Complex Design in <I>The Empire Strikes Back</I>

Published in Film Criticism 5.3 (Spring 1981) pp. 38-52. [Typos in the original print copy, which was non-proofread, have been corrected here.] Copyrighted.

Complex Design in The Empire Strikes Back

Anne Lancashire
Professor of English
University of Toronto

George Lucas' 1977 Star Wars, now retitled A New Hope (Episode 4, though the first episode made, of the projected three-trilogy, nine-film Star Wars opus), has won a good deal of acclaim over the past four years from general moviegoers, reviewers, and critics alike. A record-breaking commercial success, the film has been praised for many and various reasons: as, for example, a purely exciting and satisfying narrative entertainment, a marvel of special effects technology, an affectionate and amused recycling of older movies, a traditional epic quest, and a serious mythological treatment of man's aspirations and potential. In spite of some dissenting voices, a consensus seems to be emerging. Star Wars 4, no simple adventure fantasy, repays at least some kinds of serious critical attention (1).

The Empire Strikes Back, 1980 sequel (directed by Irvin Kershner) to Star Wars 4 -- or to A New Hope, as we should now call it -- has been thus far, like its predecessor, a great box office success. Critical reaction, however, has been far more mixed than with A New Hope. Like A New Hope, Empire (Star Wars Episode 5) has been praised in a variety of ways: as, for example, pure entertainment, technological wizardry, and serious (though dissenters would say pretentious) epic and mythology (2). But as a film with a clearly unfinished narrative plot line, Empire has also raised the question: is the movie, in the end, essentially very much more than what one reviewer has called a "bridging segment" (3) -- the incomplete narrative middle of the trilogy beginning with A New Hope and planned to end with Empire's own sequel, Star Wars Episode 6, due in 1983? A recent attack on Empire by Denis Wood in the Spring 1981 issue of Film Quarterly raises a related problem: exactly how does Empire make use of its popular predecessor? Wood, a fervent admirer of A New Hope, sees in Empire a number of similarities in incident and in structure to the earlier film, and argues that Empire is essentially a remake of the 1977 movie, with no new imaginative purpose of its own (4).

In fact, Empire is neither mere bridging segment nor remake. Wood is on the right track in recognizing close narrative and structural connections between Empire and A New Hope, but he misses the two main points: that Empire moves on from A New Hope into its own structural and thematic design, and that the similarities between Empire and A New Hope, always involving significant differences between the films as well, are part of an encompassing, imaginative plan highlighting developments in theme between the two Star Wars episodes. Individual complexity of design is demonstrably present in Empire alone, and, looking back, we can also see careful interconnections between Empire and A New Hope, as Empire both develops from the 1977 film and also retrospectively affects our view of it. We are faced in Empire with an exciting new kind of serial film: not a plot-centered episode in a purely linear series but a thoughtful work at once independently complex and part of an organic serial plan. To understand the film, we need to look first very briefly at A New Hope, then in detail at Empire, and finally at the two episodes together.

The 1977 A New Hope is a magnificent (though violent) romp, a child's galaxy of adventure and a breezy epic quest in which the action moves with metaphoric suggestiveness from desert wasteland to green jungle world. The film centers on the young Luke Skywalker, a frustrated farm boy on the desert planet of Tatooine, who almost in spite of himself acquires new friends and, with their aid, eventually becomes a hero of the virtuous Rebel struggle against the evil Galactic Empire. The plot develops mainly through exciting pursuits and escapes, and is basically single, focusing on Luke. Characterization is subordinated to action, and events move at a fast pace from one battle to another, to the climax of clear good victorious over clear evil. The basic theme, without the addition of Empire, seems to be morally positive and clear cut: the importance in life -- as Luke discovers -- of idealism, heroic action, and friendship. Friendship and loyalty (of both humans and robots) are of key significance. Even considering the interest of both Luke and Han Solo in Princess Leia, camaraderie rules rather than romance.

The Empire Strikes Back is, however, as reviewers have pointed out, a very different film (though also packed with adventure and suspense) from the exuberant and optimistic A New Hope; and Empire builds with complexity upon the foundations of the earlier, thematically more straightforward movie. Picking up the story shortly after the end of the 1977 film, Empire generally deals not with positive heroic action, new friendship, and good triumphant over evil, but with human fallibility and suffering, betrayal, and the partial ascendancy of evil over good. Characterization is deeper than in A New Hope; events are darker and harder to understand. And, in keeping with the growing moral complexity of the universe as we now perceive it, the plot of Empire becomes markedly double. For the first thirty-five minutes, Empire's three main "good" characters -- Luke, Han, and Leia -- are together on the ice planet Hoth, but after initial sequences involving a snow monster and then a battle between Rebel forces and invading Imperial troops, the action divides into two. Luke sets off in secret for the Dagobah planetary system, to be trained as a Jedi knight (a defender of the right) in the use of the Force (a kind of energy field generated by and surrounding all living things, and giving enormous power for good or for evil to anyone with the training and stamina to tap it). Meanwhile Han saves Leia from the Imperial invaders by speeding her away from Hoth in his spaceship, the Millenium Falcon, which is at once pursued by Imperial spacecraft in a chase sequence that lasts through the whole central portion of the film. Empire cuts back and forth for about an hour between these two separate actions, and we accordingly see the difficult progress of Luke's training set beside the equally difficult progress of a romantic relationship between Leia and Han. The thematic and structural design of Empire is best seen initially in the relationship between the film's two plot lines, which is handled with considerable subtlety of detail.

The main plot of Empire is the more serious, "philosophical" action: Luke on Dagobah is trained physically and mentally in the use of the Force by a kind of Zen master (5), the gnome-like Yoda, who is given to wise and pithy statements about the general nature of evil (the Dark Side) and of good, and about the necessity for rising above one's emotions and controlling the Force both within oneself and without. As was noted very generally in Time magazine when Empire was first released (6), the thematic movement here is deliberately a traditional, mythological one (taken to a halfway point): the education of the developing epic hero in self-knowledge and understanding. The detail of the thematic presentation is carefully worked out. On Dagobah, a primal world of swamps, mists, and reptiles, Luke is told that he must unlearn what he has learned to this point in his life, must make a new beginning in this new world without technology but with (markedly unlike Hoth) "massive life-form readings" (7). The thematic key to what is happening here lies in the magic tree-cave sequence -- an abstract, symbolic action like nothing in the earlier A New Hope and which, linked in detail with a later sequence in the film, forces us to think about Empire in ways in which we did not think about its predecessor. Luke, simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the ominous cave of the Dark Side of the Force, meets within it what seems to be the figure of his feared enemy Darth Vader, chief Imperial leader against the Rebels. Luke promptly draws his light saber and, as aggressor, attacks the figure (8). In the short, dream-like duel following, Luke easily strikes off the figure's helmeted head. The helmet falls to the ground -- and splits open to reveal to Luke his own face. The symbolism is clear: the boy Luke, who until now, childlike, has thought of evil as something outside himself, is now beginning to recognize that evil comes from within, that every human being, including himself, contains the potential (or force) for evil (through emotions such as fear, anger, and hatred) as well as for good (through idealism, love, and faith) (9). The evil which Luke meets in the magic tree-cave -- which he takes there with him, symbolized in the weapons Yoda had advised him to leave behind -- is his own emotional dark side, which will destroy him if he does not learn through patience to control it. And, to this point in his training, he has not yet learned patience, perseverance, and control. Luke is now slowly learning, as the film visually suggests, that the difference between Yoda's welcoming house (under tree roots, with harmless snakes) and the magic tree-cave (also beneath tree roots, with an entrance visually similar to that of Yoda's house, but menacing and inhabited by threatening reptiles) lies within the human self.

Luke's learning about his own potential for evil culminates in a parallel duel to the magic tree-cave encounter: a traditional, three-phase epic duel with the real Darth Vader on Bespin, a City in the Clouds where the two plot strands come together again in a dark climax. Han and Leia travel to Bespin in an attempt to find a safe port for repairs to the Falcon. Luke travels there because he has had a vision, through the Force, of Han and Leia in pain and near death. Bespin is in fact a trap for all three characters. Vader has arranged for Han and Leia to be betrayed and tortured there, hoping to entice Luke to their aid, then to defeat him and convert him to the Imperial forces of evil.

As in the magic tree-cave episode, Luke goes to Bespin with good intentions but seeking out evil, in part attracted by it (through his anger, impatience, and recklessness) and attacking it before coming to real understanding of it. When he meets Vader on Bespin, as in the tree-cave episode Luke aggressively draws his light saber first, and, as Vader tempts him to do, he releases his hatred and anger in the fight. Accordingly, as in the tree-cave, Luke is driven to his own near-destruction: to the loss of his right hand (with his Jedi father's light saber -- the defensive weapon of virtue); to a deliberate plunge from Vader (a movement literally and symbolically downward) to the bottom of Cloud City; and finally to the whispered acknowledgment ("Father") of his spiritual kinship with the Dark Lord who in the course of their duel has claimed Luke as his son and who has spoken to Luke across space, through telepathy, here emblematic of the dark affinity between them. Luke is being forced, more strongly than on Dagobah, to recognize in Vader the evil within himself. Empire is not, however, a bleak film. Luke in the end is saved -- though not without loss -- by an even stronger affinity with good. Through telepathy again, Luke brings Leia to rescue him from the bottom of Cloud City, and his robot sidekick R2-D2 at the last moment effects a repair to the Falcon which enables Leia and crew to speed Luke away from Vader's power. Luke's light and dark sides are thus simultaneously displayed, and the good guys, for the moment, triumph, though only through the persistence of Luke's friends and only at enormous personal cost to Luke himself.

