I’ve been tasked with defending—and let’s be honest, crowning—The Empire Strikes Back, which is kind of like defending the labrador over all other dogs. It just is the best. These are facts. But still, never tell me the odds.
I’ll do my best, though, to convince you—whether you’re a Jedi knight or a bounty scoundrel, a card holding member of the Galactic Empire or rogue member of the Rebel Alliance—that The Empire Strikes Back is the greatest work in the Star Wars cinematic canon, so far. It is the only one that remotely stands alone, not only in its pure artistry but with its story arc as well.
I’ll admit, that Empire without A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, and the rest of the universe would be a pretty weird movie, but you don’t really need the rest to actually enjoy what Empire is about. Empire is about a boy realizing he has to and can be a dude— a hero. It’s about two friends who have a thing for each other, Han and Leia, trying over and over again to say goodbye. (Also, Hoth is a magical dream land of ton tons. Puppet Yoda is my spirit creature. Darth Vader runs through admirals like Addazio does quarterbacks. And Lando’s head of security’s (Lobot) head is literally a security system.)
Episode V picks up three years after Luke’s heroics, when he flew his X-Wing around the Death Star just like it was Beggar’s Canyon. Led by the now Commander Skywalker, the Rebel Alliance— along with Han, Leia, and the rest of the gang (and my boy Wedge), have retreated to the Hoth system to run interference, or whatever it is the Rebel Alliance does. Luke looks a bit older, but he’s still the same kid from Tatooine. Like in A New Hope, the locals—this time an abominable snowman—are still giving him some trouble. He’s still honing those force powers.
Meanwhile, in their first scene together in Empire, Han Solo—who happens to be a nice man—is leaving, off to repay lumpy Jabba the Hut. Leia steals a glance his way.
“General, I gotta leave,” Han turns to Leia. “Well, your highness, I guess this is it … Don’t get all mushy on me. So long Princess!”
It’s not the last time they’ll say goodbye in this movie. The entire relationship in this movie is just them trying to figure how to say goodbye to each other, but also what they mean to each other. And that’s why Star Wars has endured—not because of the lightsabers, but because despite all “laserbrain” and “nerfherder” jargon. Empire is about relationships we have in our time. The feels are real.
It’s no coincidence that Empire is the film that George Lucas has had the least to do with. It’s Lucas’ old teacher at USC, Irvin Kershner who picks up for Lucas after the massive success of A New Hope, as Lucas went off to build Lucasfilms. And Kershner’s touch helps. Hamill, Ford, and Fisher are never better. Empire doesn’t advance the galactic plot at all. It’s entirely character-driven. It’s not about getting the galactic plot from point B to C. Luke is off doing hero-stuff, like getting captured by a monster in a cave, facing his demons in another cave, and getting trained by a mystical master in Endor. Ya know, hero stuff. He spends the heart of the movie studying the force with a little green guy with a crazy laugh. Han, Leia, Chewy (or Chewby), and C3P are just trying to get the Millennium Falcon’s hyper-drive to work.
Empire is a bridge, charting the emotional arc from the first entry to the third. It ends with the iconic shot of Luke, Leia, C3P0, and R2 looking out into the galaxy. And they’re no closer to defeating The Evil Empire, but everything’s changed. And, I think, it’s a moment to take account of how far we’ve come and how far we still get to go. Han and Leia finally know what they mean to each other. Luke has faced his demons, which turn out to be his father, and comes out on the other side, partially all-together. Yes, Empire is a bridge, but a wonderful bridge. When Leia tells Han she loves him, and he says, “I know,” it’s cathartic because that’s what he’s been saying this whole time, elbowing her in the arm and sneering “I know you love me.”
Empire Strikes Back is the first and only time to really get to know the characters that inhabit the Star Wars universe. Because I love the languages and scope of the universe, what makes Star Wars such an enduring fictional playground are the real, flesh and blood—or puppet—characters that live there.
Featured Image Courtesy of 20th Century Fox