The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is widely considered the strongest Star Wars film. More nuanced than A New Hope, more exciting than Return of the Jedi, Empire‘s taut writing and impressive visuals make it a masterpiece of modern cinema. While much has been made of the special effects of the Star Wars films, far less has been said about the writing. Yet it is precisely in its storytelling that The Empire Strikes Back reveals its genius.
Story Structure — Breakdown
Every self-proclaimed screenwriting guru has their own method for dissecting film stories. Perhaps most influential is Syd Field’s three-act paradigm. The following analysis is based on a modified version of this, as explained in this video.
Act One: The Set-Up
Act One introduces us to the world of the film, our main characters, and the central conflict. Act One of Empire takes place entirely on the ice planet Hoth, and can be broken down as follows:
The Hook: The attention-grabbing first scene. I defy you to find a more exciting opening than the brass fanfare and text crawl which begins each Star Wars film. Out of the quiet of “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” we launch full-throttle as if being born. The pulse leaps, the eyes dart back and forth, honed in on every word. We’re so caught up in the experience that we’re barely aware we’ve just been fed a big ol’ spoonful of exposition. In barely ninety seconds, we’re introduced to our hero, our villain, and the universe they live in. It’s an incredible example of economic storytelling.
Indeed, the first ten minutes of Empire might serve as the gold standard in rigorous economy. Han’s backstory is summed up in one line. He has to leave; Jabba the Hutt has a price on his head. In one brief exchange, we sense the tensions, romantic and otherwise, between him and Leia. When Luke awakes in the wampa’s cave, he uses the Force [an important detail of the world we’ve entered] to retrieve his lightsaber [ditto], and escapes.
Han searches the frozen wasteland for Luke. Notice how the events thus far — Luke’s battle with the local wildlife, Han’s race to find him before they freeze to death, even the droids’ bickering about the temperature — focus entirely on the day-to-day conditions of life on Hoth. We know confrontation is coming, but for now, our heroes are just surviving.
The Inciting Incident (Ii) kicks our story into gear. Luke has a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who tells him he must go to Dagobah and train with Yoda, a Jedi Master.
Han rescues Luke, and they return to the base, only to find that
Plot Point I (PPI): An Imperial probe has located the rebel base. The Empire is coming! This revelation shakes up the world of our story. Our heroes must evacuate or be destroyed.
Imperial forces storm the base. The rebels flee; Han takes Leia off-world in the Millennium Falcon; Luke and R2D2 depart for Dagobah.
Act Two: Conflict and Complications
Act Two takes place in three locations: an asteroid field, the planet Dagobah, and the mining Colony of Cloud City. Our A story [Luke’s journey to Dagobah] splits off from our B story [Han and Leia], yet rather than wind off in their own directions, they develop in parallel. Evading the Imperial Fleet, Han enters an asteroid field, taking refuge in a cave. Luke reachs mist-shrouded Dagobah, crashing his fighter into the swamp. Han discovers that the “cave” is actually the mouth of an alien behemoth. Luke is pestered by a creature who turns out to be Yoda himself. After some argument, Yoda agrees to train Luke.
This brings us to our Mid-Point (MP), when our central conflict becomes dramatically clear. Luke enters a cave which is strong with the Dark Side. He brings his weapons, ignoring Yoda’s advice. Confronted by the image of Darth Vader, Luke draws his lightsaber and decapitates him, only to discover his own face behind the Sith Lord’s mask.
This moment marks not only the mid-point of Empire, but of the entire trilogy. Notice that the false Vader only ignites his lightsaber after Luke activates his. There is time to recall Yoda saying that the cave contains “only what you take with you.” Here the central conflict of the series is laid bare: the capacity in each person for good or evil, and the very real possibility that Luke’s gifts will pull him toward the Dark Side.
The Millennium Falcon reaches Cloud City, operated by Lando Calrissian. Luke fails to raise his sinking X-Wing; to his amazement, Yoda succeeds. Luke experiences a vision of his friends suffering, and
Plot Point II (PPII): heads off to rescue them, despite Yoda’s objections. Meanwhile, Lando betrays Han and Leia to the Empire.*
Examining Act Two reveals something surprising: excepting our mid-point, there is very little action in our A story. Most of the exciting scenes take place within the Han/Leia storyline. Meanwhile Luke’s story focuses on Yoda’s lectures about the Force.
This slower pace is intentional. Early on, Yoda chastises Luke for seeking adventure, for “a Jedi craves not these things.” The first Star Wars film was an homage to the adventure serials of George Lucas’s youth. In Empire, however, Luke — and the audience — is told to leave that world of childhood stories behind. It’s an invitation to maturity. At the end of Act Two, Luke rejects the strictures of adult life, and rushes back into the world of high adventure, ready to [once again] save his friends. But you can’t go back, and Luke’s rescue attempt fails.
Act Three: Resolution…
Our A and B stories reunite. Han is frozen in carbonite. Luke arrives and battles Vader, who severs Luke’s hand before revealing that
Climactic Moment(CM): He is Luke’s father [gasp!].**
Lando helps Leia and company escape. They rescue Luke and rendevouz with the rebel fleet. Lando and Chewie set out to rescue Han as the fleet continues on toward a new base…aaand we’re out.
