by Nathaniel Cowper
This beautiful damn movie is difficult to think about objectively because itʼs been ingrained in my blood for as long as I can remember. But I know I speak for lots of us when I say The Empire Strikes Back is the perfect sequel. Star Wars is great, yeah. Nobody could dispute that (except maybe a Star Trek fan). I know it took my five-year- old breath away when my dad took me to the 20th anniversary theatrical release.
But Empire is something else entirely. Itʼs a dark, scary hole in the universe in which Star Wars is a shining light. The first movie was a standard space adventure, George Lucasʼ semi-plagiarized version of the old Flash Gordon serials. The second movie is a continuation story-wise but a screeching left turn mood-wise. Who wants to see the same film twice?
Last we saw Luke, Han, and Leia, they had emerged triumphant and blown up the Death Star, and everyone barring Chewie went home with a big shiny medal to boot. 1977 audiences must have felt pretty pleased with themselves.
But to every success is a failure, and every victory has a dark side. By the time Empire rolls around, Luke Skywalker is due for a failure, as George Lucas sure knows. Lucas has read his Joseph Campbell, and Lucas knows that a heroʼs character arc canʼt continue until heʼs faced rock bottom and looked tragedy straight in the face (or mask).
Letʼs break it down — the Hoth battle ends in a close call for the Rebellion. Snow flies, redshirts scream in pain, but our heroes escape, albeit divided. And across the galaxy they go, tempting fate with close call after close call.
I can see George Lucas, donut in hand, hunched over the writing table — “I gave ʻem a Space Adventure, now theyʼre gonna get a faceful of Space Tragedy!” Thatʼs the big reason the film is such a success. The filmmakers knew not to do the same thing a second time. A universe had been created, and we the fans had grown attached to the characters, and now it was time to punch them in the face, repeatedly and unrelentingly. Han is betrayed, frozen, and delivered into enemy hands. Leia is forced to watch while the man she has just realized she loves is whisked away and as her resistance force crumbles around her. Luke gets his hand chopped off, falls down a pit, and learns (spoilers?) that an evil tyrant is his father. Even Wedge suffers a blow to his pride as heʼs relegated once again to the background. C3PO is smashed apart… you get it, thereʼs no end to the good guysʼ suffering. Theyʼre beaten down, betrayed, dismembered, and heartbroken.
But in this beating down we see true people rise out of the screen, more relatable and human than the somewhat one-dimensional characters of the first film. Here lies the biggest triumph of the movie. Luke starts to learn the Force and begins to lose his childish petulance, Han and Leiaʼs bickering glimmers into love, 3PO goes from whiny to very whiny. And Vader, previously not much more than a menacing thug, starts to show his true plans and intentions. We even catch a look at his helmet-less, vulnerable head.
Not all of Empireʼs successes are story-based. The movie looks really good. The visual effects mostly donʼt look dated, which canʼt be said for every 35-year-old movie. When they do look dated, itʼs almost to the movieʼs advantage. Yodaʼs a puppet, made of cloth and stuffing, and about as low-budget an effect as you can get. But this adds a second dimension to his big reveal – not only is this legendary Jedi knight a shriveled little weirdo, this legendary Jedi knight is made of mere felt. It may have been unintentional, but it ends up working despite its technical limitations, much like the sharkʼs reveal in Jaws.
And visually, itʼs got a color palette that mirrors the action of the story. Empire starts off snowy and bright white, the traditional color of lightness, while things are still going OK for the Rebellion. Then the movie literally gets darker as it starts to figuratively get darker. The climax takes place in a black, empty, expansive room augmented by an endless pit. Lukeʼs feeling pretty empty and hopeless at this point, and the setting reflects that wonderfully.
The Empire Strikes Back is full of real people with their dark and light sides on full display. If you havenʼt seen it yet, 1. How 2. Watch the first one first, and 3. Youʼll like what you see. The characters from Star Wars might feel pretty great about their Death Star victory. But theyʼre about to find themselves in the belly of the beast, or, I suppose, the belly of the Exogorth.
Nathaniel Cowper likes movies and music. He also makes movies and music. You can watch his movies at vimeo.com/nathanielcowper and hear his music at arugulaoglethorpe.bandcamp.com.