rogers received something altogether different--a darker film that deepened our understanding of its characters, and left us wondering what could possibly happen next.
Continuing our year-long Star Wars Discussion Series, Matthew Guerruckey, Lawrence Von Haelstrom, and Donald McCarthy are joined by Film Critic Taras D. Butrej for an in-depth discussion of Empire, the movie that Von Haelstrom calls, “What we talk about when we talk about Star Wars”.
Matthew Guerruckey, Editor-in-Chief: The Empire Strikes Back had a really spooky, mythological aura to me when I was a kid. I was only a year old when it came into theaters, and for whatever reason it wasn’t a movie that my friends with VHS players (the few that had VHS players in the early 80’s) would watch in the same obsessive fashion as A New Hope. So I was probably five or six years old before I actually sat down to watch Empire, but by that point I was already familiar with the storyline. One of my most prized possessions was the Marvel comic adaptation of Empire. I spent hours poring over the art, fascinated by the blue-green hues of Dagobah, and the purple, wizened version of Yoda that looked so much different than he did in my pop-up book version of the movie.
Something about reading the comic first made me a co-creator of the world of The Empire Strikes Back. The characters and environments came alive in my imagination in ways that Star Wars and Return of the Jedi never could, because the films themselves were concrete realities for me. Hoth, Dagobah, and Cloud City seemed all the more expansive in my mind than they could ever be on-screen. I wanted to train with Yoda, learning to flip and spin and parry, all while lifting objects with my mind.
But I was not prepared for the monstrous Vader of Empire. I knew, and always did know, that Darth Vader was, in actuality, Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father. And I wasn’t afraid of Anakin Skywalker. I had just seen him unmasked the summer before, and he was really just a sad little half-man inside that great black shell. He had been a bad guy, sure, but he was really this pleasant-looking, blue-glowing gentleman smiling next to Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda on Endor. Why, if I saved up enough money, I could even mail away for an beatific action figure in a Jedi robe.
But the Anakin Skywalker of Empire isn’t beatific, he’s terrifying. In Star Wars Vader feels more like a functionary of the Empire than anything else -- a formidable foe, but still just a man. Vader in The Empire Strikes Back is the Jungian shadow come to life. Director Irvin Kershner and Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky frame Vader so that he dominates the frame of every shot he’s in. He’s a devil, tempting Luke toward the darker half of his own nature, a beast leaping from the shadows. Vader is so mythic in Empire that his theme song, “The Imperial March”, has now become cultural shorthand for evil.
But Darth Vader is also, we learn, the father of Luke Skywalker, about as pure a figure of good as cinema has ever given us. And I can only imagine that audiences in 1980 lost their fucking minds when presented with that fact after watching Darth Vader battle Luke to the brink of annihilation. Or, better yet -- I can ask someone who was in the theater when it happened. Lawrence, you must have seen Empire in the theater, how did the crowd respond to that now-iconic twist?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom, Contributing Editor: The summer of 1980, I was five going on six. My older brother, who would have been fifteen at the time, saw it first and came home shouting the news, “C-3PO gets blown up, Han gets frozen, Luke gets his hand cut off, and Darth Vader is his father!”
The first time I went to see it, the movie theater lost power right at the moment Luke’s Snow Speeder was about to be crushed by the AT-AT. I didn’t get to see the whole movie until a week or two later, and I unfortunately wasn’t paying attention to the audience reaction. I do remember my mom being disappointed with the movie. In retrospect, I think she really enjoyed the fun adventure of the first Star Wars and didn’t expect the more serious tone of Empire.
But about that revelation: People forget or don’t realize that for three years we didn’t know if Darth Vader was lying or not. From age five to eight, First grade through Third grade, no one knew what the truth was. If Vader was telling the truth that meant Obi Wan Kenobi lied. That was a hard fact to accept. More than a few recess and bus ride arguments were had those three years.
For as much as I loved Star Wars, I never had more than a few of the toys. I think I can name them all: I had the snow speeder, the Hoth playset, Han Solo in snow gear, and generic Rebel soldier in snow gear. And I think that’s it. My friend Kevin had the Dagobah playset. My friend Nathan had an AT-AT at his dad’s house. (Or so he said.)
And remembering Nathan reminds me that almost all my friends from that time had divorced parents. I had divorced parents. For a generation of kids with fathers they only saw every-other-weekend, who had fathers who made big promises about what they would do next visit, while spending the current visit just watching TV, the notion that Darth Vader could be a father is strangely enticing. Luke may have grown up without a father, but at least his Dad turned out to be the evilest guy in the galaxy. This, the strained father-son dynamic, I believe is at the heart of a generation’s love for Star Wars.
But that wasn’t always what it was about.Those three years in-between Empire and Jedi (and the three years between five and eight is a very long time) wasn’t spent in shock about the revelation. It was spent being confused and uncertain.
For people coming into the movies later on, after the original trilogy achieved the status of holy gospel, I’m sure it’s a different experience. Of course, Vader is Luke’s father, everyone knows that. Donald, how was it for you seeing the three films as a complete story? Did you manage to see Empire spoiler-free?
Donald McCarthy, Features Editor: I watched The Empire Strikes Back the day after I watched A New Hope so we’re flashing back to when I was seven again. I had no idea what to expect and I can remember being a little confused. The plot was deeper, the scenes were darker (both literally and metaphorically), and our heroes seemed a lot more despondent. Darth Vader was cool in A New Hope, but to me he was now a monster and the ultimate image of evil. His armor glistened in a way it didn’t in the original and his voice was crisper, crueler.
