Study Guide

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Introduction


Release Year: 1980

Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi

Director: Irvin Kershner

Writer: George Lucas, Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan

Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher


  

True facts: things in the middle tend to get overlooked. You know this way too well if you're a middle child. You know this intimately if you've ever spent time in the Axe-body-spray-and-cafeteria-pizza-scented daymare that is middle school. Even as a tiny tot, you learned through games of "monkey in the middle" that "the middle" was a not-good place to be (although pretending to be a monkey is always an armpit-scratching good time).

We haven't even referenced all the literary in-between-y places that should come equipped with a "Do Not Enter" sign: Purgatorio, Silent Hill, or even the war-torn, messed-up Middle-earth.

When it comes to trilogies, then, you'd think that being smack dab in the middle of the action would be the worst place to be, right? You're halfway between the beginning and the end. You don't get to introduce much, and you don't get to conclude anything. All you get to do is continue the action.

Being in the middle probably makes for a yawn-fest of a story, right?

Not when it comes to The Empire Strikes Back.

The second installment of the original Star Wars trilogy is the crown jewel in Princess Leia's crown. It's held up as the darkest, most complex, and most interesting story to take place a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away. And it's not just because The Empire Strikes Back is the film that gave us the ice planet Hoth, wampas, levitating X-wing fighters, and the immortal line "Do. Or do not. There is no try."

But when you hear the backstory to The Empire Strikes Back, you'd be forgiven for believing that George Lucas has a tiny green mentor of his own whispering sage advice in his ear.

That's because this cinematic masterpiece had a crazy road from conception to production—in fact, the story of Empire Strikes Back is almost as nutso as the story in Empire Strikes Back. (Not really. No one's lightsaber-carrying hands were hurt in the making of this motion picture.)

Before Empire landed in 1980, George Lucas faced a massive quandary: How do you follow up a movie as massively successful as Star Wars: A New Hope? Things were rough at first—the script passed through three sets of hands and went through radical revisions—but, after adding a certain massive twist to the story, Lucas finally knew that he had struck gold.

Yeah, you read that right: Darth Vader wasn't originally meant to be Luke's dad (source)… which is almost more shocking to modern audiences than the twist itself. Still, it shows us exactly why The Empire Strikes Back was such a great film. Instead of clinging to established formulas, the film continued to experiment and redefine the Star Wars series as a whole.

So...what exactly happens in the movie? Well, you know the plot of The Empire Strikes Back even if you don't actually know it, if you smell what we're cooking (wampa stew, thanks for asking). It follows a young hero as he's swept into a massive intergalactic conflict beyond his comprehension and forced to come to grips not only with his growing power, but his destiny as the one to end the conflict. 

Sound familiar? It should—it's the basis for, well, pretty much every sci-fi epic that came after.

But the devil—or at least the Dark Side of the Force, or at least the things that make Empire Strikes Back so memorable—is in the details. The Rebel's battle against the Empire on ice planet Hoth. Luke's trip to Dagobah to meet his mentor, Yoda. Han and Leia's smoldering romance. Lando's betrayal. And, of course, Darth Vader's big reveal that he's Luke's Daddy-o.

Whether you look down on the series as overrated mass entertainment or have an AT-AT tattooed across your bicep, we can all agree on one thing: The Empire Strikes Back is a big deal. It's also perhaps the most enduring film in the Star Wars series to fans and non-fans alike thanks to its adult themes, compelling characters, and fascinating plot twists.

Basically, this movie makes being in the middle seem awesome. Just remember, though: If you write George Lucas an email telling him "I love The Empire Strikes Back," he'll probably take a page from Han Solo's book and simply write back, "I know."

What is Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back About and Why Should I Care?

Care or do not care. There is no "should."

We're not just whipping out our best Yoda impression for fun here, Shmoopers. (Although of course we are: Pretending to be a wise creature that happens to look like a cross between a raisin and a lima bean is always fun.)

When it comes to a movie as massive, as pivotal, and as catchphrase-spawning as The Empire Strikes Back, you have two options. You can a) study the Force that is Empire Strikes Back until you're able to levitate X-wing fighters and do impressive Crossfit-style handstands, or you can b) retreat into a cave far away from all popular culture… and maybe end up beheading a hallucination of your evil father in the process. You do you.

Empire Strikes Back is fantastic for a million and a half reasons, from the fact that meteorite caves turn out to be—oops!—giant space-worm tummies, to the fact that Luke gets his Oedipus complex on in a massive way, to the fact that Han and Leia's love is so smokin' hot it's still making people swoon. All that fantastic-ness translates to its fantastic success… and to the fact that it's totally amazing to study.

