In the endless debate as to which of the two most well-known “Star Wars” films is superior, “Star Wars” (1977) or “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), the settlement comes down to a question of taste rather than substance.
“Star Wars” is a film that combines elements of mythology, melodrama, science fiction and adventure to create a cinematic tale that is unlike anything that came before it. “The Empire Strikes Back” utilized these same components, but established itself as a more complex film that built on the themes, characters and situations created in the first installment. Those who favor “Star Wars” argue that without the original, there would be no sequel. They punctuate the original film’s advancement of production techniques, special effects and cinema box-office potential. Supporters of “The Empire Strikes Back” argue that the second film is a stronger and more complex film. It uses the characters established in the first picture to create situations that provoke tension and fear in the minds of the audience. It is the anti-thesis of “Star Wars” as the villains prevail and the heroes are plunged into a desperate situation leading into the third film, “The Return of the Jedi” (1983).
One way of revealing the strength of “The Empire Strikes Back” over “Star Wars” is by evaluating its key moments and how they build onto the mythology and melodrama of “Star Wars”. There are several key moments in “The Empire Strikes Back” that are created to entangle the audience deeper into the Star Wars mythology. The most famous occurs during the light saber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. After winning the encounter Darth Vader reveals to Luke that he is the boy’s father. This is highly melodramatic and completely spins the audience’s way of looking at the villain. It establishes Darth Vader as more than a villain, as a sort of fallen angel. We see the goodness in Luke and question whether Vader is capable of such qualities. It also presents the audience with the question of how far Luke will go for the rebellion. Will he kill his own father? This plot point creates ambiguous questions about both Luke and Vader that alters the manner in which the audience views these two characters. It is a masterpiece of story writing that elevates the material from adventure to mythology. These kind of plot points are absent in the first film. “Star Wars” effectively built heroes and villains but they do not transcend these labels during any time of the film. Darth Vader is the “bad guy” and Luke, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Obi-wan Kenobi, and the androids are the “good guys”.
Another key moment that sets “The Empire Strikes Back” apart from “Star Wars” comes after a tremendous action sequence involving the Millennium Falcon and a high-speed chase through an asteroid field. While making repairs to their ship, Han Solo and Princess Leia find themselves in a situation where romance is evident. Though their kiss is interrupted by C-3PO, the scene establishes a romantic element between the characters. This is important in the creation of melodrama as it provides the audience with a love story and further strengthens the emotional attachment for the characters involved. Lucas was initially afraid of creating a romantic relationship between these two characters because he thought it would slow down the action and introduce the element of romance where it was not needed. However, the relationship influences the story and characters in several ways. First it provides the audience with further reason to root for the “good guys” and support Solo and Leia in the hope that their romance will overcome the odds placed against them. Second, it further fuels the loyalty/rivalry between Solo and Luke that was established in the first film. In that film both men display interest in Leia and show their interest in different ways. By fueling this rivalry for Leia’s affections, Lucas sets up an interesting revelation in the third installment when Luke discovers that Leia is his sister. Again, this elevates the characters from their clichéd status acquired in “Star Wars”, to something more profound and useful. Instead of being labeled as the “rogue” and the “princess” Solo and Leia take on more emotional qualities in the form of their love for each other. The audience sees these characters from a different angle and becomes more intimately attached to them because of their identification with the feelings that they have for one another.
In “Star Wars”, these types of emotional situations are absent and instead the characters provide straightforward and obvious traits to the story. They do not transcend their roles in the ways that they do in “The Empire Strikes Back”. It is the presence of key moments such as these that gives “The Empire Strikes Back”, a greater depth to its story and characters than does “Star Wars”.
“The Empire Strikes Back” also shows its superiority over “Star Wars” in its use of special effects. The effects used in the original film were advanced beyond anything seen before its time. However, there were definite limitations to what the filmmakers could do, largely due to the budget constraints enacted by the studio. The film was given a budget of seven million dollars and with that had to accomplish its task of putting things on the screen that had never been there before. While computer graphics had not yet been created, Lucas used the old fashioned way of miniatures, motion control photography, matte effects and composite photography to create the effects in the film. However, the budget constraints limited the amount of detail and time that could be spent in creating realistic effects.
With “The Empire Strikes Back”, budget was less of a concern for the filmmakers. The success of “Star Wars” – phenomenal even by today’s standards – ensured that Lucas would not need to cut corners when it came time to create the effects. It shows, the space sequences are more fluid, combining fluent camera work with convincing miniatures, and creating seamless composite shots that are utterly convincing. The action sequences are much more complex in “The Empire Strikes Back”. Where the first film’s action sequences mainly took place inside sound stages and focused more on costuming than effects, the sequel takes our heroes to different planets where they interact with strange life-like creatures. In one sequence action takes place inside an asteroid field, and eventually the insides of a giant worm-like creature. In another sequence, giant four-legged metal robots attack a rebel base and the audience is taken on the counterattack with our heroes in the story.
