The Ultimate ‘Empire Strikes Back’ Review

The triumphant sequel deserves every ounce of its praise, and here's exactly why

“The Empire Strikes Back” is considered one of the best sequels of all time and the peak of the “Star Wars” franchise—but what does that mean, exactly?

“Empire” isn’t just a sequel. It’s the second chapter in a trilogy. “Die Hard 2” doesn’t aspire to move John McClane towards a climactic third movie—it tries to do the same thing as the first film, only “different.”

“Aliens,” another ’80s-era sequel, moves Ripley’s character forward, but is also a self-contained story with a clear ending (and “Alien 3” was widely criticized for invalidating it).

“Empire,” on the other hand, is clearly a middle-act movie that ends with plenty unresolved.

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

“Episode V” is also the original trilogy film with the least noticeable changes in the Special Edition. Its story, performances, and overall presentation are legendarily near-perfect just the way they are. Clearly, just because a film is the second part in a multi-film series doesn’t mean they can all be measured against the same criteria. It’s not just the style that’s different—it’s the intent.

Let’s start with the opening crawl.

It’s generally agreed that audiences don’t like text preambles, and I’m inclined to agree. However, of all the examples to exist in cinema, those in “Star Wars” seem to escape universal condemnation, and this in itself is an interesting anomaly.

As CinemaSins might note, it is “reading” (*ding*)—but not very much, and you’re don’t have to spend precious mental energy on it if you don’t really want to (I always thought of this as meant to be seat-hunting time for the late-comers, while the score sets the stage for those already settled).

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It’s also worth noting that, with few exceptions, text preambles in film are just poorly written, and even more poorly animated on screen (with constant fading in and out), leading to an incredibly flat and confusing viewing experience.

The crawl in “Star Wars,” by contrast, is easy to follow, includes interesting visual movement and is usually fun to read (“Empire’s” especially). It reinforces the story to follow, rather than serving as a lazy replacement for scenes that ought to have been included in the first place.

It’s also notable that George Lucas was fined by the DGA for not including more reading—namely credits—here at the beginning.

Once the crawl is over, we switch directly to visual storytelling, with no concessions for anything else. Personally, I find it far easier to tolerate reading in one big chunk while listening to John William’s fantastic opening theme, rather than having the mystery of the probe droid deployment being interrupted by the name of some producer in the lower left corner.

Excellence from the Opening Bell

“Empire’s” opening shot isn’t quite as famous as that for “A New Hope,” but it’s just as carefully crafted. Instead of dropping us straight into a chase scene, “Empire” gives us a tilt down onto a Star Destroyer on the prowl. The feeling is one not of intimidation, but mystery.

A cluster of probes is dropped, and we follow the last down to the ice planet. Emerging from the crater, we meet our first character—the bug-like Imperial Probe Droid, which immediately floats off into the freezing wasteland. It’s a masterful, understated scene that uses the movement of its subject to motivate our movement down to the surface, and then as a transition to introducing the protagonist.

Sure, we could have just started with the overhead shot of Luke (Mark Hamill) on his Tauntaun and gone straight to his close-up—but where’s the fun in that?

This intro also tells us things about Luke’s mindset that simply zooming on his red-nosed face wouldn’t. When he raises his binoculars to his face, we know what he’s looking for. When he sees the meteor hit the ground, we know why he wants to investigate it, even though we never really learn whether it was another probe or not.

Speaking of Luke, it takes “Empire” almost exactly three minutes to introduce our hero, including the opening crawl—compared to the first film’s 17 minutes.

Not bad.

In fact, “Empire” introduces all three main characters and establishes most of what we need to know about their current relationships within seven minutes, also impressive. Some of this is clearly enabled by the fact that it’s a middle-act movie, picking up where the first film left off.

However, because “A New Hope” wraps things up as cleanly as it does, it gives “Empire’s” first act room to evolve those dynamics a couple of steps forwards without losing the audience.

