Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back
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On May 21, 1980, a certain independently financed science fiction/fantasy production was released in North American cinemas. Under conventional Hollywood marketing practices that still prevail to this day, this movie should have been entitled Star Wars 2. But instead it was less commercially branded as The Empire Strikes Back, not to mention being quietly asterisked in the opening crawl as "Episode V." It was an extraordinary movie sequel in countless ways, the most significant of which being that it exceeded the quality of a massively successful predecessor. Thirty years later, if I'm forced to name my favorite movie of all time, I would say it's The Empire Strikes Back.

It's become generally accepted among my fellow hardcore Star Wars fans that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the series. Everyone always cites the same explanations for why that is. It's the darkest one. It's the most mature and sophisticated one, loaded with intense drama. It's spiritual and mystical. It's cool because the bad guys win for a change, and the heroes get the crap beat out of them and suffer like people do in real life. Yoda and Boba Fett and the snow walker battle. The father of all surprise plot twist endings.

Yeah, all those things are true, but I think that's missing out on the essential truth that makes The Empire Strikes Back the sequel without equal. It's the overlooked fact that the original movie presented us with such an enormous and fascinating world but showed us so very little of it.

When audiences stepped out the the theater in 1977, we felt like we'd been to the other side of the universe and back, witnesses to an unprecedented outpouring of imagination brought to vividly to life. It didn't feel like a bunch of made-up movie B.S., it felt real. We had visited this fantasy realm filled with strange planets and creatures and conflicts where all kinds of stuff had been happening for a long time and we were just coming into the middle of it. And that was the genius success George Lucas accomplished with A New Hope despite his limited budget and inadequate resources. Because if you pick apart that movie, it's shocking to realize how little actually happens in it.

The bulk of the movie is just actors scrambling around in a desert and scrambling around on soundstages that are supposed to be spaceships. In the beginning and middle there's some effects shots of spaceships shooting at each other and a planet blowing up to keep us interested. Then for the finale we have the one undeniably major set piece with the blitz on the Death Star. That's really it. But Lucas succeeds in making us fell like a hell of a lot more than that happened, mainly by convincing us to believe there's far more going on than meets the eye.

That wise old precept for effective storytelling says show, don't tell. There was no way in practical or financial terms Lucas could hope to show everything he had in mind for his ambitious tale, so he shrewdly bent the rule into show AND tell. And he succeeded immeasurably in applying that storytelling combo to present a fully imagined world, which stands virtually alone as a landmark work of popular fiction in which the setting has zero connection to the planet Earth. In addition to what we're seeing on screen, A New Hope is littered with references to the bigger picture and past history. There's the obvious backstory about Kenobi, Vader and "Luke's father" during the Clone Wars, but there's so much more besides.

  • Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory...
  • There'll be no escape for the Princess this time.
  • See to it personally, Commander. There'll be no one to stop us this time.
  • The Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.
  • Tell Jabba I've got his money.

In between cool scenes of lasers and aliens and whatnot, along with the look of the "used galaxy" and battered technology, these bits of exposition wove the illusion that the movie screen was only a tiny portal peeping into a rich and complex universe teeming with compelling unseen stories. The events of A New Hope were anything but a closed and completed story. We had only taken our first step into a larger world.

Star Wars was begging to be continued from the very start, and that was especially true for the kids. I was seven when A New Hope premiered, and the movie itself was only the springboard for my childhood experience of Star Wars. These were the olden days when Hollywood hits did not arrive on home video four months after their theatrical run. What we had to keep us going were the comics, the kids' books and the marketing crap, which primarily meant the toys. And for my generation these toys proved to be a blessing the likes of which kids will never be able to enjoy anymore.

Vintage Star Wars Toys Why? Because lacking the instant-gratification DVD, for us it was all about the toys. And for me the toys weren't just about re-living the movie. The toys were about going beyond the movie. Kenner granted us little plastic instruments for imagining what happened next. My friend Mark and I got together and concocted whole new adventures for Luke, Han, the Princess, Chewie and the gang. I really wish I had some kind of transcript of the plotlines and scenarios we came up with. I can only vaguely remember that our original stories were very detailed and sophisticated, and better than a lot of the "Expanded Universe" crap that's been published. Or maybe they were ridiculously childish. Either way, it's a bittersweet fact that I can watch my DVDs and relive the theatrical experience anytime (never mind the Special Edition controversies), but I can never recapture the adventures I created with those most awesome of toys. Which were indisputably as much a valid part of my personal mythology of Star Wars as the episodes Lucas created.

And that second official installment finally came out after I spent three years living my own imagined galaxy far, far away. As a 10-year-old I felt I knew this place inside out. The Empire Strikes Back wasn't so much a proposition of me getting to return to the world of Star Wars; it was more a matter of movie theaters returning to what existed and operated inside my own head. Those are colossally high expectations to place on a movie, or any form of art or entertainment for that matter. And yet The Empire Strikes Back succeeded wildly with flying colors that made point-five past lightspeed. It may sound contradictory, but The Empire Strikes Back met my expectations by being as different from A New Hope as possible.

I'd spent all my time with those toys imagining our heroes in other worlds and different situations than what we'd seen in the first movie, places besides boring Tatooine and the drab corridors of the Death Star. And now look at what this new movie brought us. A snow planet! A swamp world! A green Jedi master! The Millennium Falcon flying through asteroids! A city in the clouds! Holy crap, we hit the jackpot!

