Picture the scene: It’s 1980, summer’s approaching, and I’m impatiently awaiting the release of the most anticipated movie sequel of my fifteen years. Everyone knows there’s no way it can top its predecessor, so we’re settling for hoping it’ll at least measure up and remain true to the spirit of the original.
Not only would that new installment turn out to be better than I could’ve hoped, it would eventually go on to transform the way I appreciated movies. The new film was The Empire Strikes Back
, and while its forerunner, Star Wars, made me want to be Luke Skywalker—swinging across chasms, wielding a light saber, rescuing a princess—Empire tricked me into loving it for a completely different set of reasons.
What Empire looked like was a second installment in a series of science-fiction films. What it turned out to be was a profound study of a group of complex and flawed people. The story was still about Luke Skywalker, who was struggling to grow up, but this time, the rest of the characters were just as compelling. Star Wars had been drawn in broad, stark strokes. Its galaxy was full of people who were either good or bad, with not many falling in between, and that served the story well. It was meant to be fast-paced, and it performed like a champ, with all its rescues, narrow escapes, space battles, and last-minute jumps to lightspeed.
Now, in Empire, bad and strange things were happening. The rebellion was in retreat, Jedi master Yoda was infuriatingly cryptic, and there was a chronic glitch in the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive. Han Solo was betrayed by a friend, captured by a bounty hunter, and hauled away in a slab of carbonite, all while being unable to decide if he loved Princess Leia.
Meanwhile, Luke’s earnest attempts to learn the way of the Jedi ended in frustration, his hand was cut off by a dude who claimed to be his father but couldn’t possibly be, and as if that weren’t enough existential torment for one story, he lost his father’s light saber, nearly dying in the process. Then, after a brief coda in which Luke got a robot hand and we were all overwhelmed by John Williams’ majestic score, the movie was over.
That kind of ending would be difficult to handle at any age, but imagine being a fifteen-year-old me who’s emotionally invested in a set of characters. Okay, obsessed is probably a better word. After all, the teen me thought, the purpose of a good film is to make you care and want to see loose ends knotted, justice meted out to appropriate parties, and characters living on with some amount of happiness. That’s what stories are meant to do, right?
While Empire delivered on the making me care part, it provided none of those other things. Instead, it made me angry and sad. Judging by my limited storytelling expectations, none of the big flashy plot elements from Star Wars were there. Despite the small victories and plot progressions, a darkness hung over the entire story.
My first reaction was to try and rationalize what had just happened. The film’s purpose as a second part was probably to place characters into terrible situations from which they’d be rescued in the next film. After all, this was the middle of a three-part series, so there was little need for satisfying resolutions. That made sense.
On further reflection, the lesson I eventually learned was far more satisfying. Like many great films, Empire was troubling, and it left me unsettled for weeks after I saw it. The more I thought about it, the more questions I had. At first, I wasn’t sure why it made me feel this way, but as I continued to wrestle with the story—going to see it in the theater ten or fifteen more times for good measure—I realized it served not only as a part of a series but as a compelling story in its own right. From then on—even though I wouldn’t realize it until years later—Empire would serve as a benchmark for judging films of all genres.
Thirty-five years later, after a few missteps (translated as Episodes One, Two and Three), the Star Wars gang returned with The Force Awakens, another installment cut from similar cloth as Empire. At first glance, the similarities may not be apparent, but the spirit is the same. It’s easy to view this new film as a stepping stone to the upcoming sequel The Last Jedi, but with its dark tone and controversial plot choices (no spoilers), Force stands alongside Empire as an example of bold storytelling, especially for a blockbuster. Both the fifteen and fifty-one-year-old in me agree on this.
Star Wars will always hold a prominent place in my film-loving heart, mostly because it was my first, but The Empire Strikes Back is especially significant because of what it taught me about stories. What George Lucas, director Irvin Kershner, and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan created with Empire was a powerful film without a contrived or positive resolution. It was full of uncertainty, and it posed far more questions than it resolved. For the me who would become a lifelong fan of film, it was a gateway to appreciating other darker, nuanced stories.
Now let’s see what happens next.