Suffice to say, I was quite baffled when he revealed that he was Luke’s father. The film was already a little weird in comparison to what I’d watched the night before and this new twist really made me wonder just what the hell I was watching. I was enthralled, of course, but I was definitely confused. My aunt started laughing at my shock after the revelation, but she then had to explain that, yes, Vader is Luke’s actual father and I hadn’t misheard nor had I misunderstood. Once this was cleared up, my view of the Star Wars world started to change. Now anything could truly happen.
Once I wrapped up the rest of the film, I excitedly told my dad about this revelation. My dad, though, wasn’t a fan of science-fiction and was totally confused with what I was trying to communicate. I can only imagine it sounded like gibberish to him. But I was so surprised by what I’d just seen that I absolutely had to share this new information with someone and my dad just happened to be the next person that I saw.
What did I make of the rest of the film, though? Well, I wasn’t so sure. The battle on Hoth was cool, but it felt different, sadder, certainly. Han Solo’s smugness suddenly came across as fake bravado instead of him just being a cool customer. And Luke? Well, Luke was weird, too, because he kept coming across as if he was going to give up. That wasn’t the Luke that I’d seen blow up the Death Star! And the powerful Jedi Master? He turned out to be a sorta cute, sorta weird looking green guy with a weird voice.
The Empire Strikes Back is, rightfully, considered the best of the Star Wars films by fans, but I did not truly appreciate it as a kid. For me, it was my least favorite because the film came across as so different from the others. There was an element to the film that was colder than the other two. Now, it’s clearly the best of the Star Wars films to me even if it’s not necessarily my favorite (I don’t know if I actually can pick a favorite, though). A lot of the Star Wars films have goofy scene and weird plot choices that you have to overlook. Not The Empire Strikes Back. No, this film is just a damn good piece of cinema. What’s interesting is that in terms of tone, the rest of the Star Wars films hung onto this darker tone to some extent, even The Phantom Menace. There’s a real sense of Star Wars losing its innocence with The Empire Strikes Back that probably meshed well with those kids who were now three years older from when they first learned about the force.
How did others feel about the change in tone from A New Hope to The Empire Strikes Back?
Taras D. Butrej, Film Critic: I couldn’t have been older than four or five when I saw The Empire Strikes Back. My mother rented it from a library because she remembered liking it, and I sat in front of the TV equally confused and enthralled by what I was seeing. At the time I had no idea that it was a sequel. In fact, despite the ending the movie works very well as a stand-alone film.
It would be years before I saw A New Hope or Return of the Jedi (my father was always more of a Star Trek guy), but when I did I fell in love with movies for the first time. Who knew that such a fun, amazing story could be told in film? I was always a bookish kid and I believed that movies could never tell a story as richly as books could, especially episodically. Sure, I loved stuff like Gremlins, but I was weaned on The Chronicles of Prydain series and the C.S. Lewis novels. There was no way anyone could make a series of films and stuff the necessary amount of action, character development, passion and story into it to match a book series. The Empire Strikes Back shook that belief, and the trilogy as a whole changed my mind forever.
But even with that change in mindset, Episode V was always the movie that I kept coming back to. It was the one with the most emotional depth, the greatest character development and the coolest character in Yoda. As a kid, I thought it would be much more fun to hang out with a super-wise little green guy who could teach me how to use the force than a bunch of dumb, hairy Ewoks.
I loved that the series went from sort-of-goofy with A New Hope to something far more realistic. Bad things happen to good people. You have to work to achieve greatness. C3PO is an idiot. These were all very important points that the first film spent no time at all in developing. I feel like A New Hope was there to get people interested, and Empire was what got them hooked.
Maybe it’s just me, but I still believe that The Empire Strikes Back is the single-greatest middle film in a movie trilogy.
Matthew Guerruckey: Oh, it’s not just you. I’d go so far to say that Empire is the greatest movie sequel ever made, period. And I know that the entire internet is shouting at me, “But, but, Godfather II!”, and I shrug that one off. The Godfather II is a well-made film, with some exceptional moments, and everything with Michael and Fredo is moving and gripping. But I’m not a fan of the flashbacks, and overall, it just feels like a continuation of what we’d seen in The Godfather. Empire is drastically different from A New Hope, and Luke as a character is very different than who he was in the first one. Michael Corleone, on the other hand, just continues his downward spiral. Empire is more challenging to its audience, and I’ll allow the important caveat that its intended audience is far younger than that of Godfather II.
But to return to my point about Luke Skywalker, Empire really just heaps shit on him. The last time we saw Luke, he was beaming out at the audience during the medal ceremony on Yavin IV, but the first time we see him here, he’s attacked by a space yeti and dragged off to its lair. The wampa scene was, likely, added as a way to address how different Mark Hamill looked. In January of ‘77, he was in a horrific car crash, which required reconstructive surgery. Thankfully, he survived, but as a result of the accident Luke looks very different than the immature farmboy of A New Hope. It’s hard to picture that Luke dueling with Darth Vader.
Hamill is also very different as an actor in The Empire Strikes Back. Though he was gifted with All-American looks, Hamill has always been, at his core, a character actor (even a song-and-dance man, as his showcase on The Muppet Show proves), so when he’s playing a naive teenager, as he was in A New Hope, he’s appropriately whiny and enthusiastic. But Empire requires a lighter touch, and Hamill provides it. Frank Oz does a remarkable job providing the voice and mannerisms of Yoda, but if Hamill hadn’t played so well off of the puppet, the entire Dagobah sequence could have fallen flat (and we’ll see many examples of that in this series as we go forward). Hamill sells Luke’s impatience, fear, and wonder. Luke fails, and through that failure, becomes a fully realized character in a way that he never was before.
