Thirty years ago today, movie audiences experienced the long-awaited sequel to Star Wars, which featured what is arguably one of the most shocking plot twists of all time. I wasn't old enough to have seen the movie in theaters, and the impact of Darth Vader's revelation at the end of the movie was sullied by the fact that I knew about it before I had seen the movie.
For many fans, it's the best movie in the series. There are few slow-paced segments: no aimlessly wandering the deserts of Tatooine, negotiations with Muppets, nor votes of no confidence. Even today, the scenes are the most beautifully filmed, and vibrantly colored--the whites of the ice planet Hoth, the greens of Dagobah, and the brilliant sunsets on Bespin. My only complaint about the movie stems from the recent "upgrades" Lucas has made, breaking the pace of the climactic escape scene from Cloud City with an awkward shuttle scene, which seems like it was actually left over from Return of the Jedi.
Others have weighed in with op-eds on the impact of Empire, (H/T Adam Elkus).
The Empire Strikes Back introduced an entire generation of moviegoers to the notion of tragedy — to the concept that not every ending will be happy, that sometimes the Hero doesn't win, that sometimes you have to go through the dark before you get to the light. And Empire was the first time we walked out of a theater depressed.Your fun trivia for the day: Plot points from the original draft of The Empire Strikes Back. Curiously, Darth Vader was not Luke's father, nor was Princess Leia Luke's sister. Rather, Luke has a missing sister somewhere else in the galaxy. Notably absent from this article is Darth Vader's black castle floating on a pool of lava. It's a motif Lucas attempted to place in Episode VI, but later saved for the climax of Episode III. I also recall that, should the special effects gurus at Lucasarts not have been able to create the AT-AT Walkers, that Lucas was considering hiring tanks from the Norwegian Army to partake in the battle--suitably modified, of course.
Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett's screenplay was like Shakespearan screwball; it swung between the heavy father-son themes of the Luke-Vader-Yoda thread and the light, "never tell me the odds" flirtation shared by Han and Leia. So much so, at times they felt like two different movies — and, let's be honest, the Dagobah stuff is really kind of boring — united by a common soundtrack. But its masterstroke was the abject downer of an ending. Sure, today's moviegoing sophisticates might know that classic story structure dictates that the second act of your story is where the hero is at his lowest point, emotionally and physically, so that the third act can see him triumph. But try telling that to a nine year old whose entire cinematic worldview has been formed by Star Wars and Walt Disney, both of which told us, yes, that the Hero is supposed to win.
But sometimes he doesn't.
The Empire Strikes Back acted sort of an accelerated growth agent: It spurred our maturation as ingesters of popular culture. It explained to us that the twist you didn't see coming is the best kind. That despair can be a beautiful thing. And that, sometimes, the Empire striking back is exactly what's called for.
Without further ado, one of the most famous scenes in movie history: