The Force Awakens is still everyone’s favorite thing right now, and without the ability to see that movie over and over again, I decided to start re-watching the original movies non-stop, just because I can. Now, I suppose if I am going to review the original movies it would make sense to start with A New Hope, but The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite of the original trilogy. Heck, it’s probably my favorite Star Wars movie ever (though Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens are close contenders), and right now I’m going to tell you why.
The Empire Strikes Back was the hotly anticipated sequel to the first Star Wars movie and was released in 1980. When I first saw this film as a kid I was captivated. While A New Hope certainly captured my attention and imagination, The Empire Strikes Back sealed the deal for me as a lifelong Star Wars fan. Probably the biggest reason for being obsessed with this movie is that this is the first movie I ever saw where the bad guys won. You have to understand, I was at the age where I still loved Disney movies (still do), but I was starting to get bored with their predictability. Some princess falls in love with some prince or something, there is some evil villain who tries to stop them who is ultimately defeated, and they all live happily ever after. Blah blah blah; it was the same old story, and I was getting so tired of it that I was starting to secretly cheer for the bad guy because I started seeing them as the underdog.
I knew there were three Star Wars movies and just figured that Vader and the Emperor would prove to be incompetent villains who lose at the end of every movie. Imagine my shock when the movie ended with Han Solo frozen in carbonite and shipped off to Jabba the Hutt; Luke getting his hand cut off and learning the shocking truth about his dad; Cloud City being taken over by the Empire, and our heroes only barely making it out alive. I was amazed. Suddenly the stakes were higher, all bets were off—what if this trilogy ended with the bad guys winning? I was finally introduced to villains who were a real threat and knew how to handle their business.
Empire Strikes Back is also where I met the amazing Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams. I adore Lando, and while I know some people thought Lando was weak for betraying Han, most Star Wars fans know that’s bullshit. Imagine this: you are a normal person with no Jedi abilities and no rebel army behind you, you’re just a normal guy trying to run a city and keep the people there safe. Your list of skills include being a good pilot, a great administrator, and an amazing gambler, and then Darth Vader shows up at your door, demanding you betray your best friend or he is going to destroy you, take over Cloud City, and then probably kill your bestie anyway. What do you do? You lie, play your cards close to your chest, try to mitigate the damage, and betray Vader when the moment is right. From the get go, Lando tries to warn Han away. Remember, the guards at Cloud City tried repeatedly to deny Han entrance, but Han kept pushing and got in. Throughout the movie, Lando tries to do everything he can to help someone. Whether it’s his friends or the people in his city. Probably Lando’s only flaw in this is thinking he can beat Vader, but of course Vader keeps changing their deal. Vader keeps cheating and eventually Lando realizes he can’t win so he bails. He calls his guards at the right moment and sets a plan in motion to free Leia and Chewbacca, warn his people out of Cloud City, and attempts to save Han, though that last part fails. Seriously, Lando makes my little Slytherin heart swoon. He’s so smart, devious, and cunning, but has a good heart and cares deeply about people. Lando was an amazing character and a great addition to the movies. I certainly hope something of Lando is at least mentioned in the new trilogy. I’m totally on board for Lando having a daughter who joins up with our new trio. Abrams, or whoever is running the next Star Wars movie now, please give us this!
The romance in Empire Strikes Back is another one of the things that just makes this movie for me. It’s safe to say that this movie affected the kind of romance I wanted in my real life and in my media. Again, at this point Disney was largely love at first sight crap (except for movies like Beauty and the Beast, which was my favorite. You can probably see a pattern here). I loved the sexual tension between Leia and Han, and loved how they argued constantly but still cared about each other. It set my heart a-flutter and probably set the tone for every other pairing I shipped afterward.
And finally there was the big reveal: Darth Vader is Luke’s father! Ahhh! What a shocker! Okay, so I don’t remember the impact of this reveal being as shocking to me at the time, probably because I heard the adults in my life who had seen the movie mention it already. But what always stuck with me, honestly, was how much Luke and Vader loved each other from the beginning. Yes, Vader still does horrible things to Luke in this movie—he’s not a good person—but it’s clear he cares about Luke even if he’s still a bad guy. The Emperor wants Luke killed, but Vader insists that Luke can be turned. The Emperor accepts this, and demands Luke to be turned or killed, and Vader seems okay with that, but the minute they start fighting in Cloud City, it’s clear Vader has no intention of killing Luke no matter what. He seems to hold back at least a little bit with the barely trained Luke, and makes it clear to Luke, after he reveals who he is, that he has his own motives. Vader doesn’t want to kill Luke. He wants him to join with him and help kill the Emperor.
Luke, for his part, is at first angry and pissed, but then becomes upset when he hears that Vader is his father. However, after being rescued by Lando and Leia, we see Luke’s thought process start to switch from despair to love. He’s upset with Obi-Wan for not telling him that Vader is his father, probably because Luke never would have gone into their battle intending to kill Vader if he did. He feels tricked into being pitted against the man he always wanted in his life. When Vader uses the Force to call to Luke and asks him to come to him, Luke responds by calling him “father”. The denial stage is immediately over—Luke already cares about Vader and wants to help his father. He now regrets any hatred he might have felt for Vader and instead just feels sorry for him and committed to helping him. We know at the end of Empire Strikes Back that the gang is already starting to plan a way to save Han, but it’s likely that Luke was also working through what he should do about Vader. It’s very clear by the time we get to Return of the Jedi that Luke has no intention of killing his dad, but seems reluctant to face him, perhaps because he’s unsure if he can save him. This relationship really brings a fantastic amount of complexity to both Luke and Vader’s characters that were otherwise pretty stereotypical in the first movie.
The Empire Strikes Back will always be one of my favorite movies and certainly set the bar high when it came to what I looked for in a movie. What’s your favorite Star Wars movie? Let me know in the comments.