Luke’s failure is one of the reasons that this film, of all of the films in the series, has stayed with me as I’ve grown, and I’ve failed and triumphed in my own life. There are times in my life that I feel like I’ve blown up a Death Star, or exceeded my wildest hopes. There are a lot more times when I’ve rushed into something and gotten my arm lopped off as result (metaphorically speaking). I’d love to be the stoic, assured Jedi Luke of Return of the Jedi, but I’m much more like the half-educated, well-meaning, rash Luke that we see here.
Lawrence, how do you respond to Luke as a character, and Hamill as an actor, in Empire?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: The same year as Empire, Mark Hamill also starred in Sam Fuller’s World War II passion project, The Big Red One, receiving top billing along with Lee Marvin. His performance as a pacifistic sharp shooter, holding his own with Fuller’s tough-guy dialog, shows his versatility. (Hamill’s Griff says, “I can’t murder anyone,” Lee Marvin responds, “We don’t murder, we kill.”) You’re right that his sincerity acting opposite a muppet is what sells Empire. Without Hamill, it would not be what it is.
Empire does an interesting thing when reintroducing the familiar characters. Luke is alone in the snow, we only hear Han’s voice over the space-radio; the first time we see Princess Leia, she is by herself worrying about the fate of her friend. In short, they are not introduced in heroic fashion. And very little heroics happen throughout the film. Everyone is just a little too late, every plan is just a little too foolish. And as you pointed out, Luke does not get a break. The movie begins with Luke getting attacked by a Wampa, it ends with him failing against Darth Vader. His main triumph is that he’s still standing at the end of the movie.
While Star Wars may have been a film of film references, Empire is surely not. There’s no post-modernism here, it’s all romanticism. It is the least George Lucas-y of the six films. Where George Lucas cuts and pastes influences and references (resulting in the prequels’ abrupt and jolting changes in tone) Empire remains steady throughout. Even Yoda’s comic introduction doesn’t interrupt the tone of the film. Irvin Kershner is not a genius director. He doesn’t make unconventional choices, but he makes solid ones. The two darkest, most emotionally deep films of the series are Empire and Revenge of the Sith. I don’t want to get into an argument of judgement just yet, but it is very interesting to compare and contrast how the Kershner film and the Lucas directed film approach themes of failure and betrayal. They’re two very different movies, and Empire succeeds with its direct, character-first approach.
Empire relies much more on character and less on action to provide its momentum. Of all the films, it has the fewest locations, the fewest space battles, the fewest action set-pieces. (Although it certainly has those.) But it still feels very large. The canvas of Star Wars is expanded by its close focus closer on the characters. And no other film in the series succeeds in that way.
Donald McCarthy: I want to echo what Matt said about The Godfather II for a second, just because I thought I’d never find someone else who didn’t worship that film. I, too, struggle with the flashbacks in that film.
Second, and more on topic, I’m also with him on Hamill as an actor. Mark Hamill is ridiculously underrated and I wish he was in more films. If you like Hamill at all, you must check him out with voice acting. His turn as the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series is mindblowing and you’d never guess that Luke Skywalker is the one behind that voice. This dialogue between Luke and the Joker that Hamill does at a talk is stellar. When I read Batman comics, I always hear Hamill’s voice.
When watching The Empire Strikes Back, I consistently find Hamill to be the most interesting actor. Harrison Ford tends to get the most credit, but, to me, Hamill is the real stand out of the original trilogy cast. Luke is the character that changes the most. Sure, Leia is a little less entitled by the end of the trilogy and Han is a little less rough, but Luke goes through the most change and that makes him a more interesting character and it also makes for a meatier, but potentially more difficult, part.
That Luke is so different from how he was in A New Hope is one of the reasons The Empire Strikes Back works so well, but, at the time, I have to imagine it was a really difficult call to make. We’re awash in franchises now and one of the decisions that’s been made about them that makes them frustrating is that the characters don’t really change. They tend to be quick witted, wise-cracking heroes who mourn loses briefly and always muster up the strength at the last minute to beat the bad guy. I mean, have any of the superheroes in the Marvel and DC films changed (outside of the Nolan films)? Does the Liam Neeson character in the Taken films evolve at all over the franchise? Is Jason Bourne changed by the end of the Bourne trilogy? Not from where I’m sitting.
Luke isn’t the only character that The Empire Strikes Back takes a change on either. Darth Vader is a fucking animal in this film. He’s vicious yet remarkably intelligent. He’s a total force of nature yet there’s some alluring about him, as if we can sense the human in him despite how evil he acts. Vader was a distinct presence in A New Hope, but in The Empire Strikes Back he’s on par with the fallen Satan in Paradise Lost, terrifying, but also relatable and gripping. There’s a wit with Vader in this film, but also an air of tragedy, especially when he talks with the Emperor. It’s clear that Lucas and Kershner are intent on taking Vader in a different direction than in A New Hope where he was just a bad guy. Here, Vader is a representation of what Luke could become and it’s presented as a warning, but also as deeply saddening.
These changes had to be chancy and I wonder how much Lucas fretted over taking his saga in such a different direction. Lawrence made a great observation when he noted how different the set pieces are from A New Hope and how the actions scenes play out differently. Even the nature of the force becomes more complicated, more philosophical. In A New Hope, it was pretty much indistinguishable from magic; in The Empire Strikes Back it becomes almost its own philosophy.
What do you guys think? How much of a risk was The Empire Strikes Back and what do you think allowed the franchise to take such risks?
