While the first Star Wars film is a cultural landmark, its position in the zeitgeist would be far wobblier (I can use wobblier in this context, right?) if its sequel had been less than stellar. And as I’ve discussed elsewhere on the site, it easily could have been—all you have to do is read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye to glimpse that alternate future.
But this movie? Who could have predicted that the sequel to Star Wars would be considered by most (in this day and age, at least) to be the greatest film of the series?
So here’s the thing about The Empire Strikes Back: its popularity (even just as a Star Wars film) makes it something of a chore to talk about. We all know why people like it because we’ve been dissecting that topic for the past few decades. It’s perhaps more funny for the fact that the film received middling reviews when it arrived; people don’t generally like cliffhangers in their movies, and Episode V is about as different from the first film as you can get, tonally speaking. Battles are lost, colors are grayer, wastelands are freezing instead of blazing hot. The whole affair is pretty depressing and dire.
It’s always been said that the first Star Wars only worked because of the number of people involved in making it a reality. Lucas wasn’t quite so precious about his creation back in those days, and his willingness to listen to other voices made a huge difference. But it’s still important to remember that yet again, no one had any idea what they were making while the film was underway and the pressure was more keen than last time—Mark Hamill felt awkward spending such a large portion of the shoot talking to a puppet and no one else, the weather was not in their favor during the Hoth scenes, the actors still hated their dialogue. Irvin Kershner initially turned down Lucas’ offer to direct, believing that there was no chance a sequel could top the original film.
It’s not surprising that he thought so, is it? How rare is it for a sequel to surpass a solid first offering? But Star Wars got right what so many other series get wrong; it didn’t rely on its previous formula to create another success. Most of this was down to George Lucas veering off in different directions for the story, realizing that he had a trilogy on his hands rather than a single hit with a few secondary stories attached. That these revelations occurred at all is down to serendipity as much as anything—the film we wound up with is sheer luck, in the purest sense.
There is one thing about the writing of Empire Strikes Back that breaks my heart: when the project started, George Lucas hired Leigh Brackett to write the screenplay from a treatment he created. After she turned in her first draft of the script, she unfortunately passed away due to cancer. The draft didn’t end up working for Lucas, which led to his changing a few major plot points, writing the next few drafts himself, and eventually hiring Lawrence Kasdan (who had already done a draft for the Raiders of the Lost Ark screenplay)—who obviously did an excellent job with the script. Having done that excellent job, Kasdan was asked back to cowrite Return of the Jedi. And he has now cowritten The Force Awakens. And he is also cowriting the upcoming Han Solo film with his son. As a woman, it can’t help but sting knowing that we came so close to having a female screenwriter for the franchise back in 1980, and haven’t even approached that since.
But what’s truly important about the writing process of this film is that the first draft convinced George Lucas something new was needed. It is generally agreed (because the history of Star Wars is always a shifty thing that gets doubled back on every few years) that this was the point in time where Lucas decided that Vader was Luke’s father. Despite the word “Vader” meaning “father” in German (correction: “Vader” is “father” in Dutch, in German it is “Vater”), Lucas had originally intended for Anakin and Vader to be separate people; Anakin’s ghost helped to train Luke in the first draft of Empire’s script. It was also where Lucas came up with most of the relevant backstory that would power the trilogy going forward—the Emperor became a Sith Lord, the movie was suddenly being labelled Episode V rather than II, Han Solo’s carbonite-encased fate became the film’s cliffhanger ending. It took Lucas time to discover those plot points—they weren’t simply part of his original plan.
But the thing that struck me on the rewatch? It was a sudden realization that each film in the original trilogy really zeroes in on a different hero, technically speaking. Sure, Luke is meant to be the POV hero for the entire trilogy, but A New Hope is ultimately Leia’s story—her planet is the one that gets blown up, her smarts get the Death Star plans away from the Empire and into the right hands. She is the person who manages to keep the Rebel base location from the enemy even while she’s being drugged and coerced, she is the one who has to be rescued as the Player of Greatest Importance to the Rebellion. Of course, Return of the Jedi has to be centered on Luke because he is the “Jedi” in question. The final film is where he’s truly allowed to shine, to show off his skills, to make his own choices for his own reasons and trust those instincts to the end.
So the interesting thing about Empire? It’s kind of Han’s story.
And the reason why it’s interesting is because Han is so beloved as a character, and this film does a good job of explaining why he should be. As far as fandom is concerned, Han is generally considered to be the trilogy’s resident Best Dude (Luke has his fans—I happen to be one of them—but if you measure them out, there are honestly more people who prefer Han); he’s snarky and unflappable and cool and suave and down to earth and just a little dangerous. He is our charming rogue with the cheeky grin.
Ha. No he’s not. He’s like… one or two of those things.
See, Empire Strikes Back proves that Han is not that guy. The film is fascinating because it opens on two things—the Rebels getting their butts handed to them by the Empire and Han harassing Leia to get her to safety after swearing up and down that he is about to leave. Han was supposed to take his reward money from the last film, pay off the debt on his head, and go his merry way without a second thought to the Rebellion or its mighty quest. Instead we find that he’s been hanging around for the past few years, desperately flirting at Leia to no avail. He’s been doing his part for the Rebellion, but Han Solo isn’t the kind of guy to fight for “causes.” He fights for people every time. Which means that he’s stayed all this time to fight for Luke and Leia.
