THIS ESSAY IS SPOILER FREE FOR THE LAST JEDI.
As we embrace and/or reject STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI this holiday season, it seems appropriate to revisit Star Wars’ past for commentary—and not the least of which would be Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Empire is considered by far the best of the Star Wars films and is also the original game changer. It turned Star Wars on its ear and paved way for an expanding universe.
Empire, well, built an empire.
As the middle film in Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy, does the Last Jedi follow suit? Well, yes and no. It does successfully shake things up. It levels the playing field and disavows fan expectations—but unfortunately does so without the art, finesse, and excellence in storytelling that Empire provided. Over the coming weeks, we will be diving deep into the Last Jedi. For now, let’s take a look at what Episode V did right to ensure an Empire of Star Wars.
When the original Star Wars came out, it stood precariously on a precipice.
It was a child-like adventure presented in an adult manner. Gone was the usual schlock of such endeavors, replaced with well-rounded performances, cutting-edge special effects, and witty dialogue and banter, punched up by none other than the late and great Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia herself.
At its core, however, the first Star Wars (1977) was as the original teaser presented it: The story of a boy, a girl, and a universe.
With its overwhelming success, a sequel was indeed called for. What direction such a continuation would go in, however, would prove to be crucial to its enduring ascendancy. Would Star Wars 2 follow the same formula as the first one? Would it be re-trend, or could it be something more? While we all know what did happen, it could have gone either way.
Originally, not only was Obiwan Kenobi intended to survive the first film, hanging around until its conclusion with not much to do (in order to train Luke in the next one), but so was the Death Star (!), denying the unforeseen blockbuster any resolution or success for its heroes. And in Lucas’ first cut edit of the film, Luke makes the Death Star trench run twice after missing the first time! Intervention by the studio and Marcia Lucas (George’s soon to be exiled ex-wife) saved the feature from such an ignoble fate.
With a sequel greenlit, would Luke, Han, and Leia face off against a second Death Star, or would this be an actual continuing story? Could Star Wars indeed become a saga?
Now, with George Lucas distracted by his impending divorce, as well as the founding of his soon to be legendary effects house, ILM, the chance for an actual continuation was born.
Science fiction luminary Leigh Brackett was brought in to flesh out a story from George’s extremely loose notes, with Lawrence Kasden following to work on subsequent drafts when she fell ill. The final pieces of the puzzle fell into place when Irvin Kershner was hired to direct in Lucas’ absence, and Harrison Ford’s suggestions on set–otherwise ignored in George’s presence–were taken seriously.
With the advent of Kershner and Brackett’s far superior the Empire Strikes Back, the Star Wars saga was officially catapulted from young adult science fiction fantasy head first into mature space opera.
Unfortunately, the scripting and direction of its sequel, Return of the Jedi, did not maintain this trend—defaulting to type with a second Death Star, as well as revisiting Luke’s desert planet Tatooine in the first act. George’s rational at the time: Do a better Death Star and “cantina sequence” (this time as Jabba’s palace) than he did the first time, to show how much his effects house had grown.
Apparently, George’s mantra had become effects over story, despite his words to the contrary in many an interview.
This repetition was a detriment to the concept of an actual saga, but by that time the damage was done: Star Wars was forever ingrained in American popular culture.
Empire Strikes Back was indeed the lynchpin that made Star Wars more than a one-hit wonder.
Vader’s transformation from the Empire’s goon/thug into a maniacal calculating menace, Han Solo’s growth from selfish pirate to a man with something worth fighting for, and Luke’s trials and disastrous face off against the Sith Lord all made the saga we know and love today a reality.
Without Empire’s adult attitude, dark themes, complex story, fascinating compositions, and three-dimensional characterizations, Star Wars would likely be forever remembered as a successful curiosity of the summer of 1977, and nothing more.
Instead, it is a cultural phenomenon spanning decades.
And it’s all thanks to a bold new direction in science fiction and fantasy filmmaking, as well as the love of a universe by those other than it’s creator.
Viva la Empire.
Andrew. E. C. Gaska