Taras D. Butrej: Donald, I would love to have been a fly on the wall when they were trying to sell Empire. “So what we’re going to do reverse the original’s happy ending by making everyone go through hardships, darkening the timeline, remind audiences that the Rebels are a tiny mosquito on the hindquarters of the Empire and end the movie without any tangible positive gains for any of the main characters. Also, Luke Skywalker may end up a broken, shell of a man by the time we’re done with him.”
I said that Empire was the best middle film in a trilogy and I had actually deleted my comparison to The Godfather Part II because I was cheating my way out of an argument. As a trilogy, Star Wars ends with Return of the Jedi, my least favorite of the original trilogy but still a fun film. The Godfather ends with Part III, one of the worst films ever made, let alone in a trilogy.
I also can’t agree more that Mark Hamill is who really sold the film. Carrie Fisher’s Princess does grow in the film but it’s much more subtle. As for Han Solo, well all I can say that as much as I love Harrison Ford, over the years I’ve come to believe 90% of his characters are all the same person.
Sure, they’re usually cool guys who know how to fight, have supreme confidence and always get the girl, but that’s the kind of guy I wanted to know, not the kind of guy I wanted to be like. No, Skywalker was the guy a kid could aspire to be. He started off a geeky unknown living in the middle of nowhere (although my hometown had a few less moisture farms), got enough training to blow up a Death Star through nothing but concentration and brass balls, then went on to learn life’s harsh lessons and mature both inwardly and outwardly. We wouldn’t have gotten the supremely confident, ass-kicking Luke of Jedi if he hadn’t trained and suffered so thoroughly during the entire runtime of Empire.
I’m trying not to beat a dead horse but the Luke Skywalker at the beginning of the film is barely the same person at the end. Sure, he’s still brash and overconfident, thinking he can actually take on Darth Vader, but he’s also more motivated and thoughtful. Sure, it’s totally because he got trained by the coolest little green man in the Dagobah system but it was still a process of growth.
That’s what makes Empire such a great flick. Very few middle films focus so strongly on growth. Especially in the modern super-hero era, the immediate sequel is usually filled with bigger, stronger enemies rather than opportunities to better flesh out our hero. The tide may be turning with last year’s Winter Soldier but for the most part we don’t see many films where Part II actually slows down and becomes something smaller, tighter and more personal that the first.
What do you guys think? Am I crazy in thinking Empire is a “smaller” movie than the ones before and after?
Matthew Guerruckey: Taras, you’re absolutely right about that. Empire is a smaller, more intimate movie than Star Wars, and that’s due to the direction of Kershner. Kershner was one of Lucas’s professors at USC film school. He’d never directed a great movie before Empire, and he never directed a great movie after Empire, but he made Empire the great movie that it is. If you notice the way each moment is shot, we’re usually tight on a group of characters, without a lot of perspective on their surroundings. This does two things: first, it causes us to have to fill in their environments. This is part of what makes Empire the most immersive movie of the saga--so much of it we have to conjure in our heads. Second, and most important, that tight focus really brings each character’s emotional struggle to the foreground of the scene. The Empire Strikes Back is set in the same wacky sci-fi/fantasy universe as A New Hope, but in Empire the characters feel much more developed and relatable. And that’s because of the emotion in the film. But the even more interesting thing is that these are often emotions that the characters themselves can’t express.
Just look at the farewell scene between Luke and Han in the Rebel Base on Hoth. Han has just saved Luke’s life, for the second time, but now he’s taking off to pay Jabba the Hutt. Luke is filled with gratitude and Han is filled with guilt, but neither one is able to express those emotions. Luke very nearly walks away without saying anything at all. That moment would never have existed in A New Hope, when Luke is wearing his emotions on his sleeve, and Han is still covering them up with a cocky veneer. Moments like these showcase the evolution of the characters in Empire, and feel all the more real, because we’ve all experienced the inability to express a deep emotion, especially love. That inability to express emotion, sadly, is the driving force behind most of human communication.
That’s what makes Chewbacca such an important character. In that farewell scene on Hoth, Chewie has none of the problems that Luke or Han do with emotion. Instead, he wraps up Luke in a giant hug. Throughout the movie, he is free to express his emotion in ways that the human characters are not. On Hoth, when Luke and Han are feared lost in the snowstorm, and the base doors must be closed for the night, Princess Leia, in her role as a military leader, can’t express her fear, but Chewbacca roars in anguish. During the carbon freezing scene he’s willing to take on the entire Empire, and Darth Vader himself, if it means freeing his friend. And as Han is lowered down into the freeze, Chewbacca’s cries roar even above the John Williams score. It’s his emotion that gives the audience their emotional cue. We’re not supposed to be like Han and Leia, each holding back their full expression of fear for the benefit of the other--we’re supposed to feel as mournful and terrified as Chewbacca.
In A New Hope, the musical score acts as the emotional core of the film, but here it’s the characters. That’s a tremendous upgrade, and probably the thing that people who love Empire above the other films are responding to the most. There are real emotional stakes here, and that turns the archetypes of Star Wars into real people.
Lawrence Von Haestrom: You’re exactly right about Chewbacca and I’ve never really thought of that before. We both grew up in the post-Alan Moore era of dark and serious super hero comic books. And dark and serious, if not handled smartly, can feel so cold and tiring. Empire can be accused of going the dark and serious route, but it keeps you emotionally engaged with moments like those.
And it maintains a sense of humor. There are running gags and sight gags that keep the film from seeming too self-absorbed or desperate to be taken seriously. There’s Darth Vader always needing to promote new admirals to fill the sudden vacancies he rashly creates. There’s the constant failure of the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive. And then there’s the moment where Han Solo covers C3P0’s robot mouth speaker to make C3P0 stop talking. That’s a pure, broad cartoon sight gag. These moments keep the film light enough so that the deeper themes can really mean something.
