Why It Works: The Empire Strikes Back
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
Hey, did you guys know there's a new STAR WARS movie coming out? Unless you've been living inside the belly of a space slug, you know that the anticipation for THE FORCE AWAKENS is insane, with the film breaking presale records and, oh, I take it you saw the new international trailer last week? STAR WARS has become so much more than a film franchise, with an unfathomable amount of auxiliary media bearing the intellectual property's name. While it all started with A NEW HOPE, a simple but fascinating film known chiefly as STAR WARS upon its release, it would be the film's sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, that would take the franchise to the next level and become an almost universal fan favorite. Refusing to fall prey to the classic "middle film syndrome" and taking a much darker turn than the happy endings of its predecessor and successor, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is exciting, dark, contemplative, shocking, well-paced, and a hell of a lot of fun. Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
Since THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a sequel, we do start off with quite a few characters already in the mix. Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO are all camped out at the rebel base on Hoth, hiding from Darth Vader and the Imperial Fleet. Sequels are tricky- you can't introduce the characters all over again, but you have to give us a reason to care about them if we haven't seen the previous film recently or at all. Luke getting captured by the wampa and therefore not returning to the base lets us see how strong of a bond this group has formed. Han risks his own life without thinking twice to go after Luke, and the rest of the gang is devastated when the blast doors close for the night without any sign of our heroes (that pained yowl Chewie lets out). Before we've spent much time with the individual characters, we have a very clear sense of the family unit they've formed and how important they are to each other.
I want one.
To touch on some of the major players, Luke is the classic good guy- fighting the good fight, trying to fulfill his destiny, and sacrificing himself for his friends, Leia is strong-willed, compassionate, intelligent, and sensitive, and Han Solo is Han Solo- sarcastic and detached with a heart of gold and willing to fight for the cause. Chewie, R2, and 3PO often serve as comic relief while still showing an incredible amount of humanity for being non-human (and, for two of them, non-speaking). As for Vader, we see him reporting to the Emperor, so even though he's the bad guy, we get our first glimpse at sympathy for the Sith lord as we see him kneel down in submission to someone else. Lastly, rounding out the cast are the smooth talking, morally questionable Lando and, of course, the matchless Yoda, who will be revealed to be one of the most mysterious and powerful beings in the STAR WARS universe... but who is bizarrely introduced as an old man whacking a robot over a candy bar (or whatever).
How psyched are you to see the f*cking Millennium Falcon back in action?
WHY WE CARE:
The plot of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is quite an interesting thing. Once Luke and Han survive the night in their tauntaun sleeping bag, and engage in an intense, action-packed battle against the Empire, the family unit we've grown so fond of is separated. This always helps the audience stay on board as it creates a bit of homesickness- we like seeing these people together, so we hold on in hopes of seeing that again. Here's where things get unusual, though. While Han, Leia, Chewie, and 3PO spend basically the entire movie being chased around and eventually captured by Vader, Luke and R2 go off to Dagobah for an existential odyssey. This is where the layered storytelling of the STAR WARS franchise comes into play so beautifully. Instead of forcing a bunch of action into the Luke storyline or needing to take a lot of downtime with the crew of the Millennium Falcon, the two plots simply siphon these moments from each other. The scenes involving the Falcon running from the Empire are exciting enough that we're energized to take on the contemplative moments between Luke and Yoda, which in turn provide us the time we need to recharge before another Imperial onslaught.
Oh, and let's not forget the romantic tension between Han and Leia.
Meanwhile, we also have the occasional scene checking in on Vader and the Imperial fleet. Normally these "bad guy" scenes in movies are boring and contrived, but EMPIRE turns that on its head as we amusingly see Vader disposing of and promoting people left and right as well as being an all around terrifying and mysterious character. We also get a peek behind the curtain in that infamous helmet-coming-down shot, which adds to the mystery of exactly who this guy is. We won't know until the end of the film why Vader is such an important player in this saga, but we get a very clear sense that there's more to him than your average baddie.
Darth Vader: best villain ever? Who's your all time favorite?
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
If Luke's philosophical plot line isn't ballsy enough for a movie that starts with a giant battle, how about the ending? THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK famously ends on a dark note- the bad guy gets away, leaving Luke without a hand and making off with a carbonite-encased Han Solo. Some may find any movie without a happy ending unsatisfying, but EMPIRE does plenty to counteract this. For one, the battle on Hoth at the top of the film is so massive that another similarly charged battle might feel like overkill. Instead, we get an emotional lightsaber duel between our main hero and villain. This still allows us to feel we've experienced a grand finale without the actual scope having to be all that large. Beyond that, not only is it a wonderful scene with multiple set pieces and exciting moments, but we also get the most quoted, important, and memorable moment in the entire STAR WARS franchise. Darth Vader, the evil overlord of the Galactic Empire, reveals to our innocent farm boy protagonist, "I am your father." For a first time viewer, it's an absolute game changer, and even after multiple viewings and decades of spoofs, it can still send a chill up one's spine. So while the action is quite tame compared to the opening battle, there's no doubt we've reached the emotional climax of the film in this moment. As for the other group, they've spent all their time running from the Empire, so even though Han is taken, there's certainly a sigh of relief to be had in seeing them reunite with Luke and share a moment of rest.
Lucas tried to regain some credibility by reusing this shot at the end of ATTACK OF THE CLONES. Nope.
We've touched on sequels, but what about when there's a larger story to be concluded in a later film? You get a little more leeway here, since it's much more reasonable to encourage you to see another movie after the one you're watching than to require you've seen one beforehand. That said, the same rule still basically applies, which is that the movie must work on its own. EMPIRE is a great example of this. As the threads of this story are closed and satisfy in their own right, plenty of moments tease the promise of a new adventure. Will the gang rescue Han? What's next for Luke and dear old dad? Who is the other Yoda speaks of? Will there be warrior teddy bears?
"That boy is our last hope." "No. There is another."
WHY WE REMEMBER:
"Luminous beings are we; not this crude matter." Earlier, I may have painted the Luke and Yoda scenes as "downtime," but I merely meant that from a structural standpoint. In truth, these moments are offer an extensive look at the Force and the philosophy of the Jedi. While A NEW HOPE follows the standard Hero's Journey, risks like these set THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK apart. Anyone can do the unexpected, though. What makes this film work is not just how surprising and refreshing the risks can be but also how precise and impressive... most impressive... the other elements of the film are. Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett's writing and pacing are not only engrossing and emotional but fun and exciting, with this being hands down the most quotable film in the STAR WARS franchise. Irvin Kersher's direction keeps many shots long and steady, a technique used often in the late 70's and early 80's but not often in sci-fi and fantasy films. The fantastic score by the legendary John Williams introduces us to the Imperial March along with so many other unforgettable cues. Lastly, this movie introduces us to so much unforgettable content and lore from the mind of creator George Lucas. An ice planet, a swamp planet, a city in the clouds, a space slug, mynocks, ugnaughts, Boba Fett, Lobot, IG-88, Bossk, AT-AT's, AT-ST's, the wampa, tauntauns, Yoda, snow speeders, probe droids... all this and so much more make THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK an adventure to be remembered for a long, long time.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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