In the run-up to the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and the end of the Skywalker Saga, we will be taking a look back at all of the Saga films and re-evaluating them and their legacy as a whole.
Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back
This will, by necessity, be shorter than the overview of its antecedent, simply by dent of the fact that few films are as influential to mainstream movie making as A New Hope and certainly no other film in the saga. Which is not a knock on The Empire Strikes Back by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just the state of things. Empire is the follow on and by definition requires the first film in order to be understood.
But what a follow up! Misunderstood even by the people making it when it started, it is now the most often cited as ‘best of the series’ and the one most above the line creatives try to take credit for. [Refer again to the note on A New Hope on the actual creation of Empire]. Much of that is wrapped up within its stellar conclusion, but if the conclusion of a film were the only thing great about it, it would not be the classic Empire has become. It stands alongside Casablanca as one of the great exceptions to auteur theory produced out of a mélange of talents. Or perhaps not – perhaps the nature of the saga is what auteur theory applied to the sort of big budget entertainment extravaganza which usually ignores such a thing looks like, and how to tell the difference.
Stepping back after the trials and tribulations of putting A New Hope together, George Lucas brought his old mentor Irvin Kershner on board to handle the stressful work of directing actors and managing a crew on set so that he could focus on the parts of filmmaking he most enjoyed: world and plot building, art direction and picture and sound editing. He transformed the motion picture process into something closer to television production (Lucas was hardly the first to tread such ground – David O. Selznick had tilled it vigorously in the ’30s – but few have done so to the same degree since). It was a feat which seriously undermines many of the larger myths about directorial vision the New Hollywood of the ’70s fostered. And no wonder; what director wants to be told his is not the vision which is being created and he is but a craftsman for hire?
[In European films, the title director is often redefined as REGI or REGIA or some other derivation of ‘King’ from Latin, which seems extremely fitting for how directors are associated with their films as their kingdoms. What director wants to find out they are a king with no kingdom?]
Fortunately, Kershner (who had worked quite a bit in television) was willing and the result is the thesis statement for what the rest of the series (and, really, most of Lucas’ work in general) would be: no repetition, always something new. It’s a thesis statement which almost immediately was broken, but that’s for later.
For The Empire Strikes Back as much is all new as possible. No location from A New Hope reappears, no character except for leads are reused and most of their relationships have been thoroughly scrambled and deepened. Though A New Hope is the most influential to the outside world — it is the skin, the most immediately observable fact of what Star Wars is — The Empire Strikes Back is the most influential within the series. Almost every major character dynamic, foundational backstory or philosophical element of the franchise is either seen for the first time or solidified in this film. Darth Vader’s connection with Luke Skywalker and the Skywalker family, Han Solo’s chase after Princess Leia, the Force as a philosophy above plot mechanics, all arrive here. If A New Hope is the body of Star Wars, Empire can lay pretty good claim to being its soul.
That makes very clear what should have been clear from the beginning – a sequel was never planned for A New Hope. Everything in it is self-contained and works within a self-contained space, but with a few exceptions offers little in the way of hooks for future stories. Turning Star Wars from one influential blockbuster into a series required reorganizing everything which was known into a potentially unfamiliar form which could be developed over any number of future episodes, while at the same time offering little of comfort from the previous film to return to in what was probably the film’s riskiest bet.
The Empire Strikes Back is thoroughly a sequel, except when it isn’t. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
And that’s important. The artistic story of Star Wars is the story of fleeting inspiration, the way similar decisions can produce wildly different outcomes and how those outcomes say nothing of the skill of the people making them. Art is mercurial, and so is Star Wars.
It’s a bet which paid off. The new locations and creatures and technologies, rather than frustrating from a lack of familiarity instead grow and deepen the world everything lives in. This seems like a small thing, unimportant versus larger story concerns like characterization and emotional connection, but if form follows function then function follows form. The desire to create a realistic world which continues to grow and change through time will also manifest as the desire to create a story which also grows and changes through time.