The Luke plot of Empire is philosophically based in part on the teachings of Zen and of basic Christianity (10), as well as on other philosophies and religions emphasizing human duality. By the end of the film, Luke is moving, through suffering, towards a mature understanding of the power, seductiveness, and location of evil -- combined with good -- within the human self, and also of the power of friendship. But despite his new-won understanding, we may well wonder at the film's deliberately ambiguous ending whether Luke was after all correct in traveling to Bespin to aid Han and Leia. Empire is not a film with a simple message about heroism, friendship, or any other such quality; instead, it poses difficult questions. On Dagobah, where he has his vision of his friends' pain and determines to go to their aid, Luke is advised by his teachers not to go but instead to remain with them to complete his Jedi training, for the sake of the cause his friends also serve. Luke is briefly torn as to whether he should stay or should go, and by the film's ending we see not only that he has himself suffered considerable injury but also that he seems in fact to have harmed rather than helped his friends. Han has been deep-frozen on Luke's approach to Bespin, in a test of the carbon-freezing unit which Vader wishes to use next on Luke; Leia, in her love for Han, has suffered through Han's suffering. And the Rebel cause has been -- at least temporarily -- forgotten.

Should Luke have gone to Bespin? Certainly he learns much there, and the emotional pull of the film is towards the rightness, or at least the inevitability, of Luke's trip. Luke's attempt to save Han and Leia, against the advice of both Yoda and the spirit of Ben Kenobi, parallels Han's, against others' advice, to save Luke from death in the snow on Hoth. Throughout Empire -- as in A New Hope -- the good characters place great value upon personal friendship. But Empire, unlike the earlier film, ambiguously places its positive, emotional presentation of friendship against the cause-centered teachings of the film's two wisest characters and against the generally dark outcome of the plot, a finale which leaves Han deep-frozen and being carried off into space by a bounty hunter, the Han and Leia romance in question, and Luke physically and emotionally maimed. The main plot of Empire thus shows us the complexity of the dual human potential for evil and for good, and presents, along with Luke's developing self-knowledge, loyal friendship, and maturity, major questions about the ultimate cost of such development for all of Luke, his friends, and the Rebel cause.

The Han and Leia subplot is at first view not philosophical. It serves, of course, the practical functions of creating a sense of time passing for Luke's training on Dagobah and of ultimately bringing Luke to Bespin, and it provides through its chases, escapes, and romance the direct excitement necessarily lacking in the main-plot training sequences. Further, as in many films and plays with a double-plot structure, the subplot of Empire is more realistic and comic than the main plot, helping to keep the film grounded in more ordinary experience. Luke is gradually becoming more and more of a mythic figure, in spite of the comedy associated with him at times on Dagobah and in spite of his very human suffering on Bespin. But Han and Leia remain always thoroughly real and fallibly funny to us, largely through their emotional involvement with one another. Their relationship is the stock comic one of the battling lovers (compare, for example, Bogart and Bacall, or Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick), but also one creating from the start a sense of emotional intimacy, whether in anger, in teasing, or in momentary tenderness. With Han and Leia too we are in a familiar world of conventional dialogue (as in Han's "You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't enough scoundrels in your life") and good jokes (as when Leia snaps to Han, as the Falcon balks at taking off from Hoth, "Would it help if I got out and pushed?"). Furthermore, the interior of the Falcon has by this time become a highly familiar, "realistic" setting to Star Wars devotees.

But there is more: for the subplot of Empire also strikingly parallels the main plot in its structural design and in its themes as well. Just as Luke proceeds from the frigid destructiveness of Hoth (where, as Han Solo puts it, "there isn't enough life . . . to fill a space cruiser") to a new beginning in the life-filled, primal swamps of Dagobah, so Han and Leia proceed from the frozen planet, where their love interest has been getting nowhere, to a new emotional beginning in a similarly primal world: a moisture-filled, soft-floored, "living" cave, like Dagobah, full of mists. This is a "realistic" subplot. Han and Leia have a practical reason -- repairs to the Millennium Falcon -- for being in this extraordinary place. Nevertheless, the emphasis is not on the repairs but, as in the main plot, on human emotions, and the physical likeness of the two new worlds is striking. Moreover, Han and Leia's cave resembles Dagobah in smaller details as well. A sequence in which large, screeching, monstrous birds -- mynocks -- filled the air of Han and Leia's cave is followed by a scene in which crying birds fly through the Dagobah swamps before Luke enters the magic tree-cave. And when Han and Leia discover that their cave is in reality the mouth of a giant space slug, from which Han manages to race the Falcon just as the enormous jaws begin to close, the film moves from shots of the giant creature vainly lunging after the Falcon to the magic tree-cave sequence on Dagobah where, in the cave itself, a small lizard makes a visually similar lunge at the passing, apprehensive Luke (11). The montage, the specific visual and aural links, and the similar emotional emphasis all suggest -- at times with humor, as in the space slug's attack -- a general main plot/subplot thematic parallelism: that Han and Leia are beginning a learning process similar to Luke's and also having to do with the power of human emotions and the human potential for both good and evil. In their romantic attraction to one another, Han and Leia began to acknowledge the dark as well as the good aspects of their characters: Han is a dangerous "scoundrel" (arrogant and self-centered) as well as dependable "nice men" [sic], as he proudly admits to Leia; Leia is attracted to both sides of Han.