Meet the New, Improved Luke Skywalker

Luke has gone from farm boy to squadron leader, and is introduced riding his faithful dino-goat in a blizzard. He has a short conversation with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who informs us he’s heading back to base (so we know where he is when he gets there).

Setup complete, he gets slapped ahead three scenes by a Space Yeti, and we shift to Han, who’s just arriving back at base.

Han’s introduction is easily the longest of the three main protagonists, and this is rather interesting, considering that he was the last major character to be introduced in the previous film. The introduction of Carrie Fisher’s Leia plays out parallel to his, without really a scene to “herself” until the 12 minute mark.

Luke, as mentioned before, is literally lying unconscious offscreen. This could be seen as a way of bringing Han fully into the main trio following the extensive setups for Luke and Leia in the previous film, but if we pay close attention, we can see how in many ways Han is the lead in Empire, and the major impact this has on the film’s theme.

Han’s first few interactions are deceptively simple ones. He enters Echo Base, drops his mount off with an extra, and checks in with Chewie, who gives him some choice unintelligible words. The Falcon is on the fritz, and Han’s been out planting sensors instead of helping his friend. Han tells him he’ll be right back, and then heads for the Command Center, where he reports to General Rieekan. Leia is also present, trying hard to look busy with something else, but the she and Han clearly notice each other.

Rieekan’s comment about meteor activity seems to prove to Han that there’s no proper way to interrupt, so he takes the plunge and tells the General he can’t stay any longer. This has obviously been some time coming, as Rieekan doesn’t show any surprise or indignation at the news. He even compliments Solo, and the two share a firm, manly handshake.

When Han turns to say goodbye to a cold-looking Leia (pun intended), his professional demeanor suddenly crumbles.

“Well, don’t get all mushy on me. Goodbye princess!”

Things go downhill from there.

Sci-Fi, Rom-Com … or Both?

Most of the really memorable lines happen during the hallway argument just afterwards, but as a writer it’s the lead up and aftermath that really stand out to me. Han doesn’t start snapping at anyone until he says goodbye to Leia, and from that point until he leaves to find Luke he’s way more touchy.

This kind of characterization is basic, but extremely important in the set up, because it implies how things have been in the time before the film starts. Once things go upside down in act two, we can feel the contrast all the more keenly.

Most of our set up ends with our introduction to C-3PO and R2-D2, which serves triple duty as a comedy moment, a cue to the audience that Han is avoiding Leia’s phone calls, and a way to deliver information to Han that Luke still hasn’t come back yet.

“Empire’s” director, Irvin Kershner, noted that for this film he wanted “comedy without gags,” which I interpret as a focus on naturalistic comedy instead of slapstick. Like the first film, there’s a remarkable amount of humor, despite most people remembering it for its serious tone. It keeps the film feeling colorful, even though the visual design is more subdued.

What’s more, it keeps us empathizing with our heroes, trying to interpret their state of mind so as to “get” the next quip, anticipate the next decision. This is important in any story, but especially so in a film where the audience needs to continue caring as things become worse and worse towards the end—we need another way to engage with the characters besides the plot. A tension reliever.

To complete our characterization round up, Leia does a lot of pacing, before reluctantly allowing the base doors to be closed for the night. Her feelings on the matter are perfectly summed up by an excellent dolly shot and Chewbacca’s mournful howl.

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Luke, meanwhile, has managed to escape the Space Yeti’s cave using the Force. Remember what I said about set up? This isn’t the first time we see Luke using the Force, but it is the first time we see him reach out and pull something to him.

His demeanor and focus increases the tension of the scene, but it also tells us he’s been trying hard even without a master, like a kid learning to whistle. When he runs out into the blizzard and sees the vision of Kenobi, we know that’s all he needs to split for Dagobah as soon as the right opportunity presents itself.