Another thing about those running gags. They actually set some of the best turns in the film. When the hyperdrive finally does work, it’s the only triumphant act the Rebels have in the whole movie. And when Vader sees the Falcon escape, this is the time Vader does not take his anger out on his current admiral. Vader turns and walks past him. When he does that you know Vader is at a deeper, unimaginable level of anger. It’s chilling. And this moment works because of a running gag set-up.
With its smaller scale and focus on characters, Empire is the most unique film of the series. But it is also the film everyone wanted the prequels to be like. And it’s what the internet wants out of Episode VII. (Without George Lucas around, we can finally get a grown-up Star Wars, all of Reddit says.) But I don’t think it’s possible, or even desirable, for another Star Wars film to try to decode and replicate the Empire formula. It just wouldn’t be Star Wars.
So, The Empire Strikes Back as part of the Star Wars series, how does it all fit in?
Donald McCarthy: I’m highly suspicious whenever a creator says they’re going to make a book/season/film like another one. The attempt to mimic a previous success almost always leads to diminishing results. We can debate the end results of the prequels, but not making them in exactly the same vein as any of the original films was a solid choice by Lucas. One of the big letdowns of Return of the Jedi is the ridiculous idea of setting the ending around a second Death Star. Sure, I can buy that the Empire might create another Death Star, but it just smacks of unoriginality. The same would happen if the new trilogy tried to copy The Empire Strikes Back or the format of the original trilogy entirely.
I’m trying to think of another series of genre films that took such a risk with the second feature. Nolan’s The Dark Knight comes to mind, but even that had the appeal of the Joker, allowing Nolan to get away with a riskier film. The Godfather II is an example of a very successful second film and while the flashbacks are a huge departure, the structure of the modern day plot isn’t all too different from The Godfather.
That isn’t to say there can’t be another dark Star Wars film. The best received prequel, Revenge of the Sith, was the darkest of the prequels and there’s enough tragedy to be found in the duality of the Force to allow filmmakers to mine the Star Wars universe for moody, bleak pieces for years. I just don’t think they need to be like The Empire Strikes Back. For one, The Empire Strikes Back works because of the more lighthearted A New Hope. If a new Star Wars feature started off with the same level of despair it would not work because the audience wouldn’t know the characters from a previous swashbuckling adventure. What makes The Empire Strikes Back extra effective is its sense of contrast from what came before.
Take the Chewbacca factor as a perfect example. As Matt said, Chewie is the emotional heart of The Empire Strikes Back and that adds a level of tragedy because he was such a fun, goofy character in A New Hope. It’d be like making Scotty from Star Trek the emotional heart of a story after serving as a sillier character (which, come to think of it, The Next Generation did).
I also want to point to the romance between Han and Leia in The Empire Strikes Back. The saga never did romance as successfully as this film did (by a long shot) and contrast is what makes it work well. The romance angle in A New Hope leaned more towards humor and stayed surface level. The Empire Strikes Back takes the romance more seriously and, perhaps disturbingly, there’s an element of desperation to it. There’s the sense that Han and Leia wouldn’t have given each other a chance if there wasn’t the possibility of death hanging over their heads throughout the entire film. “You’re the last person I may ever get the chance to be with,” seems to be the unsaid sentence throughout all of their moments together.
I think it’s a unique twist that the romance doesn’t involve our hero. I like this take. Luke has a lot going on so he’s focusing on becoming a Jedi instead of finding a lover and I think it’s important that the films allow him to do this instead of sticking in a love interest just for the sake of it. Films seem obsessed with making sure there’s a love element with the lead character, but after the flirtation in A New Hope and the kiss at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, and that was more to irritate Han, Luke doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that he’s single and nor do the films.
And throughout all this discussion we’ve yet to talk about the lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke! What a revelation that must’ve been during the original release of it. The duel in A New Hope was nothing compared to the viciousness of the battle on Cloud City. Luke’s rage is palpable yet we get the sense there’s no way he can take down Vader. What did others make of this duel?
Taras D. Butrej: “Luke, we are about to create one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history.” “No! That’s not true! That’s IMPOSSIBLE!”
Sure, there’s always some sort of dialogue when the hero first encounters the villain, but it’s usually banter or (in the case of any Bond movie ever) plot synopsis. It’s rare for such mindblowingly important dialog to be saved for the end of a film, with absolutely no hinting beforehand. Usually when there’s some sort of big plot twist there are little hints throughout the film, but for Empire it’s almost like they got to the end and thought “nah, Luke’s not screwed up enough yet. How can we make it worse? Oh, let’s have Vader say he’s his father!”
It’s crazy, it’s unexpected, and it’s perfect. The lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader is awesome enough, but it’s made even better by the sheer number of conventions they defied with the whole ending of this film. In most movies, even “middle films”, if the villain is going to survive for the sequel, they’re still the ones who lose the fight. They just get a chance to run away while promising to come back stronger than ever.
Not in Empire Strikes Back. Vader wins the day. The hero doesn’t suddenly come back from a vicious injury and knock the villain down a peg or two. Luke doesn’t keep Vader busy until the cavalry arrives to help. Heck, it becomes clear that he never really stood a chance at this point in his Jedi training.
This is where Empire shows just how much of an amazing film it is. It was mentioned before that the characters were more mature here than in A New Hope but the climactic scene between Luke and Vader occurs because Empire understands that growth happens over time. Luke didn’t just shed his rash, emotional veneer between the two films. He’s been actively trying to grow as a person and as a Jedi. But between his training on Dagobah and the dire straits his friends find themselves in, Luke got cocky and thought he could be the hero and save the day. Then we get to watch Vader beat the cocky right out of him.
