There are very few films that I will give a “perfect” rating to.
The Empire Strikes Back is one of them.
As the original Star Wars was a definition of “The Hero’s Journey”, Empire is the dark second act in the narrative structure. Things were nicely tied up in the original film. Good triumphed over evil. The planet killing Death Star was destroyed, and Darth Vader was sent hurtling off into the depths of space. Of course the Rebels would need to relocate their base to a more secure location, but they would be safe there, wouldn’t they?
The heroes never catch a break in this film.
From Luke’s attack from the yeti-like Wampa creature, to Han’s risky rescue mission to save his friend, there is immediate danger. Luke’s wounds barely have time to heal when the Empire discovers their hidden base and launches an all-out attack on them. From the start, viewers are treated to an epic battle with little time to breathe, coupled with an invasion that forces Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO to flee in the still under repair Millennium Falcon.
Luke, however, has his own journey. Being inexperienced in the Force (and at the urging of a spectral Obi-Wan Kenobi), Luke must go on his own solo spiritual quest in order to find a way to control the power within him, and help establish freedom for the galaxy.
Han and Leia’s path is pure escape from an ever relentless Empire, while coming to terms with their own growing feelings for each other. The sarcastic and stubborn Han is frequently at odds with the strong-willed Leia, neither willing to give ground or take their first step in revealing their feelings for each other. Unlike Anakin and Padme, their romance is interesting.
Luke and R2-D2 crash onto the swamp planet of Dagobah to fulfill Luke’s destiny, where they meet Yoda. As with Anakin before, Yoda senses impatience and lack of control within Luke, and while reluctant to train him, Yoda realizes the boy is the best chance to overthrow Palpatine.
Both paths are ones of self-discovery. Han and Leia’s path finds them at the hospitality of Lando Calrissian, the charming smuggler/con artist turned administrator of Bespin’s Cloud City. Having no choice but to trust Lando, they find that trust immediately compromised as they are captured and tortured by Darth Vader and bounty hunter Boba Fett (now grown up, and having gotten over his need to laugh evilly at everything).
On Dagobah, Luke wants to learn the lessons and become a Jedi as fast as possible, resulting in a vision of him fighting a spectral version of Darth Vader. Luke quickly finds that if he chooses the fast and easy path to power as Vader did, then his fate will become the same as his most hated foe.
However, after having mastered a level of his power, he sees his friends in trouble. Despite Yoda and Obi-Wan’s urgings that he now has access, but not mastery to the Force’s power, his will be ineffective and a danger to himself and others. Luke goes anyway, proving that even years later, no one ever listens to Yoda.
I can only imagine Yoda’s frustration:
Yoda: “This thing, you must not do.”
Everyone: “I’m going to do the thing!”
Yoda *sighs*: “The worst, you just are.”
The third act of this film is my favorite part. Between Han’s being frozen in Carbonite, the final reveal of Han and Leia’s love for each other (even at the end, Han can’t help but snark), Lando’s table turn of the Empire, rescuing, assisting, and escaping with the remaining Rebels…. Everything is fast-paced and beautifully synced with John Williams’ incredible score, which perfectly frames the emotional wringer the heroes go through. In addition to being my favorite movie, the Empire soundtrack is also my favorite of the Star Wars films, as every track reflects the action and drama the characters face.
Luke however, finally achieves his goal of meeting up with Darth Vader for battle, but physically, emotionally, and psychologically, he is woefully unprepared and out of his league. As deep as the wounds are that have been inflicted upon Luke during this battle (including the loss of his hand), nothing damages him more than two simple truths: His worst enemy is the father that he always wanted to know, and Obi-Wan had lied to him. About everything.
Choosing apparent suicide over joining his father, one more race against time is held as Leia “hears” Luke’s summoning for help. Lando rescues Luke at the last second, and at the most bleak moment yet for the heroes, R2-D2 comes to the rescue, allowing the Millennium Falcon a chance once more a chance to escape the Empire’s grasp.
The Empire Strikes Back is a film where the heroes do not ever claim a victory. From beginning to end, it is a race for survival, either by constantly having to stay one step ahead of their enemy, or learning just enough skills to manage the challenges put before them. The heroes limp away scarred, tortured, damaged, and broken. Only their resolve at their end to save their friend from Jabba the Hutt provides any potential of hope.
True, I can gush how much I love the planets in this film, or the new characters of Lando, Yoda, and Boba Fett. Or the fact that I have a selection of old Empire toys in my office. And I do like those things. The special effects and designs are incredible for this film. Everything comes together so well for this film. The Special Edition version changes very little. Even Lucas knew to leave well enough alone.
But it’s not the darkness of this film that appeals to me. It’s the bonds of friendship that the heroes have for each other that constantly has them risk their lives to protect each other, no matter how terrible the situation. Luke’s motives aren’t blinded by selfishness. It’s love. Han is no longer a mercenary. Leia allows herself to be vulnerable for a moment in a war that constantly takes from her. Chewbacca and the droids remain as loyal as ever. It’s a character study of loyalty and how to persevere when at one’s lowest.
Even in the darkest of times, one can still find inspiration.