Thirty Years Later: How Come There Hasn’t Been A Movie As Good As The Empire Strikes Back Yet?
Thirty years ago I was 10 going on 11 and the world was abuzz with the follow-up to George Lucas’ original Star Wars. As a fan of the genre in general and the first motion picture specifically, I was in heaven with reminders everywhere from magazines, posters and television commercials. Even the local paper had a story about the significance of the sequel to what was then the highest grossing film of all time. In the months of May, June, July and most of August, this film owned the hearts and minds of children and adults. George Lucas had captured the imagination of an entire nation, if not the world. Again.
“ESB” is the first motion picture I had seen in the movie theater twice, and the first time ever I had been to the theater twice in the same month. I can remember exactly where I was when I ask if we could see it again and she checked her purse to see if she had enough money. Being a single parent who watched every dime like a hawk, this was a huge deal for us. She was caught up in it, too. Each time we stood in line at The First Cinema, my heart beat out of my chest with nervous apprehension - was the rug going to get pulled out from under me and we were going to be forced to go home because the theater was too full?
Thanks to the first two films of The Star Wars Saga, I was fascinated by other cultures and different worlds and sparked my life long fascination with astronomy and other branches of science. I look back at that summer as the best of my childhood.
Thirty years in the rear view mirror and four other films in the saga in the can, I can’t help but wonder how come there hasn’t been a motion picture as good as “The Empire Strikes Back,” as the title signifies. How come there hasn’t been another motion picture like it that has kept us on the edge of our seats while bringing us to new worlds to explore? Not even George Lucas could duplicate the same success of “The Empire Strikes Back,” especially with the follow up to that one: “Return Of The Jedi.”
For the past 30 years there have been a lot of articles published about why this one out of the bunch is so good, considered by most to be the best of them all. I would also like to venture my own opinion that out of all the sequels that had ever been made, that there’s never been one that’s come as close to perfection and almost eclipses the original. Has anyone been able to explain why and pin down the definitive answer? Or is the success of “The Empire Strikes Back” simply cinema magic that defies explanation? A celluloid phenomenon that will never be experienced again?
One of the conclusions I’ve come up with is that ESB is infused with what I consider a lot of real life grit into the fantastical world. Our heroes go to far off worlds that were beyond anything we had yet experienced. George Lucas and company take us to an ice planet, a swap planet, up close to enormous asteroids large enough to lose a ship, and a city in the clouds. These are all incredible wondrous places, visiting them alone would be enough to hold our attention for a couple of hours. It’s what happens there that keeps us going back 30 years later. There are some events that echo our real lives. There’s the mentor that tells his student that he might be good, but he’s incapable of being anything great because he’s not completely invested in the task, not fully present in the moment.
In this motion picture, there are the good guys who are on the run being hunted down by oppressive government forces who have the latest state-of-the-art technology. The heroes who are running away from the oppressive military are in a run-down vehicle unable to operate properly, the only reason why they’re able to survive is their ability to out-wit the incompetent leaders on the opposing side.
There’s also a villain with motives beyond just wanting to be mean and cause suffering to others. The major villain is complex with raw emotions and motivations that we can actually relate to once the movie is over. He’s not just a generic heavy. Vader has a clarity of purpose. He actually wants to “save” his victim and win him over to his side. I’m not even sure that has ever happened before to such an extent.
The biggest aspect of the “ESB‘s” realism is who wins and who loses in the end. The only guy who really comes out a head is a guy wearing a bucket on his head who’s name is never actually mentioned in the film and has only a few lines. He leaves Cloud City with what he wants, he wins his prize through the hard work and angst of others, especially Darth Vader and Imperial Military. Everyone else comes out of these events with less then what they had with these events first began. The ending is very solemn and melancholy, there’s a genuine darkness and uncertainty. That’s real life - more often then not there are no clear winners, often losers.
Judging by what had transpired in this film, it’s wasn’t too hard to imagine that Lucas and Company could quite possibly kill off some of the other characters we met in the original, anything was possible and the final outcomes of each of them were up for grabs. Providing of course that the follow-up to “ESB” would be just as dark.
Why this film is so good and why there have been few films that compare is that this team was willing to take severe risks, starting with allowing the possibility for the villains and morally ambiguous characters to win. The good guys are wrought with personality flaws and unsavory traits and can actually lose. We’re actually able to relate to the characters in this space opera, and can imagine we could have a place in their world since we identify with them so closely.
Everyone involved with "The Empire Strikes Back" made a bold movie that didn't play it safe and went with a dark and gritty third act that added true-to-life substance. George Lucas could have given us more cheap thrills and a "feel good" victory at the last minute. Instead he gave his series a huge dose of credibility that pulled us in and made this audience part of the adventure like never before. Very few motion pictures has been able to do so since.