If the first “Star Wars” film was a triumph of optimism and fun, its sequel balances things out with a darker mood and gives depth and complexity to the world and characters created by George Lucas.
“The Empire Strikes Back” threatens the sense of hope that pervaded the end of its predecessor and challenges the optimism of the protagonists. It also expands the “Star Wars” universe. The scale is wider on all fronts. Characters grow, battles rise in wow factor, and there is a richer variety of planetary landscapes that we get to see. There’s the ice world of Hoth where the Rebels have their base, the swamp-like world of Jedi Master Yoda, and, my personal favorite, the Cloud City ruled by Han Solo’s friend Lando Calrissian. “The Empire Strikes Back” does things bigger and better, and that makes it a spectacular sequel. In fact, this film does not seem to think of itself as a sequel. It stands firmly on its own two feet, more of a wiser, older brother to “A New Hope”.
In support of that last statement, “The Empire Strikes Back” does not start exactly where “A New Hope” left off. Enough time is allowed to elapse off-screen for viewers to feel that they are rejoining the action at a time when there is actually enough of a story to dive into. The opening crawl intro offers context to the film by briefly giving the backstory of what has been happening in the meantime. The destruction of the Death Star has not spelled the end of the Empire. Its reign is only growing stronger as Imperial troops are bloodying the nose of the Rebellion all across the galaxy. Still, a group of Rebels led by Luke Skywalker has established a new base on the ice-world of Hoth and Darth Vader is after them. In storytelling terms, this is a brilliant move that dispenses with the dreaded exposition, which tends to put readers and viewers to sleep if it goes on for too long. “Star Wars” wastes not our time. It follows its own advice and ditches trying for doing.
The plot of “The Empire Strikes Back” splits into threads as the characters get separated after the Rebel base on Hoth is destroyed. Leia escapes with Han, Chewie and C-3PO on the Millenium Falcon, while Luke and R2-D2 head for the Dagobah system in search of Yoda, a Jedi Master who can teach him the ways of the Force. Luke’s journey is mostly a spiritual one, while Han and Leia are playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with the Imperial fleet, which is not made any easier by the constantly malfunctioning engines of their ship. In the latter part of the film, a new friend (or foe?) joins our intrepid crew, and a jaw-dropping revelation shakes the foundation of what we thought we knew about the “Star Wars” universe.
Let’s look a little closer at the characters, since they are the ones driving this story.
Let’s look first at Princess Leia, not necessarily because she’s a lady, but because she displays some major growth from the last film. Leia was a hands-on kind of girl to begin with, but her outward feminine appearance was a bigger part of who she was. She wore a flowing dress and her hairstyle was more elaborate and thus less practical. Now, Leia is in full troops commander mode. She wears trousers instead of a dress, she keeps her hair up in a simple braid, and she seems more confident and more competent about pretty much everything. And she actually lays out battle strategies for her fighter pilots. That is not to say that she’s no longer feminine. She is, but no matter how many times Han mocks her royal title, she is even less of a classic princess here than in the first film. She guards her emotions fiercely and she puts her mission as leader of the Rebellion above her personal desires. When Luke and Han are trapped in the frozen wasteland of Hoth during the night, Leia meets the difficult decision of closing the gate and putting off the search for them until morning with stoic responsibility. And she does not admit her feelings for Han until she’s convinced that he’s no longer selfishly pursuing his own interests.
One major growth factor for Leia is her developing romance with Han Solo. Beyond the greatly humorous scenes where they bicker over her having feelings for him or not, the fact that she is allowed to have a romance with Han is a big deal because it is something that empowers Leia rather than weaken her or narrows her purpose to domestic-only matters. Looking no further than the “Wars” franchise itself, the love story between Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker in Episodes I – III offers a contrasting approach to romance and helps put things in perspective. Their verbal exchanges are stilted and give little insight as to why they are in love. Padmé’s whole world seems to shrink when she meets and marries Anakin. She goes from queen and later senator to naïve housewife who refuses to see the bad ways of her husband and completely forgets her responsibility of defending democracy. By contrast, Leia and Han’s romance makes both of them stronger. It makes them work better as a team in their common goal to overthrow the Empire. I think it’s very important that Leia is allowed to display affection towards Han without this detracting in any way from her empowered status. What this says is that a woman does not stop being powerful just because she falls in love.
Another character who gets to grow in this film is Luke Skywalker, whose evolution is spurred by his meeting with Yoda. Luke goes looking for Yoda in conscious pursuit of Jedi training, but becoming a Jedi turns out to be a more massive undertaking than he expected. Much like mastering martial arts, a Jedi apprentice must learn to train their mind as well as their body. Yoda describes Luke as reckless and always wavering between the past and the future, never living in the present moment. As such, Luke must learn patience and self-control, he must face his fears and he must believe that he can achieve extraordinary things. According to Yoda, there are no half-measures in dealing with the Force, and doubt only weakens one’s grip on it. Plus, one must take the time and make oneself ready in order to be able to use the Force safely. Luke gives in to his reckless side when he decides to curtail his training in order to help Leia and Han. He does so against Yoda’s warning that if he uses the Force before he is ready, he will be in danger of falling to the Dark Side. And young Luke learns his lesson the hard way, as we will see a bit later.
I also have to talk a bit about Yoda. What I love best about his character is that he is an embodiment of the wisdom he preaches. There is no arrogance to Yoda, in spite of, or actually due to the great wisdom he possesses. He appears humble and lives a simple life, but he is capable of altering the laws of physics by using the Force. Yoda also expands on what we know about the Force from the first film. He reiterates that it is a field of energy which binds all living things together, but we get the added notion that the Force cannot be misused, it cannot be approached with anger or with destructive intentions. Well, it can, but the consequence is falling to the Dark Side. The idea of training oneself to be a fighter, but a disciplined fighter who fights only in the defense of that which he loves is central to Yoda’s Jedi teachings. What this says to me is that the discipline that one has to achieve in order to control the Force creates a sense of responsibility and keeps a person from using the Force for evil purposes.
This brings me to what is probably one of the most iconic scenes in popular cinema and, at the same time, one of the greatest shockers: the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. In spite of its iconic status and therefore in spite of the fact that it’s nothing new, I couldn’t help gripping the edge of my seat as I watched the scene unfold. And I think that speaks to the simplicity and poignancy of the storytelling in the original Star Wars. From the outside, one might think that having a character like Vader, who is made to represent utter evil with his ominous presence – the costume, the mask, the music associated with his appearances – is silly because complex characters are more believable and there is no such thing as utter evil. But Darth Vader may very well convince you that there is. Those simple elements that make up his image are so well put together and so well played out in the story that Vader truly is ominous, and we really do feel terrified of him and consequently we’re shocked when we find out that he is the father of our hero. I think this moment is decisive for Luke in that he truly learns what it means to misuse the Force and to go over to the Dark Side. After Yoda’s warnings, seeing what happened to his own father has probably strengthened his determination to complete his training and to become a true Jedi. And along with Luke, the viewers also gain a crash-course kind of experience in why it is important to use the Force wisely.
Part of the complexity of “The Empire Strikes Back” resides in the character of Lando Calrissian. His presence serves to both advance the story, as he is the one who facilitates Leia and Han’s capture by Darth Vader, but he also brings in a new dimension to the good vs. evil dynamic of Star Wars. In the first film, things were pretty clear-cut. You have the bad guys – Darth Vader and his minions – and the good guys – Luke, Obi Wan, Princess Leia and co. But with Lando we get a character who is somewhere in the middle. He is neither good, nor evil, and at the same time he is both. He seems friendly at first, as he welcomes Leia and Han with open arms, but then he sells them out to Vader, after which he decides to help them escape. This guy kind of wants to have his cake and eat it, too. The new dimension that he brings in is deception. He deceives Han and Leia, but he also deceives Vader. It’s interesting that his very introduction carries a warning, with Han’s own lack of certainty that Lando is a friend, and the somewhat foreboding image of the Cloud City. We are prepared to not buy into Lando’s appearance of friendliness, which is good, because we are not very surprised when he proves to be deceptive later.
In conclusion, “The Empire Strikes Back” is a more serious and more mature film. The light fun quality of “A New Hope” is gone and our heroes’ mission is seriously jeopardized at the end, but all hope is not lost because they mean to keep fighting. In a sense, optimism is replaced by realism in a wise decision on Lucas’s part to paint the world of “Star Wars” in richer, darker colors.
Livia Miron is a hired writing gun in the IT industry and a creative writer in real life. She is a long-time Star Trek fan, a devout Middle-earther and a recent Star Wars convert. Currently, her passion for writing is driving her deeper and deeper into the mithril-laden mines of Hobbit fan fiction. Livia lives in Romania and is proud of her heritage, but she is also an incurable Anglophile.