The Empire Strikes Back, now three decades old, was probably my least favorite of the original-trilogy Star Wars movies when I was a kid. I know, I know; I’ve officially just designated myself as an apostate in the eyes of the Force-sensitive. Eight-year-old me certainly didn’t know any better. Empire had less action, the plot moved slowly and much more time was allotted to character development.
I am, of course, now old and wise enough to recognize Empire’s place in the hallowed ranks of sequels better than their first installments (Godfather II, Aliens, Silence of the Lambs.) And there’s good reason that this is the near-universal consensus on Empire—the film is far and away the most morally and emotionally complex of the Star Wars films, partly by dint of adding a considerable number of excellent characters to its universe. As I said in my gushing list of the day earlier this week: A New Hope gave us a cinematic world, and Empire made us care about it.
But more than that, I think what makes this movie endlessly rewatchable to me is its utter, uncompromising bleakness. Stay with me, now. At the end of A New Hope, we can’t help but feel that the tide of the war has turned in favor of the Rebel Alliance after the Death Star’s destruction. Empire dispels that notion from the opening title crawl: The rebels are scattered in hiding, constantly fleeing the Empire’s relentless extermination campaign. And to top it off, the film’s first act sees the total destruction of the Rebel headquarters on Hoth. Bleak, indeed.
Empire’s ending and somber tone mostly owes to the fact that—unlike A New Hope—George Lucas envisioned the film as part of a trilogy, necessitating the cliffhanger and lead-in to Return of the Jedi. But there are also more profound, if readily-apparent, themes at work here. Following the “hero’s journey” narrative pattern, which Lucas actively modeled the series on, Empire is the “road of trials”—Luke and the rest of the Rebels are cast out into the metaphoric (and literal) wilderness, forced to endure hardships before they can be reborn and confront their adversaries. Consider Yoda’s words during Luke’s training.
During those moments, the entire focus of the Star Wars series changes. The drama (in the Greek sense) is recast as something far more epic and existential than a military-science-fiction struggle between the scrappy Rebels and the all-powerful Empire. Yoda’s advice to Luke about the Force uses the same manichean, dark-against-light imagery we heard from Obi-Wan in A New Hope, but the struggle is now a grander one, a spiritual one. It’s not just about lasers and spaceships any more; the film is asking its characters (and by extension, its audience) to consider their connectedness to the universe, vis-a-vis religion, mysticism, spritualism or humanism, take your pick.
This is a difficult concept for children to grasp. Precocious as I might have been, I was no exception, and I have a strong hunch that this is why most other people don’t develop an appreciation for Empire until they’re past their adolescence. Maturity will always make you look at your favorite childhood books, movies and songs in different ways, and Star Wars is no exception.
Empire’s lessons are some of the hardest you’ll learn in life. Try as you might, sometimes you’ll be outmatched, and fail completely. Sometimes, confronting evil in the world around you forces you to confront evil within yourself. And at the end of everything, our salvation doesn’t lie in the power of technology or our claims to a higher, supernatural power, but in the ineffable joy and meaning that our connection to other people adds to our lives.