Ah, it’s nice to be back to the good stuff, isn’t it? Even though all I can find are the garbage redone George Lucas meddlin’ redos, the original Star Wars trilogy is just a joy to watch for me. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen The Empire Strikes Back – enough that the title has lost all its ridiculousness, despite the fact it sounds like a bad translation of one of the Shakespeare Richard series titles.
This is the movie that kicked off the very notion of the dark chapter two of a series – something Marvel has taken on consistently with varied success, and that DC have attempted with, uh, no success at all. After all, A New Hope, which, while it does have some heart-wrenching moments, really is just a rollicking space adventure about a Tatooine farm twink and no despite no small amount of protest I am not going to stop referring to Luke in those terms because it is the most succinct descriptor I have ever thought of in my life. But Empire? Empire is about the nuts and bolts of the rebellion, it’s about how fate and history can mount up to undo a person, and, uh, about how Harrison Ford’s Han can’t take no for an answer.
Look, I’m sure you’ve all seen the excellent Pop Culture Detective video on Empire by now, but I would feel amiss if I didn’t address this at least a little. Empire is where the romance between Han and Leia really starts to take shape, and it’s…a fucking mess, really. Ford and Fisher have so much damn chemistry (thanks to some nudge-nudge behind-the-scenes dalliance, no doubt) that it’s almost easy to ignore the fact that Han repeatedly and pointedly ignores her physical and verbal dismissal of him, because he knows that she really wants him. Oh, and what do you know? She does. Look, I know this is a film of its time, but I’m a critic of mine, and as a human somewhat-female, this is a really nasty and dangerous message to put out there; that women say no when they mean yes, and it’s up to the men to coax that yes out of them because they know better. No means no, Solo, no matter how fast you did the Kessel run in, you fucker.
Anyway. My favourite part of Empire, without a shadow of a doubt, is everything it does to take Luke a few steps further on his journey to the mighty Jedi master that he would become. So much of his plot in this movie has the feel of a horror movie – from the visions on Dagobah, to the superb and frenzied stalk-and-slash lightsabre battle with Vader in Cloud City, this is Dark Luke in his prime and I just love it. The past he didn’t even know about and the fate that he doesn’t much seem to want hang heavy over this movie, especially when you have the rest of the series with which to contextualize the enormity of that weight. Even the direction of his story is murky, all overgrown swampland and survival-horror lighting; it feels heavier than the bright, light Tatooine plot that dominated much of his New Hope storyline.
But there’s more to Empire than just Luke’s very satisfying arc, which would honestly be enough to fill out a relatively weighty ninety minutes by itself. The iconic (and still gorgeous) early battle sequence on Hoth brings the rebellion and their battle against fascism down to frighteningly intimate ground level. It’s bleak, cold, hard, unforgiving, and to survive, our heroes must think outside the box to take down the literal and metaphorical enormity of the Empire’s attack. Seeing Leia in action here, the military mind and dedicated leader when she’s not swatting Han Solo away with a cattle prod, is truly a gift, and a reminder of just why she is such an iconic character for so many women (including me): she is (for the most part) commanding and respected, headstrong but not arrogant, and willing to work for the best of the people around her.
Empire, for better and for worse, is the dark second chapter to the original trilogy, and, for many people, the best. Honestly, that’s not a conclusion I would argue with. For all the capital-P problematic Han shit, Empire is the movie with the most meat: Luke’s classic and compelling arc, the rebellion’s battles against the increasing odds of the Empire, the gorgeous expansion of the universe (including Lando Calrissian and Cloud City) – The Empire Strikes back, as well as being an excellent example of how to up the stakes and lean in to the characters you’ve already introduced, feels like a true chance to explore more of this universe. And, with a cinematic world as varied and striking and fascinating as this one, what more could you ask for but that?
If you enjoyed this article and want to see more stuff like it, please check out our other cinematic universe retrospective – for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Jurassic Park movies, and the Batman cinematic universe. You can check out more of my work on my personal blog, The Cutprice Guignol!
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Mic)