The awakening begun in the cave is again completed on Bespin. Just as Luke travels to Bespin with good intentions but also unconsciously lured there in part by his dark side (anger, impatience, lack of control), so Han and Leia travel there with good intentions and yet also unconsciously in response to temptations -- perhaps of self-interest, relaxation, and even sensuality -- as suggested initially by the Bespin siren's-chorus theme music (12). And just as Luke on Dagobah and on Bespin comes face-to-face, in his encounters with the imagined and the real Darth Vader, with the weaknesses of his own character, so Han and Leia in the cave and on Bespin come face-to-face with Han's own dark side: in the cave, merely as described in the epithet "scoundrel"; on Bespin, as reflected in the person of Han's former companion in galactic skulduggery, Lando Calrissian -- a scoundrel, con man, and gambler, a self-interested and self-sufficient mercenary. "We go back a long way, Lando and me," Han tells Leia, and Lando greets Han, "You old pirate!" Lando here reflects the side of Han that dominated the middle of A New Hope and that is still very much a part of his character, though now balanced by growing care and responsibility. Significantly, Lando's pat flattery of Leia ("You old smoothie!" comments a jealous Han) is a kind of romantic gamesmanship somewhat resembling Han's (whose game could be described as love-her-and-leave-her), though we do see a major difference between Han and Lando: Han's genuine care for Leia compared to Lando 's basic indifference. And just as Luke is betrayed to Darth Vader by his idealism combined with his dark side -- his impatience, hatred, and anger -- so Han is betrayed to Vader by his attempt to help Leia and by Lando, the reflection of Han as a man of self-interest, gamesmanship, and pride. Han, like Luke, has not been sufficiently aware of the darkness in his character, and so Empire leaves Han, first tortured and then (having descended, symbolically as well as literally, into a pit) deep-frozen by Vader, being carried off into space by a bounty hunter. Han's situation is thematically like that of Luke hanging into space at the bottom of Cloud City.

As with Luke, however, the suffering through which Han is passing appears to be maturing him, bringing him to new understanding. On Bespin the arrogant Han ("It's not my fault!" he has twice exclaimed earlier in the film) is at last coming to admit his own (like the Falcon's) fallibility and the darkness of the world of his scoundrel "buddy" Lando. Like Luke on Bespin, Han is apparently beginning to understand the consequences of his own mixed nature. He finally rejects -- more conclusively than Luke rejects Darth Vader -- his old "buddy" Lando, the false friend (and his own dark side) who puts self-interest first ("I've done all I can [for you]. I'm sorry I couldn't do better, but I got my own problems"). The Han of the carbon-freezing sequence, unlike scoundrel Han of A New Hope, always spoiling for a fight, can restrain Chewbacca from a suicidal struggle, take ongoing responsibility for Leia (giving her into Chewbacca's care), and go quietly to his fate with his eyes fixed on Leia's face. According to Harrison Ford (Han Solo), in the original shooting script Han here openly admits at last his positive emotional bond with Leia, replying to her anguished declaration of love for him, "I love you too." The film's final version of Han's reply -- a caring yet egocentric "I know" (by now perhaps the film's best-known line) -- leaves the development of Han in Episode 6 somewhat more open to question (13).

The carbon-freezing sequence, with its close-ups of suffering faces, serious and wildly romantic music, and the slow descent of Han into the carbon-freezing pit, is emotional and genuinely moving, the subplot equivalent to the main-plot final duel between Luke and Darth Vader. The scene is tragic, yet Han is growing to new maturity and stature, and Leia (witness the close-ups of her face) is similarly developing as well (14). Even more than the main plot, however, the subplot ends -- with its separation and near-death -- in unanswered questions about the final cost of such maturity. Empire demonstrates to us, in the subplot as in the main plot, the nature and ambiguous consequences of humankind's complex duality and development.