First things first: This movie is straight up excellent. (No; you're not allowed to argue with that statement.) The Empire Strikes Back is an uber-innovative film. It starts in the middle of action. It ends in the middle of action. It's super depressing. It grapples with ideas of Zen Buddhism, destiny, and family… while still having insane space fights and icky space-creatures galore.

The Empire Strikes Back was so influential that it pretty much set the standard for every second installment in every film trilogy that followed. What's more, the fact that it was merely one half of a longer super-story that would be concluded in its sequel was unheard of at the time.

Maybe film studies aren't what get you hot and bothered? Maybe you're more into the world of finance? Lucky you. The Empire Strikes Back changed the film business too.

Lucas made some serious cash off the first Star Wars, which allowed him to invest heavily in his production company, Lucasfilm, and fund the Star Wars sequel almost entirely by himself. Yup: The Empire Strikes Back—one of the most successful movies of all-time—was basically an independent production.

If the logistics of the film industry leave you cold, and you're more interested in people than cold, hard cash... you're also in luck. Star Wars: A New Hope may have lit the flames of fandom, but Empire Strikes Back is what fanned those flames into a bonfire.

We haven't even addressed the tech-nerds out there (Empire Strikes Back boasts some of the best special effects of its time), the scientists (this film gets a surprising amount of its sci-facts right—apart from levitation), or the comparative religion studies (the Force is rooted in about half a dozen major faiths).

Whether your pleasure is math, film, business or just lying on the couch in your Snuggie and watching a movie that will leave you breathless with suspense—and breathless because you're doing your best Darth Vader-wheeze impression—there's much to learn from studying Empire Strikes Back, young padawan.

We won't even ask you to suppress your anger while you do so. If anyone deserves a hate-inspired beat-down, it's the Emperor.

Trivia

Yes, it's true—Darth Vader was never meant to be Luke's father. This is confirmed by the fact that the ghost of Anakin Skywalker appears in early drafts of the movie's script.
(Source)

In another familial twist, early drafts indicate that Luke has a sister, but not Leia. While these allusions were removed from the final film, there is still some debate over whether Lucas intended Leia to be Luke's sister by the time he finished making The Empire Strikes Back.
(Source)

Although it went on to become one of the Star Wars series' most iconic lines, Han Solo's "I know" wasn't part of the script—it was improvised by actor Harrison Ford who was unsatisfied with the written line, which was a simple "I love you too."
(Source)

Although many claim that is was just a joke taken out of context, George Lucas famously called The Empire Strikes Back the "worst" Star Wars movie. Ouch—you hit us right in the fandom, buddy.
(Source)

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Resources

Websites

Wookieepedia
Excuse the pun, but if you're looking for information regarding anything in the Star Wars universe, this is a great place to start.

The Official Star Wars Homepage
For information regarding any of the films in the Star Wars series, you could do a whole lot worse than the official homepage.

Book or TV Adaptations

The Empire Strikes Back (novel)
Fun fact: Yoda is described as being blue in this novelization.

Articles and Interviews

An Interview with Irvin Kershner
In this compelling chat, director Irvin Kershner describes his experience directing a big budget space opera like The Empire Strikes Back.

An Interview with Gary Kurtz
If you're looking for a negative take on Empire, then check out this chat with Gary Kurtz, who produced the film but left the series soon after its completion.

A 1980 Interview with George Lucas
This interview with Rolling Stone was performed just after The Empire Strikes Back was released, so it provides some fascinating insight into the film.

Video

Bobbie Wygant's Empire Strikes Back Special
This television special detailing the production of Empire features the cast discussing plans for future Star Wars films, many of which differ greatly from the final products.

All Changes Made to The Empire Strikes Back
If you're feeling super nerdy, this video shows every single change that Lucas has made to the film since its release.

An Interview with John Williams
This vintage interview with composer John Williams examines his mindset when creating Empire's iconic score.

Audio

Lawrence Kasdan on the On Story podcast
This fascinating chat with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan focuses not merely on Star Wars, but on his insight into storytelling as an art.

The Empire Strikes Back - The Radio Drama
In 1983, NPR created a radio version of The Empire Strikes Back, and now you can listen back to all three hours of glorious storytelling.

Images

A Production Shot of Yoda
Good grief, what are those men doing to Yoda? The horror!

A Production Shot of Vader and Luke's Battle
Man, Vader's pretty handsome under that helmet, huh?

The Empire Strikes Back's Poster
Star Wars posters are so iconic that we'd be remiss to not include one here.