Lucas even created a lead character that was basically an advanced puppet. This character, Yoda, becomes Luke’s mentor and trains him to become a Jedi Knight. The incredible work done in creating Yoda shows as he gives a convincing performance that makes him seem as life like as any of the human characters of the story.
Because of the fact that the effects in “The Empire Strikes Back” were done “the old fashioned way” the sequence that seemed to involve the most work must have been the asteroid field sequence. In the scene, the Millennium Falcon flees from a squad of enemy fighters through an asteroid field. In order to create a realistic action sequence such as this, several techniques must have been used. The importance of the models in the scene is undeniable. It is very important that the models be detailed and accurately sized so that the audience can match up the size of the spacecraft against the background objects that they are flying around. Composite photography must have been employed here as well, because separate shots of the models and backgrounds had to be matched up to create the desired effect. In order to create composite shots, the filmmakers must have had to use motion control cameras in order to duplicate camera movements to create shots that matched perfectly with one another. This sequence was very ambitious and probably required a great deal of creative problem solving and technical perfection.
Another way that “The Empire Strikes Back” proves its superiority over “Star Wars” is through the development of its characters and story. While the first film was groundbreaking in its special effects and mixed elements of science fiction, mythology and melodrama in manners never seen before, its story structure was rather typical. The young man who is destined for great things vows to take revenge for the death of his relatives and joins a rebellious group fighting evil repression. The root of this repression stems from one man, the villain and is symbolized through the giant war machine the Death Star. The heroes fight against insurmountable odds to overthrow the evil empire and save the rebels from destruction. This is by no means new material in Hollywood films. However, it was told in a manner and with a simple sophistication that appealed to a very large audience.
With “The Empire Strikes Back”, however, Lucas ups the ante by creating a story where the good guys don’t win. Evil prevails and sets doubt in the mind of the audience as to the outcome of the heroes’ fate. Along with that, several of the main characters from the first film are given plot points that spin not only the action of the film but also the action of the trilogy in an entirely new direction. First, there is the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. This sets up an unusual relationship between Luke and Vader, which is fully exploited in “Return of the Jedi”. Second, the characters of Han Solo and Princess Leia begin a romantic involvement that provides the audience with further emotional involvement with these two characters, as the audience hopes for their commitment to one another. Also, you have Han Solo being encased in frozen carbonate, which puts his fate in doubt entering the third part of the series. “The Empire Strikes Back” works because it leaves these plot threads hanging in the audience’s minds. At the end of “Star Wars” these plot threads did not exist. The heroes had destroyed the Death Star and had won the day. Ending “The Empire Strikes Back” with these questions allows the filmmakers to go in any direction they want for the third installment. It also allows the audience time to think over all that has been revealed in the second film and to begin guessing at how these plot lines will be resolved in the third film.
The story in “The Empire Strikes Back” is more effective because of these qualities. It is more involving and challenges the audience’s perception of what should happen to the heroes and what should happen to the villains, all the while creating suspense as to the final fate of the characters of the film.
The Lucas talent for myth making is supremely evident in “The Empire Strikes Back”. In this one film, Lucas elevates his characters from memorable movie icons, to mythological popular culture figures. Lucas set this up in the first film by establishing his characters and their roles in the trilogy. Luke was set up as a young man eager to experience the universe around him, feeling that he is destined for great things. He is able to make his first step into this larger world through the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who becomes his mentor and provides Luke with the opportunity to pursue his destiny as a Jedi. Next, Lucas invented a villain that is, quite possibly, the most memorable villain in movie history, Darth Vader. Vader is set up as a ruthless overlord who uses his powers for evil purposes only and is determined to rule the galaxy with an iron fist. He set up his supporting characters, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and the androids as characters that support the hero, and the causes of the rebels and their fight against evil. Through these characters, Lucas sets up a basic good versus evil motif that is prevalent throughout the entire trilogy, but which becomes more complicated in the second installment.
In “The Empire Strikes Back”, we learn that the villain is actually the father of the hero of the story. This makes the inevitable confrontation between Luke and Vader more poignant and eventually more tragic. This elevates the material to mythological status, as tragedy is an important part of any mythological story. He establishes a new character, Lando Calrissian, as an ally to the heroes of the story, and then uses that character to initiate betrayal. Lando betrays the rebel alliance and places the heroes in dangerous situations. Lucas sets up a romantic dynamic between two of his lead characters, Han Solo and Princess Leia. This elevates these characters from simple supporting players to a focus of the films, as their relationship becomes a focus of the story. While “Star Wars” effectively created characters that were memorable and effective, it was “The Empire Strikes Back” that elevated these characters to the mythological status that gave the trilogy its lasting power and complex nature.
The debate between “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” and the superiority of either of the films is a debate that is centralized around taste more than content. In my opinion, “The Empire Strikes Back” is a superior film because of its role in establishing the trilogy and the characters to the status of mythology. Through the use of key moments, characters and the Lucas talent for mythmaking, the second film elevates the material of “Star Wars” from an effective science fiction melodrama to a modern myth that has captivated the imaginations and hearts of audiences around the world and will continue to do so for many generations to come.