The Empire Strikes Back made Star Wars “Star Wars”

In a few weeks, fans of the galaxy far, far away will flock to their local cinemas to experience the next installment in the Star Wars saga. The Last Jedi promises to move the story forward in surprising and perhaps even unconventional ways. Writer-Director Rian Johnson has promised a movie that will feel like Star Wars, while also being unlike any Star Wars movie seen before. Here at Cult of Whatever, we scored The Force Awakens a perfect 10/10. That’s a review we stand by, while also acknowledging how hard it is to be objective in the afterglow of a beloved franchise’s successful return. Others have, in the two years since its release, rated The Force Awakens a little more harshly, criticizing the movie’s retro flair and reliance (some might say “over-reliance”) on nostalgia. Whatever your feelings on the nostalgia-laced film (this writer thinks it was the perfect move considering the circumstances), there’s no question we’re in for a very different experience with The Last Jedi.

Anyone going in thinking they’re going to see a retread of The Empire Strikes Back—the greatest Star Wars movie ever—is going to be in for a surprise.

In fact, the only thing that is likely to compare to The Empire Strikes Back is the feeling that audiences in 1980 felt when they sat down to watch the first Star Wars sequel. Back before there was a “saga” or a “franchise,” when there was just Star Wars, audiences had no idea what to expect with “Star Wars 2.” There was no frame of reference. When filmgoers sat in their seats and watched Irvin Kershner’s magnum opus, they watched the movie that made Star Wars the franchise we know today. Without The Empire Strikes Back there would be no Star Wars saga.

Without The Empire Strikes Back there would be no Star Wars.

Take your mind back to 1977. It was an era where movies were grim, gritty, and reflective of the despondent days the United States was dealing with at the time. A movie like “Star Wars” was a revelation. While being made everyone thought it would be a ludicrous flop, a silly B-movie better served at some 1950’s drive-in, to be mocked by greasers in their convertibles.  Coming from the director of American Graffiti, that might have been the prevailing presumption; that Lucas was going for an ode to “bad sci-fi” movies of the by-gone era.

Instead Star Wars tapped into a dormant part of the American cinematic experience: the opportunity to escape from the doldrums of reality and step into a magical and fun-filled world where the troubles of life disappear for a couple hours. Before release, Star Wars was “Lucas’ folly.” After release, it was “the next Wizard of Oz.” It’s plot is laughably easily to distill: Star Wars is about a young farmer, an old wizard and a pirate who team up to rescue a princess, each having their own motive for doing so (the farmer wants adventure, the wizard seeks closure, the pirate covets money).

That’s it. It’s that simple.

Everything that would be expanded on later, such as the force, Darth Vader, the history of the Empire/Emperor, the internal conflict between light and dark, the nature of temptation and selfishness vs loyalty, all the things that would come to define what makes Star Wars “Star Wars” are in movie one only in the most rudimentary ways, and usually only as undeveloped window dressing. The myth that George Lucas had a grand vision for a whole universe, with an intricate and fleshed-out backstory is just that, a myth. But that’s okay; not everything has to be Harry Potter, where every decision and plot-twist is planned out before one word is put to paper. With Star Wars, there was no great vision. There was a scant backstory to help guide Lucas in the writing of the movie, and that’s it. Considering everyone, including Lucas, expected the movie to flop, there was no reason to think about the future on any grand scale.

As a matter of fact, Lucas commissioned Alan Dean Foster to write a “sequel” to Star Wars, which became the novel “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.” The idea was that, in the event of the film’s flop, Lucas could adapt Foster’s story into a low-budget film. But when Star Wars proved not only to be a hit, but the biggest hit ever (at the time), 20th Century Fox expected a sequel, and with it came a story that moved things forward in a bigger and bolder way. With that, Foster’s story was pushed aside and work began on a proper follow-up.

It was here that Lucas first began envisioning a big-picture “franchise” story, that could last beyond just one sequel, but could go to a third movie—perhaps even a fourth or fifth movie—and spin off into books, comic books and beyond. Suddenly the word “saga” was being bandied about, but it would all depend on doing something that should have been nearly-impossible: Catching lightning in a bottle, twice. Star Wars was a smash hit because it offered something refreshing to a weary movie-going public. In the time between 1977 and 1980, James Bond had gone campier, and Superman and Star Trek had launched film franchises; movie were becoming “fun” again and Star Wars was a big motivator in that. The sequel would need to up the ante while also hold on to the crown that the first film had claimed for itself.

So what’s The Empire Strikes Back about? The first Star Wars movie is easily distilled; is the sequel? In a lot of ways it’s more of the same: It’s a coming of age story, but on a more introspective scale than the first. It’s a space opera, swashbuckling adventure as the first one was, but with more romance and drama and emotion beyond the superficial. On the other hand, the movie is vastly different from its predecessor.

Running from the bad guys is like 75% of the movie.

It starts off where the original movie ended (thematically), with a big battle between good and evil, only this time evil wins. Two-thirds of the heroes (and friends) are forced to go on the run…but to what end? Meanwhile the remaining third—Luke—sets off to train as a Jedi…again, to what end? His is a very different story than what Han and Leia are experiencing.

It’s not so easy to lock down the “one” thing the movie is about. Han and Leia’s story is the means to the end of their falling in love. But the story itself is just “we have to hide from the bad guys, so let’s go to see my old buddy and hide until whoops we’ve been captured.” That’s it. That’s all that happens. Meanwhile Luke would have been with them had Obi Wan not spoken from beyond the grave and informed him of a reclusive Jedi master that he must meet. So he goes…but why? Because Obi Wan told him to? In order to train? Yes to both but to what end (in terms of the screenplay)? He never intends to fight Vader until well into his time with Yoda and even then Yoda tries to stop him, implying that’s not something he wants Luke to do. So what’s the original end game? The movie doesn’t address that.

And that’s okay. Because this movie isn’t as two-dimensional as the original film. That movie is external (rescue the princess). This movie is internal (grow up, learn things about yourself). In all the ways a ticket-buyer would want, it was “more Star Wars:” It had more lightsaber action, more space fights, more romance, more humor, more thrills, more scares. It took the throw-away sci-fi mumbo jumbo lines of the first and gave them context and “mythology” that the first one did not. But it presented all that “more” with a healthy dose of “new” as well.

And with a fantastically well-crafted movie in every way (acting, directing, writing, editing, effects), combined with that shocker of a cliff-hanger ending, it ensured fans would be begging for another sequel. And with that, a franchise was born.

Very soon, Star Wars fans will get to experience the next “sequel” in the Star Wars family. Cynical critics of The Force Awakens may fret that it’ll just be “another Empire Strikes Back” but if it does what Empire did even half as well; if it expands the mythology and storylines which started in The Force Awakens, and shifts from the first movie’s action-oriented external focus to a more dramatic, internal focus, we just might have a new “greatest Star Wars movie ever” on our hands.

Here’s to December 14th!

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