Retrospective Review: The Empire Strikes Back by Dom Nardi
In preparation for The Force Awakens, I’m rewatching all six Star Wars films and sharing my thoughts here. This week, I look at The Empire Strikes Back, widely regarded as the best film in the series…
There are many, many reasons why The Empire Strikes Back ranks as my favorite Star Wars film, from the wonderful character moments to the exciting chase scenes. As I rewatch the film, I’m truly impressed by how well everything fits together. George Lucas, Director Irvin Kershner, and Producer Gary Kurtz must have really put some thought into every aspect of the film. Everything on the screen—from the setting to the color palette—reinforces and enhances the movie’s core themes. Like a classic work of literature, you can peel back the layers and find deeper meanings.
The very location of the film’s opening scene tells us so much about the story and the state of the main characters. The Rebels built a new base on the ice planet Hoth. The freezing weather suggests stasis or a lack of growth, and that’s exactly where we find the characters. The Rebellion is on the run, struggling to survive. Luke hasn’t progressed much since A New Hope. He’s still a pilot for the Rebels and hasn’t yet left to begun his Jedi training in earnest. He barely managed to use the Force to retrieve his lightsaber in the Wampa cave. Han Solo and Leia Organa are still bickering, unable and unwilling to lower the emotional barriers they have erected against any sort of intimacy. In short, they are all frozen.
After the Imperials invade Hoth, the Rebels flee the ice planet. This forces the characters to develop and grow. Han, Leia, C-3PO, and Chewbacca fly into a nearby asteroid belt. There are no walls in space, nowhere for Han and Leia to hide from each other. Confined to the Millennium Falcon, they are forced to confront their emotions for each other. Notice to where their relationship truly blossoms. In order to evade the Star Destroyers, Han flies into a cave, which unbeknownst to him is actually the mouth of a giant space slug. It is in the womb of this beast that Han and Leia first kiss. Both characters undergo dramatic change from this point on. It is as if they have undergone a symbolic rebirth inside the belly of the beast.
Meanwhile, Luke goes to the swamp planet Dagobah. In mythology, forests were often places of wonder, but also of danger. Dagobah captures this dual nature of forests perfectly. It’s a dark and gloomy world, but also one filled with the lushness of life. Like the forest itself, Dagobah also reveals the dualism in Luke’s character. Luke’s knowledge and skills grow tremendously under Yoda’s tutelage. He becomes a more mature character. At the same time, it’s also the site of Luke’s darkest moment. Luke ventures into a cave and ignores Yoda’s warning to leave his weapons behind. Inside, Luke encounters a phantasm resembling Darth Vader. When he cuts off the ghost’s head, the mask comes off to reveal Luke’s face. In that moment, Luke realizes that he has the potential for darkness within him; if he follows his aggressive instincts, he could become the next Vader.
The Milennium Falcon eventually seeks refuge in Cloud City, now run by Han’s old friend, Lando Calrissian. The very idea of a city in the clouds evokes the fantastical and seems like something out of a dream. It’s as if the heroes had made their way to heaven. It doesn’t seem real. And indeed, it isn’t, in more ways than one. Cloud City does not provide the heroes with refuge. Soon after their arrival, Stormtroopers shoot C-3PO. Later, Lando betrays Han to Darth Vader and the bounty hunter Boba Fett. Likewise, Luke sees his friends in Cloud City in a vision and goes to rescue him. However, his rescue attempt proves equally ephemeral as he falls into a trap set by Darth Vader.
When the dream becomes a nightmare, the Imperials bring the heroes into the Carbon freezing chamber to put Han into hibernation so Boba Fett can deliver him to Jabba the Hutt. The room is dark and filled with vapors, lit in orange. There are no windows so it’s impossible to see the clouds outside that represented the dream of Cloud City. It looks like the characters are descending into hell, which in a way they are. It’s also interesting that, as with the biblical hell, the primary threat isn’t death but rather losing oneself. There’s never really any sense that the main characters might die. Han faces the prospect of freezing, the same threat he faced when stranded on the plains of Hoth. In hibernation, For Luke, the main threat is that, in fighting Vader out of aggression, he will succumb to the Dark Side. For both characters, there is a real risk that they will lose sight of the lessons learned earlier in the film.
The film ends with Luke, Leia, and the droids looking out the window of a medical frigate. The Rebels are now hiding outside the galaxy. All they can see from the window is a vast spiral galaxy and the blackness of space. The emptiness mirrors the desperate straights of the Rebellion after its defeat on Hoth. The Rebels have nowhere else to go. Yet, the ending of The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t come across as bleak. In fact, it’s reassuring. The spiral galaxy in the middle window shines brightly amidst in the darkness of space. Likewise, as desperate as things seem for the Rebellion, there’s always glimmer of hope. Everybody has survived, more or less. Lando and Chewie are already devising a plan to rescue Han. The struggle for freedom goes on.
A REMINDER that Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in theaters December 18th.
Dom Nardi is the Contributing Writer for Star Wars at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.