The Empire Strikes Back is the backbone of the Star Wars saga. It takes the story and themes of the first film into deeper waters. The stakes and the emotions are higher, the conflict more personal, the villain more fearsome, the romance more charged, the heroes harder pressed.
The original Star Wars film, Episode IV — A New Hope, was about a hero who gets swept up into a world of adventure, learns something of his illustrious heritage, rescues the princess, blows up the dreaded Death Star, and saves the Rebellion. In The Empire Strikes Back, by contrast, Luke Skywalker’s heroism faces a stiffer challenge: This time he must face up to defeats, setbacks, failure, and ultimately a horrifying revelation about his past.
The new dynamic is evident from the first act, set on the secret Rebel base on the ice world of Hoth. As in A New Hope, the Empire discovers where the Rebels are hiding. Yet where the previous battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire ended with a stunning defeat for the Empire, here the Empire is victorious and the Rebels are lucky to get away with their lives. And that’s after Luke has already been almost killed by a Sasquatch-like snow monster and almost frozen to death.
As the film goes on, the themes grow darker and more mature, as Luke is unable to stop his friends from suffering, unable to rescue Han from carbonite and Boba Fett, unable in the end not only to stand up to Darth Vader physically, but also to face the emotional implications of Vader’s legendary climactic revelation. Boldest of all is the unresolved final act, the anti-climactic absence of a happy ending.
In a word, The Empire Strikes Back is about the dark side. Where A New Hope celebrated the triumph of good over evil, The Empire Strikes Back is more concerned with the problem of evil.
At the same time, the heroes grow in stature amid these crises, sacrifices, and losses. Luke’s first steps in the way of the Force were instinctive, intuitive. To go on to mastery, he must sacrifice, undergo grueling training and discipline, and ultimately face up to the fact that the goal is beyond him, that he is inadequate, and must grow beyond himself.
Similarly, Han Solo rises above his mercenary characterization in the first film as he faces the ambiguous menace of Cloud City; his immortal last words to Leia on the carbon-freezing floor may be a typically wiseacre punchline, but his words of restraint to Chewbacca a moment earlier indicate his selfless concern for Leia.
The darker tone of The Empire Strikes Back reflects Lucas’s sound dramatic theory that the middle episode of a trilogy should be the darkest, reflecting the general three-act structure that undergirds most dramatic storytelling. In practice, this theory hasn’t always resulted in superior moviemaking (the dark middle films of Lucas and Spielberg’s Indiana Jones trilogy and of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films are the weakest in their respective series), but The Empire Strikes Back illustrates how well it can work when done right.
There are some problems. In A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s disembodied voice guiding Luke offered a tantalizing suggestion of a transcendent existence beyond the grave. By contrast, in this film and especially in Return of the Jedi, the more we see of the spectral Kenobi, the hollower his portentous last words to Darth Vader that "If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine" become as it becomes increasingly obvious that Lucas never had any vision for this "more powerful" mode of existence.
More seriously, Luke’s central moral dilemma involves a warning from Yoda about "destroying all for which [his friends] have suffered," but nothing like this actually happens. It’s possible to see how it could have happened, but Yoda doesn’t present it as a mere possibility.
Philosophically, it’s in The Empire Strikes Back that the mythology of the Force comes closest to New Age gnosticism. Yoda utters Zen-like riddles like "Do, or do not; there is no ‘try’" and leans toward gnostic contempt for the body and physicality, saying, "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter" (pinching Luke’s shoulder).
On the other hand, that famous climactic revelation — and what follows in this film and its sequel — takes for granted the importance of bodily existence, and in particular of procreation, physical descent, and blood relations, in all its material crudeness.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.