When I was young, I assumed the striking back of the title referred to the climax — Han Solo’s capture and Luke Skywalker’s defeat in a duel with Darth Vader. Never mind that the very first sentence of the opening text crawl reads “It is a dark time for the Rebellion.” Up until the end, the heroes seemed mostly in control of things. My initial impression of The Empire Strikes Back wasn’t so much that it was the “dark” chapter, but that it consisted of a few thrilling sequences padded out with the boring Dagobah parts. Later, as I started to develop an individual perspective on films for the first time, the perceived slowness of the film became one of the things that attracted me to it. Youthful haughtiness might have been as big a factor in this as sincere pleasure. (If so, I was already practicing to become a critic.) But it taught me patience, opening the door for me to learn to appreciate “slow cinema.” That’s impressive for a franchise so often accused of strangling the New Hollywood and paving the way to our current blockbuster armageddon. The Star Wars trilogy is part of my DNA as a movie-watcher, but somehow I feel like I’ve had a eureka moment about The Empire Strikes Back this very week. As it turns out, the film’s halting pace is part and parcel of its much-lauded “darkness.”
The unifying motif of George Lucas’s trilogy is David vs. Goliath on a massive scale. The rebels are always the underdog, of course, but it’s more to the point to say that they’re tiny, while the Empire is a graceless behemoth. The little guy outmaneuvers the big guy time and again, whether it’s X-wings running roughshod over the surface of the Death Star or Luke taking out an AT-AT walker by himself with a small explosive device. This trope culminates/jumps the shark in the final movie when a bunch of Ewoks somehow win a battle against people. What sets The Empire Strikes Back apart is that Goliath starts winning anyway. It doesn’t even matter how many Star Destroyers get blown up by some stupid asteroids; there will always be more. Like in basketball, the team with the lead sets the tempo. Our heroes get weighed down in the frozen wastes of Hoth and the fetid swamps of Dagobah while the Empire’s gears just keep grinding to the strains of John Williams’s march.
Hoth is the perfect location to open the film. Even before the main action begins, the rebels are in retreat, forced to hide in the most inhospitable of places. And when a probe reveals their location, it’s time to evacuate, plain and simple. So from the start, escape is treated like a victory. The Imperial walkers, lumbering and inefficient but immune to the vagaries of climate, accomplish their modest mission of destroying a power generator. More significantly, though, they demonstrate the terrifying, implacable might of the Empire. It takes a prolonged effort to take even one of them down. The rebel pilots improvise very well (even as a kid, I knew the ground forces were useless), but their aim is merely to slow the juggernaut as much as possible.
Having been prodded once again (this time from beyond the grave) by Obi-Wan Kenobi to learn the ways of the Force, Luke leaves Hoth for the Dagobah system, another remote hiding place. There he’s to meet up with Yoda and further his impromptu Jedi training. Yoda, as we all know, is not the “great warrior” Luke was expecting, but rather a wizened old green dwarf, a Muppet who’s as prone to goofing around as he is to dispensing deep wisdom. The training is explicitly designed to keep Luke from relying on physical strength alone. (“Your weapons — you will not need them.”) He isn’t Rocky Balboa getting himself back in shape. Although becoming attuned to the nature of the Force will make him more powerful, what Obi-Wan and Yoda really want is to protect him from the seduction of the Dark Side. They don’t want him to turn out like Darth Vader, and they have good reasons to suspect he might. The nightmarish sequence at the “cave” clues Luke into this as well. Still, he continues to think in terms of size, so the Empire remains frightening for him.
Han and Princess Leia, meanwhile, escape in the Millennium Falcon. Bulky Star Destroyers pursue them to no avail. With a constantly failing hyperdrive — sluggishness made painfully audible — they’re forced to take refuge inside an asteroid field. There they find themselves unwittingly swallowed by a giant space worm. The threats are absolutely everywhere, but hiding in the belly of the beast does offer a brief respite so Han and Leia can work out their feelings for each other. They carry over their testy banter from the original movie, with Han’s sarcastic “your majesty”s now supplemented by words like “sweetheart.” This romantic arc represents some of the most satisfying character development of the whole series. Fleeing Monstro’s bite, the Falcon then sets a course for the home of an old friend of Han’s, fellow scoundrel Lando Calrissian. The bounty hunter Boba Fett — a jetpack-wearing Man With No Name, complete with spurs provided by sound designer Ben Burtt — pursues them and alerts Darth Vader, bringing an end to the chase.
Cloud City, the fantastically gorgeous trap that brings the film’s parallel stories back together, is the scene for the darkest plot developments of the trilogy. Han Solo, the most vital and dynamic character, is frozen alive and taken by the bounty hunter. Luke ignores the protests of his two mentors that he’s not ready and arrives to help his friends. Finally, the most-anticipated moment of the saga arrives: Luke and Vader cross lightsabers. Original audiences might have been appropriately nervous about the outcome given all that comes before. Luke falls three times: first, into the freezing chamber; second, through a large window and onto a catwalk; third, all the way down an abyss, this time of his own volition. He’s just learned who his father is, in the most famous plot twist in movie history. Mark Hamill has been vulnerable to ridicule for the campy shouting he delivers in this scene. That obscures the fact that a great bit of acting immediately follows. As Darth Vader gives his mad speech about overthrowing the Emperor and ruling side-by-side, a calm washes over Luke. There’s the hint of a bitter smile as he looks down, then back at Vader, and jumps. Seldom has a hero in fiction hit rock bottom so hard or so fast. This isn’t the end, though. Each movie in the trilogy ends with an example of the old saw about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. This is the subtlest one. Luke survives and is picked up by the Millennium Falcon. R2-D2 fixes the hyperdrive. They all escape from a deadly net.
The Empire Strikes Back remains both challenging and stimulating thanks to its emphasis on spiritual conflicts, on a hero who needs to learn how not to fight. For all the inaction, the film is never turgid, but actually moves confidently with the same strong sense of humor the original had. The colors are more subdued this time around, the shadows deeper. Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett’s script balances a sense of fun with the kind of mythopoeic seriousness that fantasy films have required ever since. We meet cyborgs, yetis, and sea serpents. This movie is all the genres rolled into one and unfurled “like something out of a dream.” It’s as great as advertised.