The Empire Strikes Back: The Jewel in the Star Wars Crown

Bounty hunters, blizzards and betrayal. The Empire Strikes Back had it all. To mark the 40th anniversary of its release, Rebel Briefing’s Anthony Murphy celebrates his favourite film of the Star Wars Saga.

My love for Star Wars began in 1980 with The Empire Strikes Back. I was lucky to see A New Hope and Empire together as a double feature at my local cinema. I was four years old.

Reconstructing those hazy memories from a long, long time ago is tricky. But one thing is for sure – the impact of those movies, especially Empire, never left me.

Maybe it was seeing the ice planet Hoth for the first time, falling in love with the magical Yoda, or that shocking ending. Graphically and culturally speaking, Empire was stamped onto the canvas of my young imagination.

Decades later it remains my favourite film. But why? With all the magical movies in the Saga, why is The Empire Strikes Back (for me at least) still the jewel in the Star Wars crown? 

Pushing the Limits

It’s because Empire is the peak of quality. It goes beyond being one of the best Star Wars films; it’s one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy movies ever made.

In his sequel, George Lucas boldly pushed the limits of storytelling and special effects. It could easily have been a rehash of the tropes and themes of the bright and bombastic original. Instead, it’s a darker, more mature tale. Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, Lawrence Kasdan and Lucasfilm ramped up the stakes, giving fans a new way of looking at the Star Wars universe. 

Movie Magic

Without a doubt, Yoda is the star of the show. The green sprite is central to the dramatic and spiritual development of the story, especially Luke’s education in the Force. Through him, we discover more about its power and the Jedi code.

Yoda’s lessons are spectacular and awe-inspiring. Seeing him lift Luke’s X-Wing out of the Dagobah swamp, and hearing him explain the Force – “Its energy surrounds us and binds us” – is pure movie magic.

For me, Yoda speaks the best line in the Saga: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” he says. From a spiritual point of view, it’s the purest description of the Force. This knowledge is a source of comfort to all those who have suffered loss or grief.

The Dark Side

And then there’s Darth Vader. The cybernetic Sith Lord is the antithesis of the organic and mystical Yoda.

In Empire, the dark side of the Force is everywhere. We see more of Vader’s skills and we meet the Emperor via hologram. We also catch a brief glimpse of what’s under Vader’s helmet. Remember Luke’s failure at the cave on Dagobah, too.

During his pursuit of Luke and his friends, Vader ruthlessly kills incompetent Imperial officers, unleashes dangerous bounty hunters on our heroes (Boba Fett – the coolest dude in the galaxy) and tortures Han Solo. We were shocked as Luke received the beating of his life at his hands.

With those four words (“I am your father”) we learned there was more to Vader than the pitch-black armour. We discovered he was once Anakin Skywalker, and he is humanised by his connection to Luke.

Because of that emotional climax, The Empire Strikes Back became more than just a story about good versus evil. Vader’s betrayal reduced the conflict to a human level, setting father against son. For Luke (and the fans), things were never the same again.

Moral Victory

As Vader’s son, Luke’s character became richer and more complex as a result. In the blink of an eye, he changed from naive idealist to scion of the (second) most evil man in the galaxy. From that point, fans accepted that Luke carried the dark side within himself. 

Despite his grim reality, Luke remains my Star Wars hero. Rather than surrender to the dark side, he chose an almost certain death to preserve his honour. By jumping into the abyss below Cloud City, not only did he surrender the last remnant of his innocence, he won a vital moral victory over Vader and the dark side. 

Empire’s immense last act launched the final stage (as it was back in the ’80s) of the Star Wars Saga. More than that, it set up Vader’s redemption in Return of the Jedi, and the eventual reconciliation between father and son. It was a new and modern mythology I totally bought into.

The Circle is Now Complete

From experiencing The Empire Strikes Back for the first time as a wide-eyed child with my family to collecting the toys and re-watching the movie on video at home (Special Edition included!), my appreciation and love for the film is just as strong and powerful 40 years on. After all, I have grown up with it. 

I learned life lessons from it – sometimes the bad guys win – and incorporated Yoda’s wisdom into my worldview. Because of Empire, I love movies, photography, design, writing and storytelling. 

Today I’m a proud dad to a four-year-old boy, and tonight we’ll sit down and watch The Empire Strikes Back together for the first time… as father and son. The circle is now complete.

