Synopsis: Luke Skywalker and his friends have led the Rebellion to a new base on the ice world of Hoth. When the Empire drives them from this stronghold, Luke journeys to a swamp world where he is trained by the Jedi master Yoda. Meanwhile, his friends flee the Empire. When they are betrayed, Luke comes to help them. He confronts the evil Darth Vader, who makes a dramatic revelation regarding Luke’s mysterious father.
Among Star Wars aficionados, The Empire Strikes Back is regarded as the best of the series at least of those that have come out thus far.
How does it manage this? Sequels have a reputation of being inferior, not superior, to their predecessors.
Instead of simply trying to copy the original Star Wars film (Episode IV), Empire honors the spirit of its predecessor while simultaneously striking out to explore new ground.
The spirit of Episode IV is honored in a variety of ways: We have the same main cast of characters, laser swords, outer space battles, cool aliens, and numerous other common elements.
The film explores new ground by deepening our understanding of some elements from the first film. Most obviously, Luke progresses toward his goal of becoming a Jedi knight, like his father, and in the process we learn more about the mysterious Force upon which the Jedi rely.
In the process of adding new depth to familiar subjects, the film often takes unexpected turns. One of the subtlest of these so subtle that it tends not to be noticed by the audience involves the mythic dimensions of Luke’s transformation from backwater farmboy to mystical adept.
When he wrote Episode IV, director George Lucas drew upon the work of mythology scholar Joseph Campbell and his archtypical hero myth, known as the hero’s journey a distinct set of stages that the heroes of various legends tend to pass through in the course of their epics. It seemed, from Episode IV, that Luke’s transformation to hero was complete. The requisite stages of the hero’s journey had been shown to us: We saw Luke as an ordinary boy, we saw him meet the mentor who would show him a larger world, we saw him take his first steps in that world, and we saw him win a decisive victory over evil, achieving new wisdom and stature in the process.
But from the perspective of Episode V, we realize that Luke’s journey is nowhere near complete. Everything we have seen thus far represents only the first phase of his journey. While his first mentor (Ben Kenobi, played by Alec Guiness) showed him the rudiments of the Force, his training is very far from finished, and so he meets a new mentor (Yoda, puppetry and voice by Frank Oz), who begins his Jedi training in earnest.
Sometimes Lucas lets Joseph Campbell’s psychological take on mythology break into the story in ways that run the risk of confusing the audience. For example, when Luke first arrives on Dagoba Yoda’s swampy homeworld he declares that it is familiar, like something in a dream. These resonances, however significant they are for Luke, receive no exploration in the film. But they are easily interpreted by one familiar with Campbell’s psychological interpretation of mythology: In approaching Yoda who for Luke represents the source of Jedi power our hero has retreated to the murky, subconscious base of the personality, which houses archetypes that are shared by all (Jung’s collective unconscious, which is why it seems familiar). The message: To find true power one must look within, to the dim, messy seat of one’s own personality.
A similar, potentially audience-confusing element occurs midway through the film when Luke enters a cave on Dagobah that is strong with the Dark Side of the Force. In it, he confronts an apparition of Darth Vader, whose head he bloodlessly severs with his lightsaber, discovering Vader’s face to be his own. This must have struck first time audiences as hopelessly confusing, but for those with the hindsight of Campbell’s psychological approach and Vader’s later revelation, its meaning is much clearer.
Other ways in which the familiar is deepened in surprising ways are less esoteric. In the first film there was a nascent romantic triangle forming between Luke, Leia, and Han. That triangle is still present in this film, but it quickly becomes clear that Han, not Luke, is the dominant player in the quest for Leia’s affections. At a critical juncture Leia declares to Han: I love you prompting Han’s famously inappropriate (and funny) response (reportedly ad-libbed by Ford).
However, the most shocking depth that is added to a familiar subject occurs when Darth Vader reveals a startling secret about Luke’s father. This revelation is so stunning, so shocking, that when the film appeared in theaters, producers noted that children below a certain age unhesitatingly concluded that Vader was simply lying, while older children were open to the possibility.
The film thus manages to build on the themes of its predecessor while at the same time advancing them in not always predictable directions. On the whole, it is a darker film. This reflects Lucas’s philosophy of movie trilogies: The first must be light in tone, followed by a second darker film, followed by a third film that is light in tone, but carried into a higher key. These three stages reflect the dramatic acts of a typical film: introduction (act I), conflict (act II), and resolution (act III). They also reflect, in a highly simplified way, the stages of Campbell’s hero’s journey.
One of the film’s assets is the more mature feel it has compared to Episode IV. Part of this is due to the fact that the actors are a few years older they look and act less like kids. But most of the difference is due to the script itself the more mature themes it forces the characters to deal with.
As the story builds toward its climax, we deal with progressively more and more mature themes from the suffering of the innocent (Luke’s friends are used as bait to draw him to the Cloud City of Bespin), to the inability to rescue a friend (Luke is unable to stop Han Solo from being taken back to Jabba the Hutt by the bounty hunter Boba Fett), to the experience of being forced to confront a horrific reality (the truth about Luke’s father).
The darker and more mature feel of this film also serves to blunt objections that could be raised to its predecessor as being too juvenile or Pollyanna.
Despite the fact that The Empire Strikes Back is generally regarded as the best of the series, it does have difficulties. Among these are certain moral and spiritual issues, discussed at length in Star Wars: Moral and Spiritual Issues.
The film is also affected by artistic and storytelling flaws. For example, in the previous film Ben Kenobi ostensibly sacrificed himself in a duel with Darth Vader. This was one of the most mysterious moments in the film. Just before doing so, Kenobi warned Vader, If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine. He then seem to willingly present himself as a target for the final blow, but when Vader attempted to deliver it, Kenobi vanished, leaving only an empty robe. Afterwards, Luke began to hear his mentor’s disembodied voice giving him direction at crucial times.
On a storytelling level, the function of this event is fairly easy to explain: As the hero matures, he is forced to lose the support of his mentor and stand on his own two feet. Fine. For the rest of the film Kenobi can only help Luke as a disembodied voice. But the event is still perplexing.
Episode V could have provided an explanation for the event, but didn’t. (Lucas has gone back and forth about whether he will ever explain it in one of the films, though most recently he has said that he will.) What we get instead in this film is Kenobi manifesting as a shimmering, spectral image (apparently he’s learned to manifest himself as something more than just a voice). But what sign is there of his new, supposedly super-powerful status? Not much. All he does is nudge Luke toward Yoda and pass along a few pieces of information.
He apparently has learned no new, crucial truths from the Great Beyond, he has achieved no greater wisdom. Even the still-living Yoda seems more aware than Kenobi, who at one point says of Luke, That boy is our only hope only to be corrected by Yoda, who reminds him, No, there is another. (Another, who we learn in the next film Kenobi already knows about but apparently didn’t think of.) Kenobi actually seems less powerful than he was when he was alive and not a bit wiser.
The follow-through on the mysterious disappearance scene in the prior film thus falls flat. Some of this may not be entirely Lucas’s fault. It is reported that, when they came make The Empire Strikes Back, Alec Guinness insisted that some of his lines be transferred to Yoda, so maybe he was meant to come off as more impressive than he did. Still, it’s flaw in the filmmaking.
This does not stop Empire from being a worthy and even superior successor to Episode IV. What remains to be seen is whether it will retain its status as the most acclaimed film of the series or whether it will be supplanted by the just-released Episode II and still forthcoming Episode III.
This second film benefits least from the special edition changes made for its 1997 re-release. Toward the beginning of the film there are a few additional seconds of footage in which Luke is menaced by the Wampa ice beast and, toward the middle and end of the film, a number of panels in the cloud city have been digitally changed from being walls to windows. Still, these modifications, though minor, do make the film look better.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.