The movie and TV knockoffs that tried to ride the coattails of Star Wars made the mistake of copying the original too literally. Stuff like the original Battlestar Galactica or Battle Beyond the Stars banked their appeal on laser guns and spaceships, aping the special effects but not the imagination and mythology. Lucas made the bold and wise choice to move beyond the familiar instead of rehashing a proven formula, and audiences approved. These new situations fit in perfectly with my imagined construct of the world beyond A New Hope, and nothing rang false or felt out of place. For me, the tired old cliche is extremely fitting: It was everything I imagined and more.

The Empire Strikes Back Novelization It's worth noting that I "spoiled" the whole story for myself with the Donald F. Glut novelization, which I found at Brendle's department store and devoured immediately a couple of weeks before the movie opened. In contrast to my (mostly) disciplined avoidance of advance prequel gossip as an adult, my lack of patience at age 10 really did not diminish the thrills of seeing Episode V in the slightest. It was probably appropriate that I first "saw" The Empire Strikes Back in my imagination, where the characters had been incubating so long and so vibrantly. By the time I was 30, my imagination had sadly grown so decrepit that I had to guard it against any detailed foreknowledge of Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn.

The fact of the matter is that the Star Wars series is primarily a fairy tale for kids. It's a wonderful story for all ages, but the best audience for these movies is children age 7 to 12. My generation was lucky enough to be the right age at the right time. Young people coming along later will never have the opportunity to enjoy the series the way we did and continue to do. My theory explaining why The Empire Strikes Back was so satisfying for us also carries an unfortunate corollary: since Episode V (and the other films) show us so much more of the galaxy than Episode IV did, A New Hope is doomed to always look boring and lame to kids of today. Hell, I'm sure they think The Empire Strikes Back looks pretty cheeseball too, compared to Transformers and Avatar. But you know, I don't think very many kids today are finding their imaginations enraptured with dreams of what might happen next to Jake Sully and the Na'vi in Avatar 2. Maybe some do, but most would rather watch the Blu-ray or play the Xbox version. What a shame that is.

So now I'll wrap up this nostalgia-laden solipsism with my list of the top five coolest and most awesome things about The Empire Strikes Back. These are the parts that still stand up to me today as an old fart and keep this movie close to my heart, in ascending order of transcendental grandeur.

5. Boba Fett. Looking back there was only one thing that disappointed me about The Empire Strikes Back as a kid, and that was the apparent short shrift given to that most over-glorified supporting character and cult hero. Following the 1978 Holiday Special and the elusive sneak-preview action figure with the missile-launching jetpack of urban legend, us kids were amped up for a villain of epic malevolence, but all the guy got was a minor cameo and a few muttered lines. Fett even suffered the ignominy of being addressed only as "Bounty Hunter" without mention of his renowned name. The problem was that Lucasfilm marketing unwittingly allowed Fett to become incorporated into our personal mythologies in advance of his proper introduction. The character serves his warranted purpose in the story, but our fan anticipation for the new led us a bit astray in his case. He was an accidental victim of hype, and you can't deny he'll always be pretty damn cool. I admit to getting all excited over just recently seeing young Boba guest in the Clone Wars TV show.

4. Yoda. Parts of Yoda's Jedi philosophy are brilliant principles for us all to live by. Other things he says are contradictory rubbish that suggest why his Jedi Order ended up getting their butts kicked by a crooked politician and his clone army. But that's a topic for another time. In cinematic terms, the original Frank Oz/Stuart Freeborn Yoda puppet is an astonishing achievement of magical proportions. The Jedi master's expressions and performance are so convincing that we can totally forget we're watching a piece of foam latex with the voice of Grover. The CGI versions in the prequels, while admirable, could never equal the luminous being made of this crude matter.

3. The asteroid field. My favorite special effects scene ever. Topping any of the fight scenes or epic battles in my book, this chase as the Millennium Falcon flees from Hoth always puts a grin on my face. We finally see proof that Han Solo worth paying seventeen thousand for airfare as he spins that hunk of junk like an overgrown frisbee through the tightest of scrapes. His mad piloting skillz here landed Han on my list of secret Jedi candidates who might be Yoda's other hope. Watching it now, I'm stunned to see that the asteroid chase only lasts about two minutes. It felt like it went on for a thrilling half hour when I was a kid. The John Williams score for this scene now serves as my ringtone.

2. The carbon freezing chamber. When I heard early rumors that Han Solo was going to get frozen in the movie, I recall conjecturing that there was would be some kind of mishap with Han falling through the ice on Hoth. The real story turned out to be much more poetic, in what is for me the most emotionally touching scene in the whole saga. My eyes get misty every time I watch Han and Leia exchange their farewells. Kudos to Harrison Ford for ad libbing that classic line.

1. Luke vs. Vader. Yeah, this is what it's all about. The big showdown we'd all been waiting for. This is my favorite of all the lightsaber duels, my favorite filmed swordfight (which I say as a major fan of Japanese chambara), and probably my favorite action scene with live performers. Luke's fighting skills are surprisingly formiddable, suggesting that Yoda must have given him some intensive fencing lessons offscreen. Yet Vader is clearly in control, dictating the pace and restraining himself from slaughtering the upstart padawan wannabe. The big revelation here doesn't only concern paternity, but also the truth behind Vader's motivation. His obsessive pursuit of young Skywalker isn't just fueled by evil wickedness. Vader speaks of insubordination against his master and his Empire, betraying some inkling of love and yearning for connection with his lost former self. If only Vader were half as skilled at persuasion as Palpatine was, the saga could have turned in a whole different direction.

And that's about all I have to say about The Empire Strikes Back until I finally get around to writing that big book one of these days. I'll end by addressing the single substantive criticism that gets directed at Episode V, which is that it doesn't have an ending. There's no resolution and we're left with a cliffhanger until the next installment, so how can this be the best of the series?

All I can say is, us true fans never wanted the story to end.