It was 1980, summer was approaching, and I was awaiting the release of the most anticipated movie sequel of my fifteen years. Everyone knew there was no way it could top its predecessor, so we settled for hoping it would at least measure up and remain true to its spirit. Not only would the new installment turn out to be better than any of us had hoped, but it would go on to fundamentally transform the way I appreciated movies.
The film was “The Empire Strikes Back,” and whereas its forerunner, “Star Wars,” made me long to be Luke Skywalker–swinging across chasms, wielding a light saber, rescuing a princess –“The Empire Strikes Back” tricked me into loving it for a completely different set of reasons. What it looked like was an installment in a series of science-fiction films. What it turned out to be, however, was a profound study of a group of complex and flawed characters.
The story was still about Luke Skywalker, who was struggling to grow up, but this time, the rest of the characters were just as compelling. “Star Wars” was drawn in broad, stark strokes. Its galaxy was full of people who were either good or bad, with not many in between, and that served the story well.
In “The Empire Strikes Back,” however, bad things began to happen to our heroes. Han Solo couldn’t decide if he loved Princess Leia, he was betrayed by a friend, captured by a bounty hunter, and hauled away in a slab of carbonite. Luke’s earnest attempts to learn the way of the Jedi ended in frustration, his hand was cut off by a guy who claimed to be his father but couldn’t possibly be, and he lost his father’s light saber, nearly dying in the process.
Then the movie ended.
This kind of ending would be difficult to handle at any age, but more so if you were only fifteen and emotionally invested in a set of characters. The beauty of a good film is that it can make you care and want to see loose ends tied, justice meted out to appropriate parties, and characters living on with some amount of happiness. But while “The Empire Strikes Back” made me care, it provided none of those other things. It made me angry and sad, but more important, it made me think.
What George Lucas and company likely intended was to place their characters into terrible situations from which they would rescue them in the next film. After all, this was the middle of a three-part series, so there was little need for satisfying resolutions. The lesson I eventually gleaned from the film, however, was far more satisfying.
Like many great films, “The Empire Strikes Back,” was troubling, and it left me unsettled for weeks after I saw it. At first I was unsure of why it made me feel this way, but as I continued to wrestle with the story, I saw that it served not only as a part of a series but as a compelling story in its own right. It proved to me that a film didn’t need a contrived or positive resolution to be powerful. From then on, I would use it as a benchmark for judging all films, not only those in the genre of science fiction.
And I also grew to realize that a lot actually did happen in “The Empire Strikes Back.” It just took me a while to understand its significance.