The expanded plot requires expanding characters, adding in iconic elements which could stand toe to toe with the inheritance from A New Hope, particularly in the mystical Yoda. A New Hope, as explained there, is a film full of experiments and risks. Empire, by contrast, has the risks but only one real experiment and that is Yoda.
His arrival is, as among the best elements in A New Hope, purely a function of story need. Luke Skywalker still needs a mentor character so that his moment of facing the villain alone has the appropriate weight. But Obi-Wan Kenobi died in the previous film meaning a new mentor was needed. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to produce another Obi-Wan who looked and acted similarly. Instead the place is taken by an unassuming frog creature who speaks in garbled grammar which hates ending on a preposition. Always be new, never repeat.
Yoda breaks the expectation for who can be a primary character but he also breaks the nature of narrative flow which had permeated the series up this point. Always ‘faster, more intense,” Star Wars seldom gave itself a moment to pause and engage in broader questions because there weren’t any. There was just the moment everyone was living in and nothing else. In Empire for the first extended moments are broken out to discuss matters greater than plot or character mechanics, and these all flow through Yoda.
It is in those moments that the series’ mysticism and Lucas’ latent Buddhism takes real root and mostly works through the strength of the Yoda’s delivery. Yoda’s pseudo-philosophical statements are deeply poetic — ‘luminous beings are we, not this crude matter’ may be the closest to a bold statement of Buddhism in any of the films — but also deeply simplistic. The poetry hides some of the cracks, but the actual philosophical grappling of what these statements mean in real life (so to speak) is left to Return of the Jedi and, to a lesser extent, The Last Jedi.
Instead they focus on koans, brief statements which may hold deep truth but may also just look good on the side of a coffee cup. Where you come down on that depends on where you come down on simplistic morality (something Star Wars is often accused of but at its best handily avoids), but simplistic doesn’t necessarily mean bad. This is Yoda’s role, again in the Buddha mien, to remind that the great problems — how do I deal with loss?, how do I live a good life? — are not difficult to find an answer to, just difficult to implement.
It speaks to the quality of the screenplay by co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (one of the best screenwriters of the 1980s), Lucas’ Buddhist leanings, Kershner’s patient direction and Frank Oz’s expert puppeteering which produces the best performance of the film. It’s the kind of fusion of artistic talent which film so peculiarly needs to thrive but which is so hard to regularly conjure.
Conjure it they do, however. It’s helped along by a substantially larger budget allowing the technical wizards to pull out all the stops in bringing a larger world into being. More astounding, everyone involved seems touched with extra helpings of inspiration, matching and in many cases exceeding the effort put into A New Hope. Most potently, and in a way A New Hope floundered with, all of the leading actors are given more to do and higher rungs to reach for and they clearly lap up the challenge. Only Hamill still has real issues, though he also has the most complex work as well which tends to force him up to his limitations and beyond.
Still, Empire just works. It’s so successful, in fact, that it seriously harmed Star Wars forever after, creating a black hole of aspiration nothing has yet been strong enough to break free from. It’s easy to understand why. Empire provided what audiences didn’t know they weren’t getting from A New Hope, gracefully executing the impossible double-standard of the sequel: be the same, but different. But it also made it impossible for any other iteration to manage the same feat.
The worst sin Empire has is the one it shares with A New Hope – it’s greatness. Excellence in art begs for imitation, which eventually becomes an inescapable morass. Much as with Goldfinger, the sequel exploded beyond its forbear with such force that it’s been chased forever after in a desperate bid to recreate that original feeling no matter the cost. In the process what made Empire work in the first place was forgotten: always be different.
The Empire Strikes Back made Star Wars what it is in ways even A New Hope can’t touch, but it also broke the series. That’s not Empire‘s fault, but it can’t be ignored either.
Rating: 9 out of 10 (Buy The Empire Strikes Back at Amazon)