A long time ago (40 years to be exact) in a galaxy far, far away, a defining story was told. When one thinks of
Star Wars , they think of Darth Vader, the ruthless space wizard-cyborg who serves the evil Galactic Empire. In addition to being a grade-A asshole, Vader is also a horrible father; however, we didn’t know that until Irvin Kershner’s 1980 classic, The Empire Strikes Back . Episode V proves that audiences take to a good twist like middle-aged men to fake Tinder profiles. Those who don’t recognize the line, “No, I am your father” have either been raised by wolves or exist in a parallel universe where George Lucas was born Amish. That said, The Empire Strikes Back contributes more to Star Wars than just Luke Skywalker’s daddy issues; there’s also that amazing battle on Hoth, Yoda’s game-changing tutelage, and Harrison Ford’s omnipotence. Forty years later, it’s still the most influential entry in the franchise. Here’s why.
Cover Photo: Twentieth Century Fox
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Empire Strikes Back
It flirted with the idea of incest 30 years before 'Game of Thrones.'
We may know that Luke and Leia are brother and sister now, but back then, the writers didn’t. Or did they? Given the Star Wars demographic, one has to assume that Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett weren’t fantasizing about a Lannister-esque entanglement when they wrote Empire . However, a couple of things in Episode V may point to the contrary; Yoda tells Obi-Wan, “There is another” not long before we find out Leia is Force-sensitive.
Leia's famous 'nerf herder' insult.
The burn to end all burns: you stuck-up, half-witted, scruff-looking nerf herder! Everyone sat in silence as they awaited young Han Solo’s response and, oh, was it a classic one. He didn’t take issue with Leia’s belittlement of the nerf-herding profession nor the ruthless jab at his intellect. No. Solo, who bathes once, sometimes twice a day, dared not stand by while his hygiene was attacked.
The confrontation on Hoth is the best battle in 'Star Wars.'
Empire ’s first act takes place at a Rebellion outpost on Hoth. A lot happens there; Luke uses Force pull and Han shoves Luke into a Tauntaun. However, it’s the battle against the Empire at the end of the first attack that shifts things into high gear. After finding the Rebellion, the Empire launches a full-scale using AT-AT walkers, forcing everyone to evacuate. They fight their way out as the Empire takes the rebel base. Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and Jay take off in the Falcon and Luke bails in his X-wing with Silent Bob.
The possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1!
Empire becomes a chase movie. To evade imperial forces, Solo and company navigate an asteroid field, ultimately hiding in what they think is an asteroid but is actually a freaking ringworm in space— this is no cave . It’s another great sequence piggybacking off a great initial sequence. While the movie is a much faster installment than its predecessor, it still has time for characters like Han Solo and C-3PO to say characteristic things.
The introduction of the Emperor.
Fun fact: the theatrical cut of the Emperor was played by a woman (who was voiced by a man) and looked a lot different than Ian McDiarmid's iconic facial scars; George Lucas’ endless remastering of the original trilogy replaced that depiction with McDiarmid’s Emperor.
Yoda vs. R2-D2
When Luke and R2-D2 go to the swamp planet Dagobah to meet Master Yoda, we are treated to that goofy, Trojan horse introduction -- not to mention a confrontation between two characters you never associate with one another. Honestly, it hasn’t aged; regardless, Yoda reinforces the belief that good things often come in small packages.
Yoda taught us all how to believe.
Empire taught us that Yoda is and always will be the greatest Jedi of all time. Luke’s training on Hoth perfectly balances the film’s otherwise fast pace. Some of Star Wars ’ most memorable moments take place on Dagobah where a puppet spews wisdom so profound, the viewer feels like they’re on DMT. The Force isn’t about worship (even thought the church of Yoda would undoubtedly be a huge success); it’s about the dichotomy of good and evil, and conquering our own flaws.
The Force got a major upgrade.
Force pull, Force jump, Force push, and Force ghosts (oh, hi Obi-Wan).
The man, the myth, the Lando.
The introduction of Billy Dee Williams as the smooth-talking smuggler, Lando Calrissian.
Harrison Ford came into his own (and so did Carrie Fisher).
Despite everything that happens in Empire , it still manages to be a story about people. Putting Han and Leia in close quarters (on the Falcon) throughout the film gives them a lot of room to grow together. Their banter is a highlight of the film as is their love-hate affair. When they finally come to terms with their feeling for one another, Han is doomed to a life of carbonite. What is arguably the trilogy's best line (originally meant to be “I love you, too”) precedes said freezing, a line that was improvised by Harrison Ford himself.
Boba Fett was a badass.
Empire is the first time we see the iconic Mandalorian bounty hunter. He doesn’t say much but his stoic badassery speaks volumes. Unfortunately, Return of the Jedi brought Boba Fett’s life to a comedic end, enraging fans. Fett’s underutilized legacy is one of the major reasons we now have Disney+’s The Mandalorian.
Darth Vader was easily impressed.
Once you see the lightsaber fights of the prequel trilogy, Luke’s first lightsaber fight seems...underwhelming. However, acrobatics aside, the way the sequence is staged and shot trumps anything we’ve seen since. Everything in Empire (and A New Hope ) has led up to this confrontation in the clouds, two main characters battling it in what is essentially an elegant slow dance. Every Star Wars film has copied this climactic saber finish.
Lightsabers can actually hurt the hero.
Most blockbusters don't maim or freeze their protagonists. Empire is remembered as the dark Star Wars film. No one wins; the Rebels lose the Battle of Hoth, Han gets frozen in carbonite, and Luke (physically and emotionally traumatized) gets away from Vader.
The twist that changed cinema.
Somehow, "Luke, I am your father" has entered our vernacular. What Darth Vader actually says to Luke is, “No, I am your father.” The reveal that the villain didn’t kill the hero’s father (like his mentor told him) but is his father, changed cinema. Contemporary culture now relies on chosen ones and mind-blowing twists to move a trilogy forward. But that’s not what people should’ve taken away from Empire .
The reason people remember that quote wrong is because it’s not important. The characters are important. Empire is the most detailed and well-thought-out entry in the Skywalker saga; the characters are relatable. Just like us, the characters desire direction, especially Luke, who’s constantly searching for a role model (first Obi-Wan, then Yoda). When we see Vader offer his hand, it becomes impossible not to associate Luke’s name with that line. The line isn't as important as the characters of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. That's why we muffle our voices to sound like Vader and say, " Luke , I am your father." Forty years later, it still gives us daddy issues.