“The Empire Strikes Back” is the best of Lucas’ Original Star Wars trilogy. It is the darkest, most mysterious, and most thought-provoking. It contains many different emotions enveloped in the ongoing narrative of the journey of Luke Skywalker. After the cheerfulness of the first Episode, this one delves deep into the mythical atmosphere that was introduced in the first and expands into the third.
If there were budget constraints in the way of the first film, no money was spared for this next installment. It is visually and conceptually audacious. The sets are bright and breathtaking. We have the ice planet of Hoth, the shining city in the clouds, and the jungle-like planet of Dagobah. There are new space ships, new sights, and new characters. The lumbering Imperial walkers have always seemed to me to be a horribly impractical design. Perhaps it illustrates how overconfident the Empire is, and how seriously they underestimate the Rebels’ resolve. The character of Yoda is introduced, and provides a great range of wisdom and emotion through his subtle expressions. We know intellectually that he is but a puppet, yet Frank Oz provides such captivating dialogue for his character that Yoda feels as real as any of the human actors in the movie.
The story picks up where “A New Hope” left off. The Death Star was destroyed, but Vader naturally survived, spinning off in his ship into space. He now commands the Empire’s fleet in finding the Rebels’ new base. John Williams’ easily recognizable “Imperial March” booms in the background. Some of the more humorous moments in the film (though not so humorous for the actual characters) come when Vader provides fatal demotions to his Imperial staff. “Apology accepted, Captain Needa.” Not exactly. The Empire strikes on the secret Rebel base, and the Rebels are forced to flee. Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, while Luke and R2 escape in Luke’s X-Wing. They part ways to begin their parallel stories.
“The Empire Strikes Back” is much more Skywalker-centric than “A New Hope.” We have a clear sense of protagonist and antagonist. After the Hoth battle, the central focus of the film is on Luke’s discovery of the Force and his training to become a Jedi. Meanwhile, Han begins to fall for Leia. His wounded ego provides an amusing subplot. On Dagobah, Luke is instructed by Yoda in the ways of the Force. There is a scene where Luke must enter a cave to confront his fears. R2 screeches for him not to go, and Yoda looks on with subtle sadness, hope, and pride. Luke makes his way into the mouth of the cave, and is welcomed by a hallucination of Darth Vader. Luke defeats Vader, and when Vader’s helmet explodes, we see the face of Luke Skywalker inside. It is obvious that Luke’s fear is becoming Darth Vader, and this acts as subtle foreshadowing to the big reveal later on.
That is about how far the psychology goes in “Star Wars.” These films were never meant to be psychologically complex or intellectually stimulating. We are meant to be involved in the story, as though we are on the journey ourselves. As we continue to follow the progression of our beloved characters, we find ourselves identifying with them more and more, and wishing we were in their shoes and sharing their experiences. As Luke decides to abandon his training prematurely in his attempt to rescue Han and the others, it is unveiled that Lando has made a deal with the Dark Lord. Unfortunately for Lando, Vader continues to alter the deal as time goes on; ’tis the price of making a deal with the devil. The film features more quotable dialogue delivered with wit and sincerity. I suppose the most well-known line from the movie would be Yoda’s, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”
Everything leads up to Luke’s confrontation with Vader. Part of why the duel works so well is because of Luke’s chaotic movements. It is apparent that he does not yet have the skills necessary to take on Vader. At one point, Vader lowers his lightsaber and uses the Force to hurl objects at Luke. The two battle their way out onto a platform sitting over a gigantic drop of empty space. Then comes the defining moment. Is there a single person alive who does not know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father? It is after this reveal that Luke has his ultimate moment of heroism. He decides to fall to his death rather than live to be the son of Vader.
“The Empire Strikes Back” is all substance and no conclusion. It is the heart of the “Star Wars” story. It leaves us on a cliffhanger. We crave to know how Luke’s relationship with his father will unfold. How will he cope with the truth? Will he kill his own father? What about Han? There is a rescue in place, apparently. “Empire” gives us the same sense of wonderment as “A New Hope,” while also giving us thrills and twists that we hardly expected. Yet, for some reason, it remains my least favorite of the Original Trilogy. Perhaps it is because of what I just mentioned. It leaves me unsatisfied. But is that such a bad thing? Absolutely not.