Significantly, however, in a final main plot/subplot relationship, Luke and, less clearly, Han have become, by the end of Empire, Christ figures of a sort, paralleling Ben Kenobi in A New Hope. Kenobi, Luke's mentor throughout the earlier film, there tells Han that there are alternatives to fighting, and eventually chooses to die for the Rebel cause at Darth Vader's hands. Immediately he is Christ-like resurrected (though at once into immortality); Vader strikes him down but finds no body, only empty clothes lying on the ground. In Empire Vader tempts Luke, who is trying to help Han and Leia, much as the devil tempted Christ in the wilderness by taking him to a high mountain and promising him all power over the world in return for worship of evil (15). Vader, having driven Luke to a precarious perch high over the Bespin central shaft, promises worldly power to him if he will join the Dark Side. "Together we can rule the galaxy as father and son." Christ denied the devil and went ultimately to his crucifixion; Luke denies Vader and deliberately plunges into the shaft (falling part-way in cruciform position) to end up hanging from a cross in space, calling in vain to his spiritual good father, Ben Kenobi, to save him (16). The carbon-freezing of Han, who is suffering for both Luke and Leia, may similarly allude to Christian mythology. The effigy we see of Han not dead but "in perfect hibernation," posed with uplifted hands, does not represent Han as we last saw him descending into the pit and thus jars us into looking for a visual allusion. At the least Han's growing likeness to Ben Kenobi has been suggested earlier in the film, when on Hoth we see Han riding to rescue Luke out of the fading image of Ben, and, like Kenobi in A New Hope, Han in Empire is the only character to ask for another's trust (17) (though ironically Han, in spite of his good intentions, does not altogether deserve it).

Luke and Han are, of course, not divine (the space of Star Wars contains -- at least so far -- no gods), nor are Luke and Han undergoing a fully knowledgeable self-sacrifice like Ben's. Luke and Han are men who have made mistakes and who accordingly suffer in trying to help those they love. Emotionally, however, Empire in its double-plotted biblical allusiveness seems to suggest that this (self-sacrificial) suffering for others, even if the result of error, is nevertheless a divinity in man, one which carries him above darkness within and without. And as in A New Hope, but with far more complexity, loving friendship is a dominant motif of the film. "Take care," and "be careful," humans and robots alike on the Rebel side keep telling one another, and time and again they go to one another's aid. The very first line of dialogue in the film is Luke's "Echo Three to Echo Seven. Han, old buddy, do you read me?" -- and the film's final sequence is an idealistic picture of loving camaraderie: two pairs of friends standing together at a window, watching a third pair set off to rescue Han. We see friendship as a positive force, in spite of the suffering it causes. But we are still left with major questions about cost, both personal and in terms of a larger social cause. By the end of Empire we are far away from the exuberance and apparent thematic clarity of A New Hope. Two visual images sum up the difference: Luke's successful, Tarzan-like leap with Leia across the man-made Death Star shaft in A New Hope has been transformed in Empire into a lonely plunge down the man-made Bespin central shaft to a near-crucifixion.

The designed thematic coherence and structural intricacy of Empire, as developed here, can be seen in other ways throughout the film. For example, at the end of Empire we see yet another character starting down the same road as Luke and Han. Lando Calrissian begins to sound and look not like the mercenary Han of the middle of A New Hope but (partly through witnessing Han's suffering) like the slowly-changing Han of the end of A New Hope and beginning of Empire. We see Lando, after the escape from Bespin, coping with a recalcitrant Falcon which refuses to go into lightspeed, in a sequence which in visual terms and in dialogue repeats the earlier Empire sequence of the Falcon's hyperdrive failure after the escape from the space slug. "It's not my fault!" Lando cries, echoing Han, and Chewbacca once again rages while Leia again grimaces in exasperated despair. Lando is then forced into participation in the saving of Luke -- rising up into the light, in a visual image reversing that of the descent of Han into the carbon-freezing pit. By the film's end Lando, an apparent convert to friendship and loyalty, has set off with Chewbacca to rescue Han. The Han-Lando parallelism, like the general main plot/subplot relationship, implies that the film is as importantly a thematic treatment of general human experience as a narrative about individual characters (18).

Similarly, individual sequences in Empire are designed to reflect and to comment upon one another. For example, the near-opening sequence in which a Wampa Ice Creature attacks Luke and drags him to an ice cave is paralleled and contrasted with Luke's duel with Darth Vader at the film's close. The monster defeats Luke and hangs him upside down with scarred face (right side) to await death; on Bespin Luke similarly hangs upside down with scarred face (left side) after his defeat by Vader. The monster loses a claw and an arm to Luke; Luke loses his right hand and light saber to Vader. In both sequences Luke once temporarily loses his light saber and must use the Force to pull it back from a distance to his hand. In both sequences Luke is finally saved -- in both cases from being "frozen" -- in part through his own determination and strength but above all by his friends: from the snow outside the Wampa's cave by Han, and from Vader by a team headed by Leia. Finally, after both episodes, we see Luke recovering in a hospital bed, the first time being physically healed and the second time receiving a bionic hand. Together the similarities and the differences suggest Luke's progress from learning (as in A New Hope) about simple, direct evil (the Wampa, which Luke can maim) to learning about the darker, more deadly evil within the human soul (Vader as a spiritual dark father who maims Luke).

Another example of structural detail in Empire comes in the Bespin sequences. On Han and Leia's first walk with Lando through the corridors of Cloud City, C-3PO turns through an open doorway, apparently seeking his friend R2-D2, and is shot by unknown assailants (Darth Vader's storm troopers, we later learn). When Han and Leia begin a second walk with Lando through the corridors, the same theme music plays, the same effect of voice-distancing occurs on the soundtrack, and the dialogue similarly concerns Lando's problems as administrator of the city. Consciously or subconsciously, we are prepared for the opening door through which Han and Leia walk with their "friend" Lando to meet -- with a horrified surprise paralleling C-3PO's -- Darth Vader and the bounty hunter. The scenes together emphasize the costly aspects of personal friendship.

A third example of the film's careful design is found in Luke's final duel with Darth Vader. In the first phase Luke repeats the various physical movements (leaps, swings, somersaults) we have already seen him go through in his training on Dagobah, and defeats Vader (in part by leaping upward), but in phases two and three the action speeds up and becomes more violent, moving beyond Luke's training, and Vader defeats Luke (who plunges downward). Finally, a minor example of the thematic structural unity of the film is also worth noting: the repetition of the ominous visual image of teeth closing, which is used for Vader's private chamber, for the space slug's attempt to capture the Falcon, and for various doors on Bespin.

In its carefully-designed double plot as well as in its internal organization of parallel episodes, images, and dialogue lines, The Empire Strikes Back thus reveals detailed and often subtle patterning, simultaneously structural and thematic. Empire is a film of complex design, one which both creates and supports the film's thematic weight. Deliberately and ambiguously questioning, Empire moves us from the apparent simple good-guys/bad-guys duality of A New Hope to a far more subtle duality: the mixed good and evil of the human soul, and accordingly of human actions and motivations as well. And the changes seems, moreover, to be part of a larger, organic serial plan. We move in general from a child's world in A New Hope to an adolescent's world in Empire: from exuberance to troubled emotions, from certainty to introspection and self-doubt, from self-love to dark self-discovery -- and from a child's self-centeredness to a new humanism, as the central characters (even perhaps including the archvillain Darth Vader, in his relationship with Luke) all begin genuinely to care more about and to suffer for one another, and we accordingly begin to care more about them as well. Empire both presents to us and puts us through the emotionally unsettling experience of adolescence -- as life becomes an interior melodrama. This deliberate progression from A New Hope to Empire -- from childhood to adolescence -- suggests that in the three films of the Star Wars central trilogy Lucas may be giving us the three basic stages of man's development: childhood, adolescence, and maturity. Structurally and thematically, the films should fit organically together: for childhood, adolescence, and maturity are three stages in life in which essentially the same world is seen from increasingly complex perspectives.

Looking back now at the first thirty-five minutes of Empire, before the start of the film's double plot and major ambiguities, we can see in them a close structural and thematic connection with A New Hope, providing a transition from the first film to the second. For Empire strikingly begins almost where A New Hope began: with visual Imperial aggression (here the launching of Imperial probe droids; in A New Hope, an Imperial assault on a Rebel spaceship) and with a vast wasteland (here of ice and snow; in A New Hope, of desert). Monstrous animal bones, suggesting the nearness of death, lie here in the Wampa Ice Creature's cave, as in A New Hope in the desert sands. Moreover, the Empire attack on Luke by the Wampa in part visually resembles the attack on Luke by the Tusken Raider further into A New Hope, with Ben Kenobi both times participating in Luke's rescue. This sense of repetition from A New Hope to the initial sequences of Empire is heightened in the next sequence of the second film, the snow battle, in which Rebel fighters again, as at the end of A New Hope, leave a hangar complex after a briefing, to do battle against the Empire, and in which the aerial part of the battle seems to be a variation on the dogfights at the end of the earlier film. Luke's comrades in arms once again die in flames around him; Luke once again single-handedly destroys a formidable enemy attack machine; Han once again intends to leave before the battle but ultimately becomes involved, though this time to save not Luke but Leia. Luke is still the adventure-seeking boy of A New Hope. Han is still torn between self-centeredness and loyal friendship. Leia is still the unapproachable princess wrapped up in the Rebel cause. The first thirty-five minutes of Empire seem in part to be a recapitulation of the whole of the 1977 film.

Along with the similarities, however, goes a significant change, for the overall tone of Empire's initial sequences is notably very different from the general tone of A New Hope. The opening Imperial threat in Empire, for example, is more ominously sinister, with its strange probe robot, then its straightforward battle counterpart in the first film. The Hoth wasteland of Empire more directly threatens its human inhabitants then does A New Hope's Tatooine desert. The bones in the Wampa's cave -- unlike the bones in A New Hope -- are a clear comment on one character's immediate nearness to death. Han's Empire rescue of Luke from death in the snow is achieved with more obvious difficulty than, in A New Hope, either Ben Kenobi's rescue of Luke from the Tusken Raider or Han's own rescue of Luke in the Death Star battle. Finally, the snow battle in Empire, unlike the Death Star battle in the first film, does not end in any clear Rebel victory. Even Luke's destruction of the Imperial Walker in Empire plays no great part in events -- unlike his New Hope destruction of the Death Star. The total effect is that of childhood darkening. The world is much the same as in A New Hope, but our understanding of it is changing. And then, suddenly, Empire takes off. From the snow battle it moves forward into adolescence, into its own ambiguous double plot (also with incidents at times echoing, with major differences, those in the earlier film), which gives us a development of the main characters beyond clear-cut dogfights and battles with monsters to ambiguous and emotional confrontations with the monsters -- and the angels -- within.

