Rose Tico once said that we’re going to win not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love. That wisdom is pertinent for Star Wars fans; amidst seemingly incessant criticism, I want to spend time actually liking Star Wars. I love all Star Wars, so in this series, I’ll walk through each of the films identifying five things I love about it. That’s not to say there are only five, but I’m limiting myself to five here. One note: because I think John Williams’ work on every Star Wars film is fantastic, I’m going to essentially assume that would make every list, thus I’m leaving it out intentionally. But without Williams’ music, we don’t have Star Wars as we know and love it.
We continue today with the movie that many consider to be the gold standard in the franchise, The Empire Strikes Back.
1. Yoda and the Force
I want you to put yourself in George Lucas’s situation when sitting down to make the sequel to Star Wars, an instant hit that was (at the time) the highest-grossing movie in history. Film franchises at the time were very rare (unlike today), and people would be approaching the sequel looking for much the same excitement and feel as the first one. But then you come up with an idea: instead of giving a film in the same vein as the previous one, why not subvert expectations and make a movie that is totally different in feel? Would you be bold enough to do that? More specifically, you have the idea to have the beloved hero, Luke Skywalker, head off to train with a great Jedi Master… who literally is a tiny green puppet. Would you be bold enough to do that? For the entire second act of the film, Luke is away from his friends training with this Jedi. It’s not a stretch to say that if this didn’t work, the whole movie wouldn’t work. If this green puppet wasn’t believable as a great Jedi, it would instead become a laughingstock.
Such is the risk that George Lucas took in Yoda. But it worked, and worked so brilliantly that Yoda has become a fan-favorite Star Wars character. Lucas, director Irvin Kershner, Yoda puppeteer and voice Frank Oz, and Mark Hamill deserve tons of credit for making it work, and time should not erase just how risky and impressive it was.
But speaking of Yoda’s role within this film, it is absolutely tremendous and beautiful. When we first meet him, we are just like Luke: we think that this strange creature is no different from the countless creatures introduced in the saga so far. We don’t expect that this is the great Jedi Master, just like Luke, and that’s part of the point. We’re expecting a great warrior, but as Yoda teaches us, “wars not make one great.” Already, our introduction into the Force has begun. This is the most spiritual of all the Star Wars films, diving into the Force in ways that have still not been rivaled by any movie. Remember, all we really learned about the Force in A New Hope was what Ben Kenobi told Luke on Tatooine, and that wasn’t much. But here, Yoda peels back the curtain, and he teaches us just like he teaches Luke:
- He teaches us that to understand Jedi primarily as warriors is to misunderstand the Jedi.
- He teaches that a Jedi craves not adventure nor excitement. He teaches us that there is no try, only do, or do not.
- He teaches us that the reason why Luke fails is because he doesn’t believe.
- He teaches us that we should not judge by size, that the Force surrounds us and binds us, that it flows through all things, that we are luminous beings.
- He teaches us that a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force, whereas the dark side is fear, anger, and aggression.
- He teaches us that a Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, but never for attack.
In so many ways, the scenes with Yoda and Luke on Dagobah are absolutely formative for any correct understanding of the entire Star Wars franchise. Here, Yoda confronts so many ideas of what a Jedi is and teaches us instead what a Jedi should be. Everything about these moments with Yoda is beautiful, and it’s filled with tons of wisdom and a good deal of humor too. It’s one of the core heartbeats of the film, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why the movie works so well.
2. Darth Vader
This is, in my opinion, Darth Vader at his very best. His menacing presence in the first film was very clear, and there is no mistaking the fact that he is a formidable presence. But here, Vader is not merely aboard the Death Star defending the Empire’s territory; this time, he’s tearing across the galaxy in a relentless pursuit of Luke Skywalker and the Rebels. The very first shot of the film establishes the Empire sending out probe droids in search of them, and for pretty much the entire rest of the movie, Vader is literally bearing down on the Rebels. The frightening possibility of death is hanging over them at all times, and the man that brings it is Vader. He is in total command here (whereas in the previous film it was Grand Moff Tarkin), though we do learn that he’s doing his master’s bidding.
In this movie, Vader kills his own officers for their incompetence. He directs an attack on Hoth, driving the Rebels from their secret base. He sets a trap for the Rebels on Cloud City, and later for Luke Skywalker. And in his duel against Skywalker, Vader shows just how powerful he is both with a lightsaber and with the Force. In this movie, Vader is at his most fearsome, and his power is on full display. But so too do we start to get a bit of a look behind the mask, which is represented literally by a glimpse of Vader in his meditation chamber before his helmet is put on. Figuratively speaking, the film begins to do the same. We didn’t get much characterization of Vader in A New Hope, besides him just being the personification of evil itself, but here we start to learn more about his motives and his past.
And though generally I don’t mention music in these articles, since John Williams is such a brilliant genius at all times, there are some moments where I just can’t help it, and the introduction of Darth Vader in this film is one of them. As we cut to the whole Imperial fleet, we hear in full for the very first time (though echoes of it have already appeared) what might just be the most famous theme from Star Wars besides the main title: the Imperial March. This is played as we discover that the huge Star Destroyer is actually dwarfed by the far more massive Executor, the personal flagship of Darth Vader himself. It is hard to imagine a more epic introduction than is given here, and it’s fitting for such an epic villain.