One can imagine the reactions outside theaters when The Empire Strikes Back first ran. Is that it? There was no closure, no sense of loose ends being tied. Hell, it almost seems like they threw in a few extra ends just to have them stick out. What happened to Han? How did Luke call Leia to him after his battle with Vader? Why did Yoda say, “There is another”? All this served to prepare audiences for Return of the Jedi. But there may be something more at work.
When Empire was released, it followed an earlier film titled Star Wars. It was not until that film’s re-release as A New Hope that the subtitle “Episode IV” was added to its opening crawl. Thus Empire‘s use of “Episode V” must have startled audiences — where were episodes II, III, and IV?
All this suggests that Empire is the fullest realization of Lucas’s homage to the Saturday serials. “Episode V,” plays into this conceit. You missed a few episodes, but nothing major. We’ll catch you up. Viewed in this light, we aren’t surprised to find so much hanging in the balance at the end. Anyway, it’ll all work out in the next episode. Right?
The Empire Strikes Back should be a depressing film. The opening crawl tells us that the rebels aren’t doing so hot. We see them routed on Hoth. Luke loses his X-Wing. He fails at the cave. Han and Leia are betrayed. Han is frozen in carbonite and sent to Jabba the Hutt. Luke abandons his training [he sucked anyway — watch Yoda’s facial expressions!], gets his hand cut off, and learns that Darth Vader is his freakin’ dad! THIS MOVIE SUCKS!!!!
Except it doesn’t. Somehow, we reach the end with a sense of hope, of better things to come. We feel that hope in total defiance of the events we’ve witnessed. Maybe it’s Luke’s new hand, maybe just John Williams’s majestic score as the rebel fleet moves on. Maybe it’s the liberal sprinkling of humor and catchy one-liners that have distracted us from just how boned our heroes are every step of the way. Or maybe we believe because we have to believe, because we know things will right themselves in the end. It’s a movie, for Pete’s sake.
Our expectations play tricks on us. If The Empire Strikes Back can be said to have a moral, it is this caveat. For just as the abrupt end or Darth Vader’s revelation smack against our assumptions as an audience, so the events of the film clash with our protagonists’ expectations. The asteroid cave and Luke’s arrival on Dagobah are perfect examples, as is the welcome Han receives at Cloud City: what appears to be a classic Western stand-off dissolves into an embrace [setting up new expectations which are again overturned by Lando’s betrayal]. Yet there is no more fertile ground for the subversion of expectations than in the character of Yoda.
From the moment Yoda speaks, we are thrown off-balance. “Away put your weapon!” he cries, tossing aside the standard subject-verb-object form of English sentences. The pattern continues beyond sentence structures, however. When Luke explains that he’s “looking for someone,” Yoda treats the word “someone” as though Luke meant it in the most literal sense, as though any person would do. Luke says he is looking for “a great warrior.” Yoda’s response [“Wars not make one great”] calls into question all of Luke’s [and our] assumptions about Jedi Masters, and asks, perhaps, why we so value those who wage our wars. Throughout this scene, Yoda is the antithesis of our idea of a Jedi Master. He steals Luke’s supplies, eats his food, beats R2D2 with a stick. When he later reveals his true identity, Luke’s shock is matched by our own. This is the Jedi Master?
One more moment which brilliantly defies all expectations. Hopelessly trapped, Leia finally says, “I love you,” and Han, of course, replies with one of the greatest movie lines of all time — “I know.” It’s the perfect response, simultaneously upending our assumptions — you do not respond to “I love you” that way! — and confirming everything we know about him. An abrasive asshole to the end, right? But look at what happens next. Their eyes lock. The platform lowers into the freezing chamber. And just as he disappears from view, Han Solo’s eyes well with tears. It’s an incredible inversion. His cynicism dissolves, and we see Han Solo sans bravado — in love and so afraid. If every character has an arc, then this is Han Solo’s turning point. When he returns in Jedi, we see a changed man, dedicated to the cause and to the woman he only saved from the Death Star because she was rich.
The Empire Strikes Back is a fantastic piece of cinema, bursting with incredible visuals and snappy dialogue. But its true genius is in its storytelling, and its ability to both satisfy and frustrate our expectations. Rogue One comes out next month. I don’t know about you, but I’m curious to see if it can live up to the narrative excellence of its predecessors. I’ll see you next week.
Keep on truckin’…
*From an editing standpoint, the reveal of Lando’s betrayal is brilliant. We would expect Han to open the door, revealing Vader in a POV shot. Instead, Han opens the door, we get a flash of Vader at the table, then Han and Leia look through the door, then the expected POV. We learn a fraction of a second before they do, and it increases the oh, shit factor by several points.
**It’s impossible to imagine the shock this initially caused, now that Vader’s line is so ingrained in pop culture. James Earl Jones declared, “He’s lying!” when he was given his script for the overdub.