It’s hard to believe that Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is forty. What’s to be said about the masterpiece that hasn’t been noted thousands of times already? Yes, Empire is arguably one of the greatest films ever made. Sure, it solidified George Lucas as the premier visionary of sci-fi. Of course, it proved that science fiction epics can tell dramatic, thought-provoking stories. And yes, it’s a foundational piece of many cherished childhood memories. Most importantly, it does what no one believed that it could do at the time, outshine the hype and quality of its predecessor, A New Hope. But what does it all mean? Ultimately, The Empire Strikes Back tells a complex story of love, friendship, and the transition from youthful innocence to adulthood against a backdrop of science fiction, the likes of which have not been seen since.
Self-Sacrifice and Inner Growth
To fully understand the film’s thematic issues, one must appreciate the difficulty that Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back faces as the middle film in the trilogy. As a script, it needs to unify the beginning and end of the larger story arc while simultaneously working as a complete and rewarding narrative by itself. While A New Hope was a simple tale of a local farmboy rescuing a damsel in distress from the clutches of an evil monster, Empire must explore the uncharted “what’s next” after the hero’s journey. More importantly, the film needs to allow the villain to triumph while still providing audiences with that concluded feeling that the protagonists have overcome adversity.
It’s a tall order, but Empire masterfully weaves together a narrative about transitioning into adulthood while exploring the fallibility of youth. Luke, no longer a youthful country boy, seeks to shift from an eager soldier to a patient knight. Leah, as brash as ever, struggles to transition from an icy leader to an emotionally open lover. Han, the arrogant pirate, attempts to go from a loner to an attached companion in a group of friends. Even Lando, the suave gambler, finds himself trying to adjust his criminal tendencies to become a successful businessman.
While these characters all ultimately achieve their transformation by the end of the film, these shifts or realizations come too late for them to triumph over evil. Leah, no longer walled in emotionally, proclaims her love for Han just before he is frozen in carbonite. Han, unable to outrun his criminal past, understands that protecting his friends is more valuable than his individual life. Luke, defeated by Darth Vader, discovers that he cannot take on the Empire simply by running headfirst into battle.
Each of these developments come with an undercurrent of self-sacrifice, as becoming less of a self-centered individual and a larger part of the group is inherent in their maturity. Han no longer struggles against the Empire in order to spare Leah and Chewie from punishment. Leah sacrifices her autonomy by committing herself to Han. Luke battles Vader in Cloud City to try to save the lives of his friends despite warnings of death from Yoda. It’s this selflessness that’s the primary agent of change in Empire’s characters, showing them the value of fighting for a greater good rather than for fame, adventure, or fortune. While a younger mindset values the items bearing status, maturity and adversity teaches that friends are worth more. It’s these revelations that set the series up for a successful third act, allowing for a climactic conclusion while still providing closure to the middle film.
Crafting the Star Wars Ethos
Forty years after the fact, it’s also easy to forget that The Empire Strikes Back solidified a lot of the franchise mainstays that many today take for granted, but that wasn’t always in the plan. In fact, Empire initially served as a fork in the road for the series. When A New Hope was completed, Lucas had two plans to continue his space franchise. In case the film flopped, he had a book ghostwritten to continue the adventures of Leah and Luke (that book became Star Wars: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye) that would hopefully be adapted into a low budget film. If the film was a hit, he would pursue a grander vision with the help of other writers and directors. Of course, Empire was an international success, and Lucas was able to continue expanding the franchise’s scope in new ways.
It’s because of The Empire Strikes Back that the Star Wars ethos even exists, as central elements of the Star Wars Universe were first introduced. The Force gets greatly expanded as an idea, and it’s given a religious spirituality and expanded capabilities. The struggle between the light and the dark side is explored in greater depth, and the creed of the Jedi knights is taught by Yoda. Family is first introduced as a central theme, and Darth Vader is shown to be a man rather than a mechanical monster. Vistas become a defining feature of the setting, and the Emperor is revealed to be pulling the strings behind the scenes. With Empire, the true lore and depth of the franchise is concretely established, growing in scope but always returning to these initial concepts.
What Disney Could Learn
With recent Star Wars releases, it feels like the franchise may have lost its way, and its current handlers could learn from the success of The Empire Strikes Back. With its focus on storytelling and growth, Empire’s characters and plot could succeed regardless of setting. Disney treats the Star Wars universe as an essential part of narrative, almost to the point of letting the setting and history overshadow its current characters. Empire, instead, lets the characters take center stage and builds worlds around them, allowing for space to serve as a backdrop rather than the focus of the action.
Of course, one could make the argument that the corporate atmosphere of the Disney process prevents truly authentic visions. Lucas was very careful in securing funding for Empire and did so in a way that would make sure he was free of any studio entanglements. Making sure that he had final cut privilege and enhanced creative control, Lucas sought to make the film that was true to his vision rather than appealing to the needs of a board of directors. This results in a movie that feels like an organic and unified idea rather than a product of the “committee.”
Sure, Empire has its explosions, vistas, and family focus, but these are just parts of the film, not its entire point. Instead, Empire focuses on showing audiences the adventures of young characters as they struggle to transition into adulthood, growing through their mistakes and learning the meaning of sacrifice. While they may not prevail in the end, Empire’s characters develop enough to give the audience some sense of closure and satisfaction while they look ahead to another film. It’s this bridging of the series that makes The Empire Strikes Back so great, and nothing has come close since.