Looking back still further, from the perspective of Empire we may even find some specific beginnings in A New Hope of Empire's movement into darkness and introspection -- as we should expect, since adolescent experience grows out of that of childhood. For example, in 1977 a few reviewers pointed out that the Rebel medal presentation ceremony at the end of A New Hope contains strong visual similarities to moments in Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will (1934), a documentary celebrating Naziism (19). Was Lucas even in the (apparently) morally clear-cut A New Hope deliberately suggesting, through a visual illusion, a potential darkness to military heroism however good the cause? The Triumph of the Will similarities could in 1977 have been intentional preparation for Empire -- and thus perplexing to audiences then, in the context only of A New Hope -- or they could have been unintentional, a matter of Lucas using a remembered visual image without recalling its original context. But reviewers in 1977 gave Lucas a context, if he did not already intend one, and Empire goes on to emphasize the ambiguity of human nature and achievement, to inform us explicitly, through Yoda, that wars do not make one great, and to show its main characters becoming heroic this time not through battles but through suffering. We think back to A New Hope, and the allusiveness of its closing scene (originally intentional or not) becomes appropriate, re-created for us in the light of Empire. A new look at other details of the boyish A New Hope in the adolescent light of Empire suggests other such original retrospective connections between the two works: for example, in the two suns and two moons of Tatooine, which in A New Hope alone seem to be merely exotic scenery but which after Empire take on a new symbolic suggestiveness (20). And is the Death Star tractor beam in A New Hope really a mere plot device, or does it now also suggest to us, in retrospect, something about moral duality in the characters of both Luke and Han? The Bespin of Empire, after all, is deliberately another, darker Death Star, a man-made place of destructive power (with a prominent central shaft) which draws in the Rebel-allied characters by their own free choice of what seems to them to be the good, though from Bespin (unlike the Death Star) there is no easy escape -- no Ben Kenobi, nothing outside the characters themselves, to rescue them (21). In Empire itself, of course, ambiguity is all-pervasive, and we might note the possible visual implications, at the film's start, of moral duality even in the Rebel camp. The Rebel hangar visually resembles, in its Tauntaun area, the Wampa's cave with its ice stalactites and stalagmites, and the Rebel shield doors close as firmly against the missing Luke and Han as do any Empire-directed doors on Bespin in the later part of the film, with the odds 725 to 1, C-3PO tells us, against the heroes' survival.

1983 should bring us the next Star Wars film, moving back eventually, as the end of Empire makes clear, to Tatooine, and thus bringing the action of the trilogy full circle. The development should lead to a third, even deeper perspective on the world of both A New Hope and Empire, and perhaps to a revitalization of the wasteland through mature understanding and self-sacrifice. If Lucas and his associates can create in Episode 6 as complex a work as Empire, and one as carefully interconnected with the other films in the trilogy, then Star Wars 4 through 6 should be a unified cinematic triumph. Moreover, we should then (box office permitting) have two more trilogies to look forward to, presumably to be worked together with the central trilogy in an overall grand design, one which will both expand and re-create, as it develops, our views of the individual films contained within it. Even without two more trilogies, however, and even without an Episode 6, The Empire Strikes Back is a remarkable achievement. Subtle and complex, it stands both on its own and in tandem with its predecessor, moving on structurally and thematically from A New Hope to challenge us with the darker complexities of basic human experience.


1. Especially useful pieces about the film include: "Star Wars: The Year's Best Movie," Time (Canadian edn.), 30 May 1977, pp. 46-48 and 51; Vincent Canby "'Star Wars' -- A Trip to a Far Galaxy That's Fun and Funny: (review ), New York Times, 26 May 1977, p. C18, and "Not Since 'Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe ' . . . ," New York Times, 5 June 1977, Sec. 2, pp. 15 and 33; American Cinematographer, 58, 7 (July 1977), passim; Paul Scanlon, "The Force Behind George Lucas," Rolling Stone, 25 August 1977, pp. 40-48 and 50-51; The Star Wars Album (New York: Ballantine Books, 1977), passim; Andrew Gordon, "Star Wars: A Myth for Our Time," Literature/Film Quarterly, 6 (1978), 314-326; Denis Wood, "Growing Up Among the Stars," Literature/Film Quarterly, 6 (1978), 327-341; and "The Stars in Our Hearts," Journal of Popular Film and Television, 6 (1978), 262-279.