Han gets a couple more funny lines as he rescues a nearly frozen Luke (“And I thought they smelled bad on the outside”), and the following morning they are found by Rogue 2. This scene could easily have been done from Han’s perspective, but the fact that it wasn’t is significant.

More on that later.

The Gang Gets Back Together, Albeit Briefly

Following the rescue, we get one of the few scenes in this film where all three of our heroes get to interact, as Han and Leia visit a recovering Luke. This is a very hammy scene, and has inspired endless jokes about how awkward this interaction seems in retrospect, particularly considering Leia and Luke are revealed to be siblings in the following film.

Personally, I find this aspect tiresome. As a person who has hung out with theatre students and aspiring actors, there’s an aspect of pushing boundaries that they take as a professional challenge—to do the most unexpected, out-there thing first.

The last two “Jumanji: films are a perfect example of what I’m talking about—they feel a bit like a theatre exercise that somehow got completely out of control (“what if, the Rock, but he’s actually a skinny kid inside?”).

I rather like the Jumanji films, and there the approach works rather well. In “Star Wars,” however, Leia kissing Luke out of the blue feels exactly like the sort of thing that would press all the creative buttons of the scriptwriter, director, and actors, then suddenly seem awkward in context after it appears on the big screen.

In short, the whole scene is intentionally cranked to eleven (emotionally speaking) but in the end it’s just a bit much (“Nerf-Herder!”). True, it’s not the most tactful prelude to the revelation that Luke and Leia are siblings, but it does throw us off the trail a bit—and shows us just how committed Leia is to refuting Han’s teasing assertions.

In other words, she’s not doing it for Luke, she’s doing it to piss Han off. It’s childish, awkward, and hilarious.

Han’s “take it easy” comment is what really helps stick the landing, and the scene knows better than to drag things out much longer than that. We’ve got more important things to do—the Empire is closing in.

The Battle of Hoth sequence, in my opinion, deserves its own article, so I’ll restrict my comments to its interaction with the plot as a whole. As I mentioned in part one of this series, Star Wars is an Epic with action scenes, not an action movie with epic scenes.

That the film takes time to shift point of view to smaller characters (like Rogue 2 from earlier, who reappears prominently in the tripwire sequence) and the broader state of the universe is one of the primary things that makes it stand out from the modern glut of action-sci-fi-fantasy films (or even the contemporary action films “Empire” shared the silver screen with).

Luke’s relationship with Rogue Squadron is so strong that he names more members than actually get face time. Without asides like this, the Battle of Hoth sequence could have felt like a mere special effects set piece. Instead, because of our protagonists’ regular interaction with the other rebel personnel, we feel connected to them the same way our three main characters are—like co-workers and acquaintances, or full brothers-in-arms with some.

It’s almost the inverse of a Superhero movie—instead of the side characters supporting the symbolic identity of a single hero, the protagonists and their efforts support the greater purpose of the Alliance, as the war against the Empire rages on. Despite “Empire’s” focus on character, and the swing away from the greater scope war as the film goes on, this theme is pervasive during the film’s first half hour.

“Star Wars” is known for its wide array of inspirations, from Kurosawa to Flash Gordon, but as a kid few things seemed more natural to me than comparing Imperial Stormtroopers to their real-life WWII counterparts (rag-tag teams of Allied spies were always breaking into castles or superweapon bunkers, a la “The Guns of Navarone” or “Where Eagles Dare,” complete with dressing up as the enemy and using their own hardware against them).

It’s not hard to imagine a complete sci-fi war story set in the universe of “Star Wars,” and the immense success of properties like the “Battlefront” game series and “Rogue One” are proof that I’m not the only one.

‘I Got a Bad Feeling About This…’

In the rushed escape from Hoth, our heroes are separated, and Act II starts to take shape—while Han and Leia bicker their way into an asteroid field, Luke decides to leave on a vision quest, with a nervous R2 in tow.
Like the last film, I saw this one with my family, and Luke’s time on Dagobah is my mother’s least favorite part. For the most part, I have to agree with her. I get the whole mystical thing, but both Yoda and Kenobi are not nearly as straightforward as would seem practical if Luke is truly their last hope—or even if he wasn’t, really.

