Take 76: The Empire Strikes Back

In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week, in honor of May the Fourth, Take 76: The Empire Strikes Back. As always there will be spoilers.

As I mentioned (repeatedly) in my Star Wars essay, I wasn’t raised on the franchise, and I wondered if I could ever fully appreciate it as much as a lifelong fan does. After watching the second film, a whole new set of inadequacies for the uninitiated dawned on me — Darth Vader doesn’t scare me because I’ve seen his likeness commercialized and bastardized throughout all of my life. I understand him to be one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time, but at this point, he’s more of a joke than an imposing force. Yoda does not pique my interest as a curiosity at all because he’s become such a caricature of himself outside of the films that the incongruity between his physical form and the role he plays as a head Jedi master has been stripped of its shock value. The ubiquity of Star wars sapped its potency as much as it has sealed its immortality, and that’s why I believe I’ll always be on the outside looking in.

However, despite being ranked a full forty notches behind its predecessor, I am firmly in the camp of The Empire Strikes Back being the best Star Wars movie ever, and it has reengaged me as a fledgling fan. I like the original movie, and I don’t think The Empire Strikes Back could stand alone without its lesser bookends; but if Episode IV amuses the audience with its ambitious storytelling and ferocious creativity, Episode V wallops the senses by bringing our merry band of wanderers across all extremes of the universe.

Opening the film on the snowy planet of Hoth, with it’s mystical arctic creatures and giant, stomping, enemies, shows us immediately that this film is a far cry from the desert landscapes we grew accustomed to in the original installment. In addition to the stunning and surprising visual shifts, the second movie offers a chance for the viewers to again root for the underdog as they continually scrape their way out of jams, and dodge the pursuing imperial army. The distinction becomes clear that in the second movie the rebels are on the ropes instead of on the offensive, and for some reason that down and out quality creates a direct correlation between their likability and their spunky defiance of the powerful force they’re fighting against.

I’m ashamed to admit that for much of the first movie I struggled to understand what it was about the empire that we are supposed to hate so much (an instinct I realize now is so very American of me, and so very appropriate for the theme of this series). A friend helped to explain that it was the sheer power of the dark side, the volume of their capacity to cause damage, and willingness to negate the free will of humans. The despicable qualities of the empire are more lucid in Episode V. At times, the empire feels as if it’s Nazi Germany full of high-stepping, accented, minions terrified of their own deranged megalomaniacal, leader. They are determined to root out any dissenters and control the feeble minded masses.

At other times, the empire feels like the Cold War era Russo-American militaries, with enough weaponry stock piled to destroy entire planets and enough caustic paranoia to act on those impulses. I was from time to time reminded of Dr. Strangelove but without the tongue-in-cheek streak of wry self awareness, or the promise of mutually assured destruction to balance the scales against good and evil. This retroactively explains why establishing “A New Hope” in Episode IV is so crucial to the structure of the original trilogy as a whole, because now that our rebels have drawn the ire of a much greater foe, their actions are consequential to not just their forces but the universe at large.

While I’m a Star Wars n00b, I am a Firefly diehard, and I know much of the foundation of the Joss Whedon series would not exist without the larger scripture of space entertainment created by George Lucas. Malcolm Reynolds is a renegade who believed that the planets should be free to govern themselves without the influence of an imposing superpower stifling their liberties. The show is correctly marketed as a Space Western and takes the idea of space being the final frontier literally. Reynolds is a hero who longs for the days of lawlessness and independence from the growing spectre of a singular, omnipotent, force. He is a couple shades more cowboy than his fellow smuggler, Han Solo, who has the scoundrel- like quality of a pirate who prefers to be sailing on the vast, high seas — free from imperial scrutiny suffered by law abiding folks.

This is where The Empire Strikes Back is able to double down on another feat of greatness and timelessness previously established in Star Wars. The franchise is whatever the viewer most wants it to be: it is a war movie (right there in the title), it’s intensely political, it’s a western, it’s a seafaring yarn. Han is a miscreant on the lam and constantly trying to outrun his debt. Leia is the sister everyone forgets about, an erotic space sibling equivalent to the classic riddle. The roots of theme grow deep with this one, overlapping again and again, supporting and complicating one another, making the world accessible to fans of any adventure genre.

More than anything though, the series is as classic a telling of the Campbellian hero’s journey that one could hope for. I wish I liked Luke more. In The Empire Strikes Back especially, I tend to find him soft and whiney, not fully appreciative of his role in the larger landscape of human life or of Yoda’s patience with his stubbornness. That being said, Luke does face the stress of being a chosen one, and I’m sure the burden of that status outweighs the flattery of the title almost immediately.

IV — realization of autonomy

V — assertion of self, false sense of invincibility, not finishing training etc.

VI — debate within self over nature of “destiny”

When Luke learns the truth of this lineage and rebukes both the power of his father and of his own dark side, one can equate that action to a huge number of symbolic epic tales. In my mind, that scene, and the broad applicability of it, can be attributed to the universal teenage conundrum of establishing one’s self as an individual adult even if it means sacrificing familiarity, power, or comfort.

Luke needs to grow up, and Yoda helps him do that. Part of growing up is deciphering which parts of your familial inheritance are assets, and which will need to be cut off from the body. Luke realizes that his own dark force is strong long before he hears Darth Vader’s abiding confession. And after his decision to not embrace that evil seed deep within, he plunges down the rabbit hole into the unknown, with an evolving physical form and consciousness, a stranger in a strangeland emerging from his past and asserting himself as an individual, freed from his hereditary baggage. This separation is a rite of passage in every culture, and Star Wars packaged it so that it will be exciting and relatable for generations to come.

Watching movies and writing essays.

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