A long time ago, in a neighborhood, far, far away from the one I currently reside in, my young little self discovered that another Star Wars movie was in production. Wait… What? There’s gonna be another one?! No way! Too good to be true. Too amazing to comprehend. I mean – the bad guys were all blown up in the first one, the Rebellion gave our heroes medals, a big ceremony, and they all lived happily ever after. It was over. We won. Right? Hmm, well, wait a minute… Darth Vader did survive, and maybe the bad guys had a few more ships…or something? Not sure what they’d do with another movie, but meh, doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s going to be another installment of the greatest thing human beings ever created.
There’s going to be another Star Wars! Woohoo!
Now that’s not a very intellectual take on the preeminent movie of the Star Wars saga, right? But you know what? To me, it’s the most important perspective, for that’s how my 9 year old self perceived it at the time. Star Wars was for the enjoyment of all, but in my little universe, it was all for me. It was mine. And apparently, the science fiction gods were on my side.
It’s impossible for me to reflect on The Empire Strikes Back without strolling back down the dreamy avenues of childhood memory, a misty veil through which I glimpse remnants of wonder and awe burgeoning in a young, hopeful mind. I was extraordinarily fortunate to have grown up right in the midst of what may have been the most gilded golden age for creativity in modern history. From the mid 70’s on through the late 80’s, Speilberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, James Cameron and others were firing on all cylinders, cranking out myriad fantastical masterpieces. Technology was just beginning to infiltrate our lives in ways it never had before – prevalent enough to keep our eyes and imaginations open to its possibilities, but not so intrusive as to keep us from adventuring and exploring the great outdoors, reenacting our favorite Star Wars scenes in the backyards, fields, and forests of good ole’ planet earth. It truly was a wonderful time, when old school ingenuity and suspension of disbelief were mingling with the dawn of accessible digital gadgetry; when home computing and video games emerged to entertain and educate us while simultaneously furthering our beliefs that the human race could and would end up flourishing in worlds like the ones unfolding in our dreams and on our screens.
The Empire Strikes Back was a product of the times, crafted by people who had their eyes on the skies while their feet were still firmly planted in the moralistic ground of those who had come before.
But how do you possibly follow up the greatest cinematic experience of all time? Oh, no problem, you simply make an even better movie, and possibly the greatest sequel of all time.
From the model makers, to costume designers, to actors, director, and creator George Lucas himself, everyone showed up with the intention to make The Empire Strikes Back bigger, bolder, and, as would profoundly benefit the overall story, deeper. Yes, the sequel succeeded on many levels, but mostly, I’d say its success was predicated on digging deeper into the heart of the saga. Here we were given the second act of a three act play, the portion of the story where the heroes are tested, their wills and resolve shaken, the dramatic tension brought to a boiling point.
Stretched in so many directions, overseeing the many phases of production at once, Emperor Lucas asked his mentor Irvin Kershner to helm the movie as director. Kershner famously said no at first, fearing imminent failure at even attempting to follow up the most successful movie of all time. But alas, with alil’ prodding from his agent, he eventually caved, and thank heavens for that. His sensibilities and attention to detail and character took Star Wars right where it needed to go – into more spiritual territory. He bore into the souls of the characters, their inner and interpersonal conflicts, while simultaneously broadening the arc of the overall story.
It was a daring step to take the franchise’s tone from the swashbuckling, relatively-lighthearted fare of the original into more dramatic territory. But for audiences and filmmakers alike, the gamble paid off in spades. For all of its differences from A New Hope, at its core, Empire was still unmistakably Star Wars, and it was wonderful.
Despite a prevailing criticism that Mark Hamill had a propensity to whine in the first film, his delivery had an honesty to it; it perfectly portrayed a restless youth who’s fundamentally dissatisfied with his life. And while Hamill may never go down as Marlon Brando or (insert X legendary actor’s name), I’ll pose this – he shined like a brilliant star in Empire. No one, and I mean no one on this good earth could have portrayed Luke Skywalker with as much heart as Hamill. There are many reasons why the scenes with Yoda are so mesmerizing, but perhaps the primary reason for their success was Hamill’s unswerving belief in him. Look into Luke’s eyes as he is looking into Yoda’s. No one was more convinced than Mark that this was a real being, and therefore, the audience was sold. Mark wasn’t acting against a puppet, he was responding to a Jedi Master. He gave himself to the part, body and mind, heart and soul. To this day his wonderful attitude, childlike demeanor, and belief in the purity of Star Wars have carried the torch for those of us who believe that there’s some truth in fairy tales, and to believe is to overcome…
I think all of us Star Wars fans agree: Mark Hamill has handled his role, both on and off-screen, as wonderfully as one could desire. His character’s transformation through each film is remarkable, and his real life generosity, enthusiasm, and compassion underlie what Star Wars is all about.
Empire also gave us Harrison Ford at his best. (I’d argue The Force Awakens could be a close second; some consider that his best work in any Star Wars movie, and I’ll happily accept that perspective.) We saw the skeptical scoundrel, but we also learned that he, too, had an even bigger heart than we’d first thought. Oh, we got a glimpse of that at the end of A New Hope when he rescued Luke, but it was still unclear whether he had any intention of remaining with the Rebellion. In spite of everything, he just couldn’t seem to detach himself from the desperate struggle against the Empire. The tension between him and Leia boiled over into romance, and his sarcastic banter with Threepio reached epic levels; his camaraderie with Chewie stayed its course, and his suave yet rough exterior showed it could still pack and take a punch. His improvised “I know” line provided perhaps the second most memorable bit of dialogue in the movie. Yes, I’d say in The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo was in his prime. And, oh, the torment inflicted when he was frozen in carbonite, when audiences would have to wait 3 agonizing years to see his fate… Ugh! It was one of the most hotly debated and anticipated story arcs of all time.