However, “Empire” is trying hard to walk a very narrow line, and I have to give them credit for the risk involved, warts and all. Note that “Star Wars” is playing against the materialist sci-fi themes of its time, bringing myth and spirituality into the plot as primary themes.

Contrast “Star Trek,” which never met a god it couldn’t debunk, if it dealt with spiritual matters at all.

Even modern blockbusters, obsessed with copying every marketable detail of Lucas’ magnum opus, will only barely touch their spiritual content, which wasn’t terribly dogmatic to begin with. The prequel’s introduction of Midi-Chlorians, despite being criticized for being overcomplicated, was not meant to eliminate the spiritual element of the Force, but explain why its effect is stronger on some characters than others.

Like today, the America of 1980 was divided in worldview, not just politics, and I don’t believe introducing religious themes would have been considered the smart play. As a result, my feelings on this section are mixed, as I imagine fan reaction was at the time.

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Most of the reviewers I’ve listened to consider it profound without being too preachy, and I mostly agree. Others see it as overly simplistic and often contradictory, and I agree with them as well. Personally, I believe the greatest moral lesson the trilogy has to deliver is set up in this film, but it isn’t paid off until the sequel, leaving us with the lesser revelations.

Take, for instance, Yoda’s famous line, “Do—or do not. There is no try.”

I’ve always thought this line wasn’t nearly as profound as it’s set up to be, but like many famous movie lines, it’s not really meant to be self-contained. There’s a substantial amount of subtext in the scene itself that’s supposed to inform our interpretation of it, not just the words all by themselves.

Only a few lines before, Yoda says this—“Always with you what cannot be done.” Luke can move rocks with his mind, and he hasn’t even tried moving the ship. Sure, it’s hard—but it’s learnable. The fact that he’s able to shift the X-Wing at all is evidence that he can almost certainly learn to move it.

Maybe he’s concerned about damage to the waterlogged electronics, but he doesn’t mention that to Yoda. Instead he tells his master that he “asks the impossible.”

Listen to the Master

Yoda’s point is that Luke gives up too easily. If he wishes to do great things, he needs to discipline himself and grow a greater tolerance for hardship and plumbing the unknown. He needs to be not so quick to complain and run his mouth when things get hard, or as the Ben says “learn patience.”

The problem is that instead of pointing out all the evidence that Luke can learn these things, and backing it up with anecdotes from his 800-year career of Jedi training, Yoda seems to imply that Luke fails because he simply doesn’t believe hard enough. This leaves us meandering around in Never-Never Land, trying to figure out what sort of belief Yoda is asking of Luke.

Honestly, I would have rather Yoda had walked up to the X-Wing and smacked it a couple of times with his stick.
“Believe it now, do you? Hmm?”

This doesn’t completely fix that I still think Luke’s arc is the weaker and more esoteric when compared against Han and Leia’s romance on the run, but the flaws are mostly forgiveable, and I have no faith that it would be handled any better by a studio in modern Hollywood. They simply don’t have the patience.

Coming back to Han and Leia, running from the unusually persistent Imperial fleet, we start to see how important these cutaway scenes are. Luke’s journey into the spiritual realm means that Han ends up picking up the baton of the everyman protagonist. He’s an outsider, almost like a character from a different, less outlandish movie, concerned with things like engine trouble in a universe whose movers and shakers wield spiritual powers and swords made of light.

Where “A New Hope” was seen as a surprisingly grounded fairy tale, “Empire” feels like the film that cemented Lucas’ universe as something more with a bit more maturity and tonal range.

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These scenes in particular start to show how Han and Leia are in fact more capable of cooperation than their snippy attitudes would first indicate, and proves that their relationship actually has a chance of going somewhere, if they’ll just quit biting chunks out of each other for two seconds.

That’s what deepens this storyline from being just funny, to being rewarding to watch. It’s funny when the Millennium Falcon fails to lift off, and Leia asks if she “should get out and push.” It’s funny when Han replies “it might!” It’s rewarding when Han explains how they’re going to escape the Imperial fleet by floating away with the garbage, and Leia says “You have your moments—not many, but you do have them”

Have I mentioned that Han makes a lot of hilarious faces in this film? Because the face he makes when she says this is hilarious.

‘Empire’s’ Not So Secret Ingredient

Many films settle for the smack-talk without giving it any heart, and wonder why the audience can’t get invested in their characters. “Empire” doesn’t make this mistake, and it’s why our sympathy for the characters only grows with repeat viewings, as we start to see the subtle undercurrent of trust and consideration.

By way of contrast, compare our antagonist, Darth Vader, and the relationship he has with his various minions. One of the most interesting things about looking back at “Empire,” along with most of the “Star Wars” movies, is how well they hold up despite changing genre conventions. The trope of a villain who ruthlessly disposes of his henchmen while quipping “you have failed me for the last time” has been dead, even as parody, for decades now, yet here its full force remains.

Vader’s intentions towards the protagonists is simple—capture and turn Luke—but there are multiple layers to his obsession, and he himself has multiple obstacles between himself and his goal, not the least of which is the Imperial military structure itself.

Despite being upgraded to the Emperor’s right hand in this film, Vader’s position as a dangerous and worthy opponent to the protagonists is built from his ruthless bending of the otherwise sclerotic and rigid Imperial leadership.

In other words, instead of reeking of cliche, this characterization of Vader feels like an appropriate snapshot of him at the height of his power. Because his decisions have a strong underlying logic, he pops off the screen like the “original” version of an endlessly copied archetype should.

A perfect example is when the Imperial military arrives in the Hoth system, and Vader kills Admiral Ozzel (the exact scene the famous “you have failed me” line is used in).

Notice that Vader does not do the choking in the first scene we meet Ozzel, during which the Imperial officer condescendingly talks down to Vader, and clearly isn’t happy that the more by-the-book Captain Piett is doing his job by bringing good leads to the attention of the Sith Lord.

There’s lots of evidence in those two scenes to suggest that Ozzel and Vader have been subtly vying for command for some time, and Ozzel’s decision to underestimate the Rebels and act without Vader’s input is the last straw.

Vader’s greatest strength is that he comes across as ruthless and calculated, not cruel. Vader does not kill out of anger alone—Vader kills to solve problems. Even in the act of killing Admiral Ozzel for his pride, Vader promotes Captain Piett, the man who brought the Hoth system to his attention.

Vader is shown to be a fair employer to those who serve his interests well, without regard for their social status in the “Empire”—despite Boba Fett arguing he should be allowed to both collect a fee from the Empire and be able to take Han to Jabba (for yet another reward), Vader still indicates a willingness to compensate Fett if Han dies during his test run of the carbon freezing process.

Note that I’m merely indicating that Vader is a much more pragmatic and smart character than many give him credit for, not that he does not remain a villain—his unfair treatment of Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian leads directly to the latter’s defection, and from thence a domino effect that ends in the escape of all the main characters.

Debunking a Nagging ‘Empire Strikes Back’ Myth

A popular notion about “Episode V” is that because the good guys lose, the bad guys win. This is not so. Despite everything Vader does, every problem he solves, every officer he bends to his will, every clever move that puts him one step ahead of the heroes, he fails in his ultimate goal.

That’s too much positivity for this point in the story though, so let’s move ahead to the first of “Empire’s” two famous cliffhangers—the freezing of Han Solo.

I’ve heard that both Kershner and Ford wanted Han killed off, but here I want to give Lucas credit. Killing off characters in popular films and even video games has become very common of late, and personally I find it rather trite—especially seeing as most of the film is spent setting up Han and Leia’s romance.

