Bounty hunters, blizzards and betrayal. The Empire Strikes Back had it all. To mark the 40th anniversary of its release, Rebel Briefing’s Anthony Murphy celebrates his favourite film of the Star Wars Saga.
My love for Star Wars began in 1980 with The Empire Strikes Back. I was lucky to see A New Hope and Empire together as a double feature at my local cinema. I was four years old.
Reconstructing those hazy memories from a long, long time ago is tricky. But one thing is for sure – the impact of those movies, especially Empire, never left me.
Maybe it was seeing the ice planet Hoth for the first time, falling in love with the magical Yoda, or that shocking ending. Graphically and culturally speaking, Empire was stamped onto the canvas of my young imagination.
Decades later it remains my favourite film. But why? With all the magical movies in the Saga, why is The Empire Strikes Back (for me at least) still the jewel in the Star Wars crown?
Pushing the Limits
It’s because Empire is the peak of quality. It goes beyond being one of the best Star Wars films; it’s one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy movies ever made.
In his sequel, George Lucas boldly pushed the limits of storytelling and special effects. It could easily have been a rehash of the tropes and themes of the bright and bombastic original. Instead, it’s a darker, more mature tale. Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, Lawrence Kasdan and Lucasfilm ramped up the stakes, giving fans a new way of looking at the Star Wars universe.
Without a doubt, Yoda is the star of the show. The green sprite is central to the dramatic and spiritual development of the story, especially Luke’s education in the Force. Through him, we discover more about its power and the Jedi code.
Yoda’s lessons are spectacular and awe-inspiring. Seeing him lift Luke’s X-Wing out of the Dagobah swamp, and hearing him explain the Force – “Its energy surrounds us and binds us” – is pure movie magic.
For me, Yoda speaks the best line in the Saga: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” he says. From a spiritual point of view, it’s the purest description of the Force. This knowledge is a source of comfort to all those who have suffered loss or grief.
The Dark Side
And then there’s Darth Vader. The cybernetic Sith Lord is the antithesis of the organic and mystical Yoda.
In Empire, the dark side of the Force is everywhere. We see more of Vader’s skills and we meet the Emperor via hologram. We also catch a brief glimpse of what’s under Vader’s helmet. Remember Luke’s failure at the cave on Dagobah, too.
During his pursuit of Luke and his friends, Vader ruthlessly kills incompetent Imperial officers, unleashes dangerous bounty hunters on our heroes (Boba Fett – the coolest dude in the galaxy) and tortures Han Solo. We were shocked as Luke received the beating of his life at his hands.
With those four words (“I am your father”) we learned there was more to Vader than the pitch-black armour. We discovered he was once Anakin Skywalker, and he is humanised by his connection to Luke.
Because of that emotional climax, The Empire Strikes Back became more than just a story about good versus evil. Vader’s betrayal reduced the conflict to a human level, setting father against son. For Luke (and the fans), things were never the same again.
As Vader’s son, Luke’s character became richer and more complex as a result. In the blink of an eye, he changed from naive idealist to scion of the (second) most evil man in the galaxy. From that point, fans accepted that Luke carried the dark side within himself.
Despite his grim reality, Luke remains my Star Wars hero. Rather than surrender to the dark side, he chose an almost certain death to preserve his honour. By jumping into the abyss below Cloud City, not only did he surrender the last remnant of his innocence, he won a vital moral victory over Vader and the dark side.
Empire’s immense last act launched the final stage (as it was back in the ’80s) of the Star Wars Saga. More than that, it set up Vader’s redemption in Return of the Jedi, and the eventual reconciliation between father and son. It was a new and modern mythology I totally bought into.
The Circle is Now Complete
From experiencing The Empire Strikes Back for the first time as a wide-eyed child with my family to collecting the toys and re-watching the movie on video at home (Special Edition included!), my appreciation and love for the film is just as strong and powerful 40 years on. After all, I have grown up with it.
I learned life lessons from it – sometimes the bad guys win – and incorporated Yoda’s wisdom into my worldview. Because of Empire, I love movies, photography, design, writing and storytelling.
Today I’m a proud dad to a four-year-old boy, and tonight we’ll sit down and watch The Empire Strikes Back together for the first time… as father and son. The circle is now complete.