So Luke has to spend the majority of the film off leveling up somewhere else, getting the skills and strength he will need to face the upcoming storm. That means it’s on Han to play hero this time around, and he has a pretty… unique way of doing it. We watch him think creatively to get out of tough situations, use ship-jostling as an excuse to get close with his sweetheart, rely on the hospitality of an old, questionable friend to get the help they need. The point is never that Han makes the best choices—it’s that he makes those choices for the sake of others. (It’s notable that though he is initially framed as the traitor, Lando does the same thing as administrator for Cloud City, putting the people who live there first. Which gives you a pretty good idea of Han’s moral code as a person, and the sorts of people he prefers to hang out with.)
At its core, Empire Strikes Back is the romance that Attack of the Clones later tried to be. And ironically, what makes the romance at the center of Episode V so convincing is the fact that there is nothing remotely fated about it. We don’t have to buy that Han and Leia are going to be together for all eternity due to some special destiny. We just have to believe that they are serious in the here and now. We have to believe that when Leia protests Han’s insistence that she “likes him because he’s a scoundrel,” she’s only doing it because she is concerned at how hard she’s falling for him. It’s not about being star-crossed, it’s about feeling genuine attraction to another person regardless of how convenient it is at the time. It’s about a leader of the Rebel Alliance getting sidetracked by the sort of person someone in her position should never seriously consider as a plausible mate.
More than anything, it’s about the possibility that said romance is doomed to fall apart no matter how anyone feels. Harrison Ford wanted out of these films, and actually asked to be killed off once the carbonite kicked in. (George Lucas promised he’d consider it, but of course never came close to giving Han the ax.) This was part of the logic behind Han’s famous reply of “I know.” The original scripted reply was an uninspired “I love you too,” but Ford and Kershner felt it was out of character and worked on changing the dialogue. The words I know work on more than one level; at face value, they’re romantic and crushing. From a different angle, if Han thought he was going to die a few moments later, those two words are a form of protection for Leia’s sake; it’s much easier to get over a person who never says I love you back. (This is actually addressed within the post-Episode V novel Shadows of the Empire.)
From this perspective, Luke’s journey is far from essential to the plot until the very end, but that doesn’t prevent it from being fascinating. Yoda’s tutelage is spellbinding—it’s so strange to remember that he’s a puppet while you’re watching him lift an X-wing out of a swamp, and Frank Oz’s delivery is flawless in every scene. Luke’s naivety is still on display here, and that’s as it should be for your average mythic hero journey… that is, until we reach the infamous “I am your father” moment.
The utterance is such an ingrained part of our pop culture tapestry that it’s hard to remember if I knew it going in on my first watch. I’m fairly certain that I did, and I remember being intensely amused to find out that some fans were debating the truth of Vader’s words in the three years between Empire and Jedi. (Sort of like Potter fans musing on Snape’s loyalties?) That unwillingness to buy Vader’s declaration proves how devastating Episode V managed to be as a middle chapter—after everything that had already happened in the film, it was just too terrible to consider. Hadn’t everyone already suffered enough?
But the critique of the film that truly ended up being a product of its time was the insistence that it was too dark—and that’s all down to a lack of context. Empire isn’t simply a “dark” film, even if it’s still labelled that way to this day, because it’s barely a complete tale on its own. It’s sort of redundant to say gee that story got kinda dire in the middle there, didn’t it? That’s simply what most stories do. What made Empire impressive was fact that it made the choice to be a clear slice-of-story in a business that is notoriously risk-averse. It created a new game entirely. Episode V was a gamble of the highest order, and the filmmakers did it justice by treating it with respect.
Which brings me to the strongest aspect of Empire Strikes Back: decades later, it is still a shockingly beautiful film. Well into the 21st century, when movies have passed into the realm of CGI and super-tech, we are awed at the glow of the carbonite chamber and the light it casts on the actor’s faces. Cloud City is a masterful work of design. The Imperial March is a relentless and exacting piece of soundtrack music. This is not a movie you can simply slip on in the background while you’re doing dishes. It’s broad brushstrokes create a mood unto itself. Some heady combination of isolation, adoration, betrayal, fury, fear. It exists to reassert the stakes of the entire trilogy by reminding us that good guys lose. Badly. And recovery is anything but a simple process.
The first special edition of this film was fairly uninvasive to the story overall, serving mostly to expand the sets (the views out into Cloud City look incredible, though I can understand why some fans prefer the claustrophobia of the originals) and such. There was also the horribly distracting scream from Luke as he fell through Cloud City, something that was removed in later editions. But the later editions are still far more irritating in my opinion; replacing the first actor to play the Emperor with Ian McDiarmid makes sense, but the new dialogue written for his scene with Vader is obnoxious and clunky. And while I understand the logic behind replacing Boba Fett’s original voice with Jango’s, it always made sense that Boba would want to sound different from his father as a point of self-protection and distance from the clone troopers. So I’ve never been pleased with that change either.
But no matter what, we still have a gorgeous film with alarming artistic value for something people assumed would be light fare going forward. Star Wars refused the box that audiences and critics alike would have shoved it into, and that’s what has kept it alive to this day. Perhaps that’s what we really mean when we say that Empire Strikes Back is “the best” Star Wars film—it was the movie that proved that Star Wars had a place in our cultural conscience for good.