3. That lightsaber duel
Of course, the most significant and memorable moments with Darth Vader in this movie come toward the end, when he faces off with Luke Skywalker in the long-awaited lightsaber duel, which many still consider to be the greatest in the entire franchise. In the first film, our hero and villain only met indirectly in their ships, but Vader did strike down Luke’s master. But finally, at the end of the second movie, Luke finally faces off against Vader… and he loses. It’s an epic fight with plenty of twists and turns, but Vader shows his prowess and winds up cutting Luke’s hand off. Talk about an unexpected moment! Remember, at this point we didn’t know that limbs could be replaced; here is our hero, cowering in defeat on Cloud City, with his friend frozen in carbonite and his hand gone, having lost his lightsaber as well. All is lost. If by this point you were still holding out hope that this movie would end in a triumphant victory like the previous one, now you know for sure it won’t.
But the most devastating blow of them all is still to come. For as Luke stands defeated, Vader actually tries to talk with him and get him to turn to the dark side! But surely our hero won’t succumb to this; Luke Skywalker is too good for that! But then Vader presses with the most stunning reveal in cinema history: “I am your father.” Nothing before or since has been able to match that reveal, not just in Star Wars but in movies in general. It has entered pop culture and is as widely known as the franchise itself. And in-universe, it is absolutely stunning. Luke realizes it’s true (though many people doubted it after the film initially released), and he chooses to die rather than side with Vader. He doesn’t die, instead being saved by the Millennium Falcon, but he is totally and utterly defeated. His hand is gone. His lightsaber is lost. And worst of all, his father is Darth Vader.
This fight has everything. It’s been building for two films, so it’s long-awaited. It’s filled with action and tension. And it’s got tons of emotion, ending in one of the greatest moments in the entire franchise.
4. Han Solo and the Princess
This film started a Star Wars tradition (that some seem to have missed): the heroes are separated during the middle chapter of the trilogy. After the Rebels are driven from Hoth in the opening third of the film, Luke Skywalker heads to Dagobah to train with Yoda, while Han Solo and Leia Organa are absent from the Rebellion as they try to escape the Empire – despite the Millennium Falcon‘s hyperdrive problems. This means that there’s a lot of time spent between Han and Leia, and it develops into a full-on romance that is one of the heartbeats of the entire movie.
But this is actually apparent from their very first scene together. The two of them fight quite a bit, but the music and a bit of intuition betrays the words they speak: these are two people falling in love with one another. On Echo Base, Han taunts Leia by saying that she wants him to stay because of the way she feels about him, and so even though the two of them are trying to deny it, they both know it to be true. But their fighting and banter also leads to some great line throughout the film, like:
- “I’d just as soon kiss a wookiee” (“I can arrange that! You could use a good kiss!”)
- “I don’t know where you get your delusions, laserbrain”
- “stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking, nerf-herder” (who’s scruffy looking?”)
- “Would it help if I got out and pushed?”
- “You said you wanted to be around when I made a mistake. Well this could be it, sweetheart.”
- “there aren’t enough scoundrels in your life”
- “I am not a committee!”
- “You do have your moments. Not many of them, but you do have them.”
Han and Leia’s relationship develops as the film goes on. The banter doesn’t really stop, but they eventually come to embrace what both of them know to be true and which both of them appear to be fighting, but soon realize is good and inevitable: they are in love. And this all leads to one of the more well-known lines in the whole franchise, when Han is about to be put into carbonite. Leia finally blurts out, “I love you!” to which Han simply replies, “I know.” Such a great line. And their relationship throughout the whole film is fantastic, with both Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher delivering and making it work beautifully.
5. Expanding our horizons
This is one of those articles where I could just keep going, and so I’m actually going to include a number of elements in this final point, but here’s the general idea: The Empire Strikes Back totally expands our notions of the Star Wars franchise and the galaxy. As I mentioned earlier, George Lucas was far more bold with this movie than most people realize today. We talked about this with Yoda, but now consider another way: whereas in Star Wars he started with the individual characters and then grew to the climactic, large-scale battle sequence, in Empire he begins with the climactic, large-scale battle sequence and then ends with the individual characters. It’s a total subversion of what we would be expecting after watching A New Hope. Additionally, the ending of Star Wars sees the Rebellion achieve a major victory, culminating in a triumphant ceremony to end the film. But Empire? It does what we don’t expect: it ends with the heroes totally devastated and defeated; they are separated from the Rebellion, Luke Skywalker has lost his hand and lightsaber while learning devastating news, and Han Solo is gone, frozen in carbonite. Yes, there’s a twinge of hope in the ending, but it’s dark. The bad guys won. Again, George Lucas delivered a totally different Star Wars movie than people were expecting (or even really wanting) – but it was what the franchise needed. Today, it’s considered by many to be the greatest movie in Star Wars history.
And a lot of that is, again, because of these expanding horizons. We’re introduced to gorgeous new worlds: the snow planet of Hoth, the swamp planet of Dagobah, and the cloud city of Bespin. These locations are stunning, interesting, and new. And we’re also introduced to new characters, like Yoda (who we’ve already mentioned) and Lando Calrissian. It’s only because of the other things on this list that he’s not given more attention here, but the addition of Lando is a tremendous new addition. They quickly establish that he has a history with Han Solo but that he can’t be trusted, and he rewards that caution by betraying the heroes. Before long, however, he winds up helping the good guys, and in the process we are introduced to a conflicted, different type of “hero” – one who resembles Han Solo in some points, but is willing to go even further to preserve his own skin. Another new character we meet is Boba Fett, the mysterious bounty hunter who tracks down Solo. Though he doesn’t have many lines, this film sparked tons of interest in Fett, who became a fan-favorite. And then there’s also a scene with Emperor Palpatine, where we meet the galaxy’s evil ruler and learn that he’s actually Darth Vader’s master – something that seems relevant as we move toward the final chapter of the trilogy.
When viewed as a whole, The Empire Strikes Back is totally different, and that’s in the best way possible. This is a fresh Star Wars story that introduces us to great new characters and stunning new locations, all while telling a story that has stood the test of time.