A Saga Out of Balance

It’s a wrap! After 42 years and nine movies, the generation-spanning Skywalker Saga has come to an end. Is The Rise of Skywalker a fitting finale? To quote Obi-Wan one last time, it all depends on a certain point of view.

In a nutshell, fans of The Last Jedi will loathe it, while haters of Rian Johnson’s fandom splitting Episode 8 will love it.

And therein lies the problem – we were given three different films written and directed by two vastly different filmmakers.

Sadly both The Rise of Skywalker and the sequel trilogy suffer because of it.

Rebel Briefing will probably receive a one-way ticket to the Spice Mines of Kessel for saying this, but the trilogy missed the influence of George Lucas or someone of his stature.

With no creative deity overseeing production, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker are a mishmash of story ideas. It’s clear Disney did not have a game plan for the trilogy.

Blasters to Stun

Before you set your blasters to stun (or worse), the original trilogy (OT) gets a pass.

Yes, you can argue Lucas did not have the OT mapped out from the beginning, but he did have a vision. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were based on stories by him – Luke Skywalker learning to become a Jedi to defeat the Empire and redeem his father.

It doesn’t matter that Empire and Jedi were made by different directors, Lucas, The Maker, was in charge. He was the constant. Because of this, the trilogy felt cohesive.

It’s the same with the prequels.

Like the Emperor, Lucas exercised total control over his universe. In true auteur style, he handled every creative aspect of production.

Again he knew the story he wanted to tell: how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, and how the Empire rose to power.

Love or loathe them, there’s no denying the prequel trilogy had a coherent and cohesive story arc.

The films gave fans new stories that expanded the Star Wars galaxy.

In contrast, the sequel trilogy feels thrown together and not uniquely original.

The Force Awakens borrows heavily from A New Hope, and The Last Jedi is The Empire Strikes Back.

The Rise of Skywalker takes us on a lightspeed journey of story and plot corrections that bring us back to the same place in Return of the Jedi, with our heroes killing Palpatine at the end.

No Jedi Master

With no visionary Jedi Master overseeing production on the sequels, JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson had the freedom to write what they wanted.

As a result, the trilogy never seems to know where it’s going.

Abrams may have had a plan for what came after The Force Awakens, but he surrendered it when he handed the baton to Johnson on The Last Jedi.

Johnson even admits there was no story map given to him beyond the first instalment and that he was allowed to take the story in a new direction. As a consequence, his brave efforts to write and direct a different kind of Star Wars film subverted what Abrams established in The Force Awakens.

For many, he changed the story too dramatically…

Perhaps Abrams (or someone else) should have mapped the trilogy from beginning to end before handing it to other filmmakers.

We know George Lucas had an outline for the new trilogy before he sold it to Disney. It’s intriguing to wonder where he would have taken the story.

Return of the Sith

In The Force Awakens, Abrams treated us to his mystery box of puzzles – who are Rey’s parents, and who is Snoke?

These mysteries were answered by Johnson in The Last Jedi, leaving Abrams nowhere to go in the final film. He was painted into a corner.

As a consequence, and to possibly appease to fan anger, he walked back much of Johnson’s work.

The best example is the question of Rey’s parentage, which was laid to rest in The Last Jedi.

Instead of being a nobody from nowhere, we are told Rey is the granddaughter of the Emperor. This is despite there being no allusion to the presence of Palpatine in the previous films.

Admitting he was hamstrung by the killing of Snoke, Abrams says he had no better choice but to bring Palpatine back.

Why not make Kylo Ren the supreme villain of the trilogy? So much for a coherent plan from the beginning.

This is a shame because, at the end of The Last Jedi, we are told bloodline didn’t matter. It implied that the Force isn’t just the domain of a few notable and noble families, but a power able to manifest itself within anyone, from the lowest stable boy to a lonely desert scavenger.

What’s more, Palpatine’s return reduces the sacrifice Anakin Skywalker made at the end of Return of the Jedi.

After all, the previous two trilogies were about the rise and fall of Anakin.

Most annoying of all, his contribution was reduced to a single (off-screen) ethereal line.

The Safe Zone

For many, The Rise of Skywalker was a welcome relief after the shocks and revelations of Episode 8.

But by returning to the safe zone established in The Force Awakens (coupled with the return of Palpatine), the trilogy takes a step backwards rather than a giant leap forward. It goes back to a place of thematic and emotional safety. There’s a frustrating lack of imagination – The Rise of Skywalker feels like an attempt to correct what went before.

What we are left with is a trilogy that does not connect with the previous two. Because of this, the Skywalker Saga feels out of balance.