I love it because it’s so rare in cinema. There is no last minute comeback from our hero. Vader is literally toying with him and the only reason Luke gets away is because, unbeknownst to him, Vader still has plans for the young’un. We end a film where the bad guy is the person who gets everything they want.
Matthew Guerruckey: That’s a really key point--Vader is just toying with Luke for the entire fight. Luke thinks he’s got a chance, the audience hopes he has a chance, but Vader knows he doesn’t. For the first part of the fight, he matches his energy, testing the boy out, to see what sort of training he’s gotten. But when Vader finally really unleashes, Luke can’t keep up, and the fight is over in seconds.
My favorite part of that entire scene is the single shot of Luke standing against Vader, right after they’ve both ignited their lightsabers for the first time. It’s just Luke taking in the enormity of the evil he’s facing. The lighting is perfect, with all of the blues and oranges creating a brilliant contrast, and pointing toward the emotional crossroads that Luke is at. And there’s such intensity in Hamill’s face. Luke is confident here, but that won’t last long. He may claim to be “full of surprises”, as he crows after standing his ground with Vader for a few parrys, but he’s just not ready yet. Not ready in his training, and nowhere near emotionally ready for the truth. Nor is the audience.
It’s only in the late drafts of the film that Lucas and Kasdan make it official that Darth Vader is, in fact, Luke Skywalker’s father. Lucas can claim up and down that he’d known that all along, but it just doesn’t chart when you look at the history of the various versions of the Star Wars screenplay and the early Empire drafts. Lucas has claimed that Vader’s name, which in Dutch means “father” (but is pronounced differently), is proof that he meant for Vader to be Luke’s father from the start. But he didn’t, and his insistence in the decades since the movies that he always meant for there to be twins, and that Leia was always going to be Luke’s sister and Vader was always going to be their father is ridiculous.
Lucas happened upon a brilliant idea that he hadn’t planned or imagined. The continual surprise of creation is one of the greatest parts of being a writer, yet Lucas seems scared to admit it was a happy accident. Even if we accept that Lucas always meant for Luke to be a twin, there’s no way that twin was ever Leia until the Return of the Jedi. The deleted scenes for Empire prove this, as there’s a scene between Luke and Leia that points to a far greater romantic connection than hinted at by Luke’s self-satisfied reaction to her kiss in the existing film. And you know what? The scene isn’t bad. Hamill and Fisher have decent chemistry, at least as much as Fisher and Ford.
Donald, you mention that it’s refreshing that the film didn’t focus on its love triangle, but after watching that scene, that potential storyline begins to feel like a missed opportunity for drama--not so much in Empire, but in Return of the Jedi. After the events of Empire, we’re left to wonder if Luke is going to join his father on the dark side of the force, so how would Jedi have played out if Luke was not only struggling with the Emperor, but his own jealousy? We probably would have followed a similar storyline, if George Lucas hadn’t been tired of making Star Wars movies by the time he got to Jedi. We’ll talk about that much more next month, but it’s a big reason that the emotional grandeur of Empire is not repeated in Jedi. Lucas just wanted a resolution, so he slapped one together.
What about you, Lawrence, are there any strands in Empire that you would have liked to have seen explored further in Jedi, or the prequels, that were never addressed?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: Honestly, I think the prequels do add something to Empire. The notion that the Sith always two there are makes Vader’s offer to Luke to the rule the galaxy together even more interesting. Vader is giving Luke a chance to defeat the Emperor--which is the ultimate goal of the Rebellion. But as far as sequels go, you’re right that Jedi does rush the conclusions. Enough threads were begun that the series could have gone on much longer. The promise of Empire’s set-up isn’t followed through with completely by Jedi. Lando Calrissian could have been a much more interesting character. As an ends-justifies-the-means kind of guy, he could have been a good foil to Luke’s purity of heart. A Han-less Chewbacca could have gone on his own Wookie-in-the-wilderness side-journey. There could have been more latent Jedis-to-be found throughout the Galaxy, maybe even a different twin-sister. But, ultimately, it was smart to wrap things up in one following film. Whether that one film was successful, we can discuss next month.
(And I am writing this on the day the second teaser trailer for The force Awakens was released. It looks like the series will continue ad-infinitum, possibly picking up some of those threads that Jedi left untouched. For better or for worse.)
Changing topics, one thing I want to get to before we wrap this up is how time works in Empire. There’s a real interesting trick that the film does in its editing. We talked last month about Star Wars’ very linear story--the droids bring us to Luke who brings us to Obi Wan who takes us to Han who takes us to the Princess we saw in the opening. Empire, though, splits up the cast. Luke and R2D2 go to Dagobah while Han, Leia, and C3PO are hounded by the Darth Vader’s fleet. In Luke’s story, we seem him go from an impatient, doubting neophyte entirely dismissive of a little green guy to a near-Jedi fairly proficient with the force. There’s not exactly an 80s movie training montage, but we do know he goes through a lot of training. And we know that takes some time.
In Han and Leia’s story, they make a hasty escape from Hoth with the Empire hot on their tail. They take refuge in an asteroid cave which turns out to be a space slug. They try to shake the Empire’s fleet by pretending to be scrap and make their way to the nearest friendly port. We get the sense that this all happens at a fast, tumbling pace similar to the pace of the first Star Wars. When all the principals reconvene for the climax at Cloud City, Han and Leia are at the end of a high-speed adventure while Luke is coming off his deliberate Jedi training. How do these two different timelines rejoin each other at the same moment?