It’s true that Han feels underused in “Return of the Jedi,” partially because the same issue ended up being brought up again, and early drafts had Han being killed off early in a raid on an imperial base. The problem is, like I mentioned before, that Han isn’t just one of the protagonists in an epic—he’s the grounded practical everyman that keeps the original trilogy’s feet squarely on the ground while Luke’s head gets further into the clouds.

Leia’s role as the heart of the crew and a rebel leader also gets less emphasis in the third film, meaning that despite his lack of material, Han ends up picking up some of her slack as well. Killing off Han might have lent more weight to the third film, and might have even been the right decision for a story with a darker and more dismal theme, but frankly, I found it plenty traumatic as a kid, and even as an adult the loss of Han would have significantly dampened my desire to rewatch it or see the following film.

Speaking of how this stands up looking back, in the era of superhero films, characters are constantly being brought back to life. Even almost half a decade ago in “Batman v Superman,” it was clear that Superman would be resurrected even before the credits rolled, and there are rumors that Iron Man will be returning as well following his “Avengers: Endgame” death.

What really stands out about Han’s comeback is how it doesn’t feel like a heroic sacrifice, meant to give us a sense of closure, but the long-hoped against end of a parsec-long run of bad luck. Vader doesn’t even intend to kill Han at all—he just needs a suitably expendable test subject. A guinea pig for even worse things to come.

Expect the Unexpected

One of the things “Empire” does exceptionally well is play against our expectations while being completely logical. We keep expecting Han to escape, because that’s what Han does. He and Leia are supposed to be together, because that’s what movie couples do. Luke is supposed to win a lightsaber battle with Vader, because that’s what’s been on every poster since the first movie came out three years before.

Even so, we know that these things also can’t happen. There’s another movie in the trilogy—Luke can’t beat Vader in the middle film (a factor perhaps less obvious at the time). The movie itself is signaling to us throughout the entire run time that whatever happens, it won’t be as conclusive as the previous film.

Yoda’s vision of the future is fuzzy, but ominous. The film even signals to us that Luke is in danger because he’s not the last hope of the Jedi—“there is another.”

Contrast this to “Avengers: Infinity War,” where the film dramatically informs us that there is a single chance to win out of sixty bazillion possible outcomes—thus guaranteeing to everyone in the audience that this of course was the very outcome we would see played out onscreen.

“Empire’s” finale is not a deterministic numbers game, but a high-stakes mystery. Even Luke knows that he may be too late, and goes anyway because honor demands it, not the odds. The real question is, does Luke have the character to survive the real test—finding out the truth about his father.

Here, despite everything, the film gives us an answer—yes. For now, anyway.

Despite having his hand cut off and his worldview fractured, Luke refuses to join Vader. He doesn’t even deliver it as a corny one-liner (“I’ll never join you. You killed my father!” is a setup for Vader’s famous revelation). Luke simply works up the courage, and drops into the abyss.

At this point in the film, it makes perfect sense to us that it’s a coin flip whether Luke survives or not, and the sequence stretches this out much longer than usual. The cavalry does not arrive immediately—first, Luke is sucked into a vent, which seems like a lucky turn of fate—until it dumps him outside, leaving him hanging from a weather vane over nothing. Still in shock, Luke falls back on his last chance for survival—calling out into the void and hoping someone, anyone, is listening.

That’s when it happens.

A Newer Hope

Up to this point, the film has also been intercutting with Lando’s change of heart, and made us think that Leia & Co’s objective is to recapture Han before the film is over. When Boba Fett lifts off, however, we see escaping on the Millennium Falcon as the consolation prize, and we’re completely willing to settle for it—if it weren’t that we, the audience, know that Luke is hanging off the bottom of Cloud City.

