What movies can still learn from The Empire Strikes Back
The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie. And because it’s the only movie without a single victory—because the Rebels lose the Battle of Hoth, and Han gets his carbonite coma, and Luke can’t even fully kill one measly Wampa—its place in history has always been assured as The Dark Star Wars Movie. The movie came out on May 21, 1980, and in the ensuing three-plus decades, the easiest way for a nerd-friendly director to dredge up fan excitement over a sequel was to compare it to Empire Strikes Back.
What, precisely, did that mean—to make your franchise’s Empire Strikes Back? The definitions get hazy. Most blockbuster movies don’t let their characters lose. Most blockbuster movies don’t kick off with an Act I battle sequence that ends with everyone you like running away from the bad guy. Most blockbuster movies don’t cut the hands off their handsome protagonists. But the vogue for darkness stuck with geek culture on every level. You don’t really hear directors say their sequel is going to be lighter, or looser, or less serious. Darkness just becomes another buzzword, a marketing trope. (Iron Man 3 is a wacky Shane Black romp with a couple depressive interludes; the first trailer for Iron Man 3 makes it look like No Country For Old Men plus bad t-shirts.)
But that whole notion of Empire—the Dark, Mature, Serious one—was always overblown. You want dark? Jaws kills a woman, kills a kid, kills the third lead very, very slowly, chomp chomp chomp. (Empire kills Dak.) You want mature themes? Aliens is the space-Vietnam movie Lucas always wanted to make—and Aliens has more than one female character. (Empire Strikes Back and women: Princess Leia, and the lady who says “Stand by Ion Control. Fire.” In the theatrical cut, the Emperor was voiced by a man but played by a woman; thinkpiece ho!) You want a serious movie about the nature of good and evil? Ingmar Bergman awaits.
Counter-argument: The Dark Star Wars Movie is Star Wars. Luke’s cute-sweet aunt and cute-tough uncle get burned to hell. The wacky little Jawas are shot up, their ship spackled with extremely accurate blast points. (Way too accurate for Sand People!) Leia gets Abu Ghraib’d by a probing torture-bot. Alec Guinness was the most famous actor in the movie—and he dies. The villains who aren’t Vader all die. Star Wars is the one Star Wars movie where a lightsaber doesn’t cauterize a wound—by which I mean, the only Star Wars movie that acknowledges the existence of blood.
Also, the Death Star blows up an entire populated planet.
Perhaps the real genius of Empire Strikes Back is that it doesn’t try to one-up that moment. Or rather, it doesn’t think that the way to make a better Star Wars movie is to make the threat bigger. The Empire Strikes Back cost twice as much as the first film, but the bigness of the budget doesn’t filter into the movie’s subtext, the way it does into nearly every blockbuster movie made after Don Simpson tried cocaine. The AT-ATs have maybe one-hundred-millionth the kill capacity of a Death Star—but they’re a more interesting nemesis. (The Death Star was a moon with a laser; the AT-ATs are robo-dino Dali monsters.)
And in stark contrast to the first Star Wars, the highest stakes are all frontloaded. The movie’s first act is Empire vs. Rebellion—although it’s not necessarily clear, in the movie, if the ice-planet outpost is meant to be “the Rebellion” or just a squad of the Rebellion. (The opening crawl describes the Hoth HQ as “a group of freedom fighters”—the implication maybe that the Hoth crew is a battalion, not a regiment.) And after the battle is over, the stakes of the movie simplify: Will the Empire catch the Falcon?
Back when he started working on Avengers 2, Joss Whedon expressed a vague hope to make something smaller and more personal. “Smaller” and “more personal” are words that loom large over the George Lucas legend—just behind “faster” and “more intense”—since the man who made Star Wars spent most of his life after Star Wars promising to make smaller, more personal films. (Instead, he made more Star Wars films.)
The consensus history says that Lucas had less to do with Empire than any other Star Wars movie. It’s impossible to know how true that is—it’s a bit like saying God was less involved in Exodus than Genesis. But on the story level, Empire is smaller, more personal. It puts Han and Leia into one single moving location for half the movie—which means they’re free to banter off each other like screwball hate-lovers, their one-liners bouncing off the walls and over Threepio’s head.
And Empire is the blockbuster movie that treats a spirit journey like an actual spirit journey, with all the introspection and potentially-boring non-action the term implies. Luke has some cool moves on Hoth—and then he speeds off to Dagobah for a long time, hanging out with a puppet mystic and experiencing a profound-for-kids insight into the darkness in his own soul. The stuff on Dagobah is quiet like Star Wars is never quiet: Some of the best moments in the movie are just Yoda sitting peacefully by the bog. You would never describe Empire Strikes Back as slow—it’s a chase movie!—but the smaller stakes give the movie all the grace notes that most big movies can never find time for.
The climactic action sequence of The Empire Strikes Back looks beautiful: A lightsaber duel played out against Cloud City’s central air, imagined onscreen as a neon-smoky Fritz Langtopia. (Nobody ever gives Empire credit for inventing Blade Runner two years early.) But it’s important to remember that all the millions that probably went into that scene are there to support a lightsaber duel: A one-on-one battle between two fully developed characters.
The only other movie in the franchise that doesn’t end with a space battle is Revenge of the Sith—and Episode III gilds the lily with two final-act lightsaber duels. Also not helping matters: By Revenge of the Sith, every lightsaber duel looks like awkward white guys dance-fighting at a retirement-home rave.
You start to feel like filmmakers learned the wrong lessons from Empire. The Darth Vader twist is cool—but it also leads directly to our modern Abrams/Nolan culture, where everything that happens in a sequel gets treated like a mind-blowing table-flipping plot twist. And Empire is also the movie that moves the franchise into Chosen One storytelling; the Emperor declares that Luke “could destroy us”; the everykid from the Tatooine exurbs was secretly the son of the Empire’s Chief Enforcer the whole time. Any sequel that ends with a non-ending cliffhanger can point to the closing moments of Empire—something Joss Whedon himself complained about… presumably before Marvel wedged a few more Infinity Stones into Avengers 2.
Hating on Star Wars movies that came after Empire Strikes Back is, at this point, a boring pastime. But the movies that tried to be Star Wars movies usually feel like the wrong Star Wars movies. Return of the Jedi brought back the Death Star and the idea that every individual battle was a zero-sum fight between good and evil. The prequels, bless them, are actually trying to be important—It’s about totalitarianism! It’s about the Bush Administration!—but all those big themes turn the characters into listless exposi-bots.
The Empire Strikes Back feels bigger because it’s smaller. It’s more romantic specifically because it doesn’t have time to be romantic. (“I love you.” “I know.”) It doesn’t feel the need to overexplain it’s weirdo detours. In Return of the Jedi, Threepio gives a long hype-man speech for the Pit of Sarlacc. In Empire Strikes Back, there’s a goddamn asteroid ringworm that lives in space—and the only explanation we get is, “This is no cave.”
The Empire Strikes Back is faster and more intense—but only because it’s smaller and more personal. Thirty-five years later, the blockbuster era Empire helped create is entering the late decadent phase. Bigger casts, bigger effects, bigger battles, bigger budgets. We have more Star Wars movies coming. Let’s hope they dare to be small.
Thoughts? Counter-thoughts? Want to discuss how Mad Max: Fury Road is actually that franchise’s Empire Strikes Back? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll respond in next week’s Geekly Mailbag.