Now I know you can go to a million discussion threads on the internet explaining how we don’t know how long it took the Millennium Falcon to get to Cloud City without the hyperdrive, but that’s just Marvel No Prize excuse making. The two disparate timelines work because of how movie editing works. We alternate between the two storylines at appropriate breaks in each storyline’s action. The two story are both interesting in entirely different ways and when we’re in them, we’re fully in them. But at the moment we might begin to ask ourselves, hey, what happened to Leia and Han? the movie takes us back to them. One of the magical qualities of film is how it can compress and manipulate time. Empire very smartly uses these tricks of film. And it’s very fascinating to think about how it works so well.
And that mention of Dagobah reminds me, we’ve gone this far without even really talking about this character named Yoda. Surely we all have something we can say about him.
Donald McCarthy: I have a lot of thoughts on Yoda, but I want to follow up on the duel between Luke and Vader first. I rewatched it again after reading the above discussion and I noticed how when Luke and Vader first stand before each other, Luke ignites his lightsaber and it snaps out quickly. Vader ignites his, but it takes a lot longer, at least a second or two more. Then Luke attacks, using both hands and Vader only uses one hand and still manages to knock Luke right to the ground. And then, is there a more condescending yet awesome bad guy insult as Vader calmly knocking Luke into the carbon chamber and saying, “All too easy” as if he’s just flattened a slow bug?
As their battle continues, Vader toys with Luke, like Matt and Taras says, yet Luke still struggles. What’s great is when we see Vader give it his all after he ambushes Luke on the railing. Vader slices and dices, destroying all the architecture, and Luke has no choice but to keep falling back. There’s not one moment here where Luke has the upper hand, especially since he already exhausted himself before (a mistake he won’t repeat in Return of the Jedi). Even when Luke grazes Vader’s shoulder, it only makes Vader more dangerous. My favorite lightsaber duel is the one in the throne room in Return of the Jedi, but with this rewatch I’ve gained a lot more love for this duel.
But Lawrence is right that we haven’t talked enough about Yoda yet! As Darth Sidious says, our “little green friend.” What hits me first now is how ugly Yoda looks in this film. Not to body shame, but he’s seen better days. He also looks almost completely different from how he did in the prequels. Lucas must have made a conscious decision to have him be cuter in the prequels. My first thought was that this was a more kid friendly approach Lucas was taking, but The Phantom Menace is the most kid friendly and in the original version Yoda looks mostly like he does in The Empire Strikes Back. I realize that a CGI Yoda is needed for his duels to work, but his appearance is radically different. I’m curious what others think about this change.
For this film, Yoda brings a new understanding of the force. In A New Hope, the force is a power; now it’s a philosophy and Yoda is a philosopher, and a challenging one at that. His taunting of Luke before Luke realizes who he is acts as a great test of Luke and gives the audience a look at a more frustrated, rattled Luke, a Luke we haven’t seen in the past. Yoda, like many great teachers, is also intimidating. The idea of Luke letting him down is deeply depressing and we feel frustrated whenever Luke lets him down. To the film’s credit, Luke lets him down a lot. There’s not just one moment where Luke isn’t up to par; it’s constant. From lifting the rocks, to lifting the X-Wing, to having the duel with the fake Darth Vader, Luke keeps failing again and again. Luke never seems to grasp that this is half the point and his failure to grasp this is why he ends up losing to Vader so quickly at the end of the film.
I also enjoyed the slight sense of conflict between Obi-Wan and Yoda. They’re not in lockstep and clearly have a different way of teaching. You can feel Yoda thinking, “Really? This guy? He’s going to stop Vader and Palpatine? He’s permanently on the edge of a temper tantrum.”
Yoda is a real game changer for the saga. It’s weird to think he wasn’t in A New Hope because he’s almost as representational of the series as Darth Vader is. What do others think of Yoda’s introduction versus how he is in other films?
Taras D. Butrej: I’ve already mentioned how I would have been perfectly happy hanging out with Yoda in the swamps of Dagobah as a kid, maybe talking philosophy or wrestling alien alligators. It would have been a bonus if he had found the force within me and taught me to harness it. No more getting up to get a glass of water! Just use my mind powers (errr...midichlorians?) to float that glass over to my waiting hand.
I think Yoda’s best film was here in Empire. He is initially introduced as a bit of a rascal, but once everything settles down we come to find out that the most powerful Jedi in the universe is a tiny green alien that doesn’t look like he could hold his own in a rock-paper-scissors battle. Yet as the film unfolds, we’re shown just how amazing Yoda is.
Donald, you mentioned that it was weird not seeing him in A New Hope but I like that Yoda was saved for Empire, whether deliberately or not. Obi-Wan humanized the Jedi order from the very beginning. He demonstrated how the force should be used to help people, not dominate them, but he also showed the side of wisdom. Yoda shows us the philosophical side, as well as the importance of trying, even if it means constant failure. If Luke had encountered Yoda first, I think he would have been long dead from frustration or his hot-headed nature. Luke needed to see Obi-Wan fail, needed to know that even the best Jedi was not all-powerful. Heck, he saw Vader cut down his master and still tried to take the guy on in the next film.
Yoda is my favorite character in The Empire Strikes Back and my favorite character in the Star Wars universe. Despite the fact that I think they leaned a bit too heavily on his ‘badass’ side in the prequels, in this movie he’s the wise master who shows Luke, and the audience, that you have to give it your all. Trying is not good enough; you need to do it until you succeed.
I guess you could say that’s the whole point of Empire as a middle film. All the characters in the movie tried but they weren’t ready to succeed. If only they had trained harder and maybe gotten a few Ewoks to help out.