2. Generally favorable Empire reviews and features of special interest include: Aljean Harmetz, "The Saga Beyond 'Star Wars'" (interview), New York Times, 18 May 1980, Sec. 2, p. 23; Gerald Clarke, "The Empire Strikes Back!" Time (Canadian edn.), 19 May 1980, pp. 48-52 and 54; "In the Footsteps of Ulysses," Time (Canadian edn.), 19 May 1980, p. 52; Roger Angell, "The Current Cinema," New Yorker, 26 May 1980, pp. 123-125; American Cinematographer, 61, 6 (June 1980), passim; Gerald E. Forshey, "Heroism's Dark Side," Christian Century, 97, 25 (30 July-6 August 1980), 769-771.

3. Robert Hatch, review in Nation, 21 June 1980, p. 765.

4. Denis Wood, "The Empire's New Clothes," Film Quarterly, 34, 3 (1981), 10-16.

5. See, e.g., Timothy White, "Slaves to the Empire: The 'Star Wars' Kids Talk Back" (interviews), Rolling Stone, 24 July 1980, p. 37, and The Empire Strikes Back Notebook, ed. Diana Attias and Lindsay Smith (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980), p. 98.

6. "In the Footsteps of Ulysses," p. 52.

7. Dialogue from The Empire Strikes Back is quoted directly from (and has been checked against) the film; the published filmscript in The Empire Strikes Back Notebook does not provide the accurate text of the finished film.

8. Here, as in so many details throughout the film, the Notebook filmscript does not accurately represent the finished film.

9. See Lucas (as quoted by Gerald Clarke, p. 54) on the Force: "It is not a malevolent or benevolent thing. It has a bad side to it, involving hate and fear, and it has a good side, involving love, charity, fairness and hope."

10. See The Empire Strikes Back Notebook, p. 98.

11. Note also that the Dagobah sequences begin with the actual, comic swallowing -- and spitting up -- of R2-D2 by a monster.

12. For a description of the music as a siren's chorus, see the written notes for Side 3, Track 2, of the 1980 two-record soundtrack album.

13. See Harrison Ford as quoted by White, p. 37, though a somewhat different account of the development of the scene's dialogue is given by Alan Arnold, Once Upon a Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of 'The Empire Strikes Back' (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980), pp. 136-139. The published filmscript of Empire, which prints Han's line here as "I know," seems throughout to be a conflation of various versions of the text.

14. Note, for example, that although Leia at first fails to save Han, perhaps through anger and hatred as she and Chewbacca waste precious moments choking Lando (cf. Luke's failure through anger and hatred in his final duel with Vader, and the choking Lando's visual resemblance to the dying admirals who fail Vader), she ultimately does save Luke from Bespin.

15. New Testament Gospels according to St. Matthew, 4:1, 8-10, and Saint Luke, 4:1, 5-8.

16. Lucas himself has called Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi the bad and the good fathers (see Harmetz, p. 23). Luke's crucifixion here in fact more resembles St. Peter's -- upside down -- then Christ's (as a Toronto colleague, D.S. Richardson, has pointed out to me), perhaps emphasizing Luke's human rather than divine status. Note that in the Bible the devil also tempts Christ to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, perhaps a further indication -- besides the downward movement of Luke in his plunge -- that Luke is here creating, even in his rejection of Vader, his own destruction.

17. A New Hope: Ben to Luke, Death Star battle; Empire, Han to Leia, upon arrival on Bespin.

18. The importance of the general type is also indicated by, for example, the characters' label names, and the fact that some of the individual names used in the novelization of Empire (by Donald F. Glut [New York: Ballantine Books, 1980]) and/or the published filmscript and the film's list of credits are not used in the film itself: e.g., Boba Fett (the bounty hunter), Slave 1 (his ship), Wampa Ice Creature.

19. See Canby, "Not Since 'Flash Gordon'," p. 33, and Arthur Lubow, "A Space Iliad," and Terry Curtis Fox, "Star Drek," both in Film Comment, 13 (July-Aug. 1977), 20-23. Interestingly, the opening bar of music of The Triumph of the Will is echoed in the opening phrases of Empire's Imperial March. [2016 comment: although in 1982 I was unsure of whether the Triumph quote was originally intentional, shortly thereafter I became convinced that it was.]

20. We have now seen Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader as Luke's good and bad fathers, in part representing the good and evil within Luke himself, and Lucas has told us that the "good and bad mothers are still to come" (Harmetz, p. 23). Moreover, the two suns of Tatooine are of the same two different colors as are the light sabers of the forces of good and evil in both films. I am grateful for this latter detail, as for so much else about Star Wars, to my husband and colleague, Ian Lancashire.

21. The Falcon's eventual escape from Bespin, for example, is in part made possible by Luke's own duel with Vader in place of the Ben-Vader duel at the Falcon's Death Star escape.