We know we have no reason to expect a deus ex machina at this point, because the film has been denying them to us for probably an hour or so by now, and there’s so much that can’t be taken back. Han might be unfrozen—might—but Luke has lost his hand, and one of his primary grievances against the Empire, and Vader specifically (the murder of his father). Those last two aren’t coming back.

Sure, the viewer has some vague sense that something is about to finally go right, but what? What could possibly go right now? What could it possibly correct?

That’s when Leia hears Luke.

It’s important to notice here that Leia herself has been through quite the wringer too these past few hours. She gets back a bit of her agency when Lando frees her, Chewie, and 3PO, but her leadership has just barely gotten her battered little family back onto their half-working ship and into the air.

Leia knows Luke is on Cloud City, so that doesn’t come quite out of nowhere. What almost does is that she hears Luke, and knows where to find him.

This is the kind of twist that the audience so desperately needs at this point—the fact that Yoda doesn’t spell out that Leia is “the other,” or even that we don’t get a solid justification until “Return of the Jedi” doesn’t matter. This is the point where the audience starts to exhale, and just maybe believe that the filmmakers—and The Force—haven’t abandoned us after all.

In the following scenes, where Darth Vader returns to his ship, we start to see that Luke isn’t the only one who’s been affected by their encounter. Even with Admiral Piett feverishly running everything by the numbers, and the hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon secretly disabled, there’s a feeling that something is about to happen.

That there’s a chance—just a chance—that our heroes are about to escape, if only because if they weren’t, the film wouldn’t be dragging it out this long.

In its last moments, “Empire” seems to start settling us back in with moments of comedy—we see Lando repeat Han’s complaint (“it’s not my fault!”), and R2 argues with C-3PO about talking to a strange computer. The film can do this because it has one last payoff to deliver, and it’s the correction of the one thing that has been going wrong from the beginning—the Falcon’s hyperdrive.

R2 takes action, flips the right switch, and the ship vanishes out from under Vader’s nose, like a rebuke from destiny itself.

Mother Knows Best

My mother, who saw “Empire” back in 1980, told me that the audience burst out in cheers for that. No wonder—they earned it. You can see the stress on Admiral Piett’s face as Vader stares out at space, mirroring the villain’s first appearance in the film—and then Vader strides away, defeated. There’s no point in punishing Piett—this round is over.

“Facts don’t care about your feelings,” as the saying goes, and it turns out that goes for both the righteous and the wicked. While the characters in “Empire” often find that reality doesn’t live up to their expectations, they almost always go into it with a certain amount of self-awareness.

Leia knows that admitting her feelings to Han is risky. He refuses to stay where she can keep an eye on him, running off to pay his debts, or flying into asteroid fields.

Han, meanwhile, knows that risk is a part of life, and that you play with the cards you’re dealt, not the ones you wish you had, but his pride and prickly attitude makes it hard for people to admit when he’s right.

Even Luke, when going against his masters’ wishes, does it knowing that he’s flying into the heart of the storm, and the fact that fate seems to go out of its way to save him merely emphasizes how close he comes to falling on his sword to foil Vader.

“The Empire Strikes Back” succeeds at exactly what it sets out to do—be the dark middle chapter of a three-act epic—but it has the good sense to end just past the darkest point, and give us a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. Luke even gets a new hand by the end.

Watching “Empire” for the first time, we wonder how the heroes can come back from this, but on subsequent viewings, we start to see the underlying cues that foretell all is not lost.

There’s a sense that “Empire’s” grim tone and incompleteness is in service to a greater plan, and that’s why the audience can feel free to embrace the suck. Because the Dark Side isn’t stronger—it just seems that way in the long hours before dawn.

John Fulton is the author of The Janitor Must Die, a novel about a custodian who fights aliens. John nurses an exceptional obsession with story design, including, but not limited to, blockbuster sci-fi, action, and fantasy. John does not refer to himself in the third person. Usually. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnTheFulton and Parler @John001.

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