Matthew Guerruckey: Taras, you talk about wanting to use the force--I must have tried a million times, when I was a kid, to make objects jump into my hand like Luke does with his lightsaber in the wampa cave. And I think that’s what I appreciated most on this rewatch, realizing just how key this movie was to my childhood, and the way I look at the world. Empire says that the world is darker and more fucked up than you can possibly imagine, but that there’s always something to be grateful for, even if it’s just to have your friends standing by your side.
That’s probably why the ending of The Empire Strikes Back is one of my favorite moments of the entire Star Wars saga. There’s nothing really happening there. It’s just Luke standing next to Leia and the droids, as Chewie and Lando zoom off into the galaxy after Han. The shot is really well composed, with Luke and Leia on one side of the shot, and the droids on the other half. Finally, there’s a sense of peace after all of the craziness we’ve just been witness to. And the elegant score, one of the most beautiful passages that Williams has ever written, tells us that there’s still hope, and more adventures to come. The music tells us life goes on.
What did you take away from this viewing, Lawrence?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: One thing that struck me is how smooth this movie is. As Donald said earlier it’s the one movie in the series that you don’t have to make any apologies for. The dialog is great, the action sequences are great, the emotional beats are sincere and well-earned. It’s the best executed of all the films. The movie just flows.
And while I say that, and I agree with all the positive things we’ve said here, Empire is still not my favorite of the films. (That would be Star Wars.) Irvin Kershner made the only flawless Star Wars film, but sometimes its the flaws of something that make it interesting. This is the movie we can all agree on. This will be the last of these discussions were we say “I thought this was great, what do you think?” And the next person says “That was great, but this great part was great, too!” I’m really looking forward to actually disagreeing about things.
For the majority of fans, The Empire Strikes Back is what we talk about when talk about Star Wars. This is what so many want from the series, and it’s not the direction that the prequels take. They want films that take themselves seriously, not the rough assemblage of references that the George Lucas-directed films are. George Lucas ended up making the kind of movies he wanted to make, not necessarily what the fans wanted. And Empire is to blame for their expectations.
I’m not totally sure of my point here, maybe I’ll have the chance to develop my thoughts as these discussions go on. In short: The Empire Strikes Back: I love it, but I don’t love love love it.
Donald McCarthy: Lawrence, I understand where you’re coming from. The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the Star Wars films, but it set up a lot of false expectations. We can argue as to why, but Lucas has next to zero interest in what others want- he made his films the way he wanted to and the fact that audiences really just wanted more movies like The Empire Strikes Back is always going to be a source of tension between fans and Lucas. The fan worship of The Empire Strikes Back is defensible, but I do think if the fans got what they wanted, another film just like this, they’d realize what they want isn’t necessarily for the best.
Every Star Wars film has its own personality. That’s what makes each one watchable even if you haven’t seen the others. If there is ever another film like this one, not only will that film be unoriginal, but The Empire Strikes Back will seem lesser in hindsight. That Lucas didn’t go back to the well and try and repeat the same scenarios and characters is something I respect him for. Fandom almost never understands the concept of overdoing it until it’s already been done. Another film with Han and Leia escaping the Empire sounds great. Another film with Vader and Luke dueling? Awesome. More Yoda training on Dagobah? Excellent. But for how long? One more film like this? Another trilogy? A whole series of them?
I worry about this with the new film. If Disney decides that all the Star Wars films need to be like Empire or any of the other films then there’s going to be a problem.
But putting aside the new trilogy, let’s talk about the old one. The Empire Strikes Back was supposed to be the second of six movies about Luke, Vader, and the Empire. Various drafts of Star Wars and outlines show us that Lucas didn’t intend to end the saga with the sixth film initially. I’m sure we’ve all heard about how the Emperor wouldn’t appear in the flesh until the ninth film or how Luke’s sister would’ve been a new character. This all sounds cool, but it also sounds like there’d be a lot of repetition and dragging out before the climax. Can you imagine another three whole films before we finally get to the Vader/Luke/Emperor showdown?
So what do you think, Taras? Was it good that The Empire Strikes Back ended up being the setup for the conclusion or would you have rathered the story went to Episode Nine?
Taras D. Butrej: There is no way I can fathom taking the original trilogy and turning it into nine films. I mean, that would be like starting a book trilogy and having it spiral into six or more novels! How much would everything drag when you realize you’re forced to add more characters, more events, and more stuff just to fill things out?
Yes, that was a little bit of a joke. But in all honesty, sometimes it’s good to expand a story for the good of the fictional universe, but I’m glad we will never know what it could have been because what is happens to be amazing. Each film in the original trilogy has just enough of a different tone that they almost fit into different categories like action, drama and near-comedy (I’m looking at you, Ewoks). Yet it works, and it works because of how solid the middle film is.
The Empire Strikes Back far surpassed expectations. It sequeled a fun, slightly campy film that could have been a stand-alone and made it the basis for a worldwide phenomenon. Another movie just like A New Hope may have been popular enough to continue the Star Wars legacy, but I’m not sure we would be talking about it in such revered tones 25 years later.
It was the perfect movie sequel, the perfect bridge to the conclusion of the original trilogy, and one of my favorite films of all time. Whether it would have been better as six or nine films is, I think, moot at this point. What really matters is just how damn perfect it was when I was a kid and how little my love of the film has changed over the intervening years.
Whatever Disney has planned for the new movies nothing they do will retroactively change how much I love The Empire Strikes Back. If Jar-Jar Binks couldn’t do it, nothing can. But that’s a conversation for another time.
Join us in June for our discussion of Return of the Jedi, the final chapter in the original Star Wars trilogy, with Ryan Roach. And let us know what your own memories and opinions of The Empire Strikes Back are in the comments below!