The Empire Strikes Back also marked a dramatic and clever shift in Darth Vader’s demeanor. Gone was the wild, shouting bark of a madman. In its place was the calm, composed voice of the master of the Imperial forces. The change was subtle but extraordinarily powerful. His presence in The Empire Strikes Back solidified him as cinema’s numero uno baddie. Say the wrong thing, and calmly get force choked. Epic lightsaber duel in a city in the clouds? No problem, cool as a cosmic cucumber. Vader went from being Governor Tarkin’s watchdog to being the man in charge, and boy was his presence strong. The calmer yet more threatening and openly evil manner coupled with his already iconically horrifying black garb made a villain for the ages, one that has yet to be matched.
And then came the biggie, the moment of revelation that still has fans shuddering decades later… “No. I am your father.” Can you imagine watching that in the theater with absolutely no idea it was coming? It was jaw-dropping. It opened up a whole new can of worms. The game had changed. Anything we suspected about Luke’s origins was thrown out the window, and our preconceived notions of Lord Darth Vader’s own story were gone. With that one utterance, the course of Star War’s future changed.
“No. I am your father.”
It remains one of the most famous lines in movie history, and in 1980, it left millions stunned.
The environments of The Empire Strikes Back were also in stark contrast to the previous film. In fact, it was one of Lucas’ most clever cinematic tricks – using a scene’s dominant color to affect emotional tone. Ever notice in the original trilogy how each film has a very strong leniency towards certain hues? A New Hope was the grey and tan movie. Empire was white and blue. Jedi was a bit more colorful, with greens, greys, and a return to the sandy tones of Tatooine. That The Empire Strikes Back was released in the summer also intensified the contrast of its look. It was a bit jarring to walk out of the summer heat, sit down in your movie seat, and wind up in the Battle of Hoth, neck deep in snow. It changed the mood and literally broadened the landscapes of a universe we realized we were just beginning to know.
Empire gave us many new wonderful morsels to digest, including the introduction of Lando Calrissian, a character who acted even smoother than Han Solo. Boba Fett made his first appearance; and while for some, the years have somewhat diminished the impact of his small but pivotal role, at the time, the mystery of this menacing warrior had audiences wanting for more. Ah, I could go on and on and on. (Couldn’t we all!?) But before I begin to wrap things up, I’d like to touch upon one more character, and the ramifications of his presence…
Ah, The Empire Strikes Back gave us Yoda.
As I mentioned earlier, his success was due in major part to Mark Hamill’s fantastic performance; but undeniably, the little guy’s philosophy, teachings, articulation, and wonderful “backwards speak” cemented him as one of cinema’s most endearing characters of all time. Our very culture changed with the arrival of this little green guy. And Frank Oz’s performance, in both voice and puppetry, are imbued with such feeling, honesty, and raw emotion, we didn’t for one moment ponder that this being was anything other than magical. Puppet? Bah, nonsense. This little guy was realer than real. And the lonely Dagobah swamp, with fog swirling beneath the darkened canopy of vine-enwrapped trees, and the distant hoots and caws of some strange beasts, provided the perfect atmosphere for us to immerse ourselves in learning the mystical underpinnings of the force. Honestly, who among us hasn’t at least tried to push the soda can across the table using nothing but our will, our outstretched fingertips trembling as we attempt to use the force? C’mon, admit it – you still give it a shot once in a while, right? Just in case. Just in case there truly is a little bit of the magic that Star Wars makes us feel is real…
That was the power of Yoda, the power of Star Wars, the indomitable belief that anything is possible.
Yoda not only won over a generation of fans, but as the decades mount, its becoming more and more apparent that he truly is becoming the stuff of legends. The simple, beautiful wisdom he imparted will be passed down through the ages, and it reinforces George Lucas’ implementation of the lessons learned from Joseph Campbell about classic storytelling.
With A New Hope, Star Wars became a blockbuster, a sensation, but with The Empire Strikes Back, it literally became a modern myth. I know people have a tendency to throw that term around a bit loosely – modern myth – but it’s true, all of it (sorry, couldn’t help it). It sincerely is a film that will endure through the ages, one that will not be so quickly trampled over by time. For many of us, it was the greatest cinematic experience of our lives, a movie that dared to climb higher than its predecessor, a film that itself had already touched the most brilliant stars. It was both bigger and more intimate than A New Hope, and it didn’t even really have an ending; it merely cut us loose with unbearable cliffhangers. It was a bold undertaking. Had The Empire Strikes Back failed, I probably wouldn’t be typing this now. We likely wouldn’t be in the midst of an entirely new trilogy. Not only was Empire arguably the best Star Wars movie, but it certainly was the most important. It truly solidified the franchise as the myth of our time.
Thank you so much for spending some time with me and reflecting, my friends. A lot more could and has been said on this most special movie, and I hope you share your own thoughts in the comments section below. Now I think I’ll go pop in my Empire blu ray and hangout with Yoda again, where in the quiet, solitary mists of Dagobah, I learned of patience, magic, hope, and gained an understanding that through the power of story, I could indeed believe in the endless potential for myself.
May good health, good wishes, and the force be with you, always…