Traps, romantics, carbonite, swamps, and bounty hunters. You have to admit Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back really takes the viewer on a grand venture through a broad and colorful celestial landscape. It’s an endearing and enduring piece of cinematic entertainment.
As it is only the second film (chronologically) made for the main Star Wars universe, Empire plays a crucial role in setting up a host of important characters and introducing a number of infamous franchise tropes.
The most iconic moment in the film has to be Vader’s revelation of fatherhood in relation to Luke. Nothing could be so devastating, so baffling and so heart-shattering. It is worth noting that big father-son reveals have become popular shock factors in major motion pictures.
James T. Kirk discovers his fatherhood in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Mutt is informed that he is Indy’s son in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – a fact to which both father and son are oblivious. In each of those examples, the relationships are perhaps touching but not nearly as powerful or melodramatic as Luke’s discovery that his darkest enemy is his own father.
However, the relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker more closely resembles that of the father-son clash of Odysseus and Telegonus in the ancient Greek epics. This encounter concludes with Telegonus triumphing over Odysseus, claiming his life and unaware that Odysseus was his own father. Yet once again, the Vader-Luke combat is far more tragic and sinister than such a misunderstanding — for Vader is fully aware that the man he fights is his son. It serves to show the depths to which Darth Vader has sunk in his conversion to the Dark Side.
Of course, this is the most memorable moment of the film — then an element of total surprise. Beyond this, Empire provides a slew of character entrances into the franchise.
Enter Darth Sidious. While Star Wars fans would receive a greater depth of personality from Palpatine as explored in the prequel trilogy, Empire offers the franchise’s original entry point for the character. The first time he is seen in the film, Palpatine appears in a hologram to communicate with Vader.
Oddly enough, the short-lived Grand Moff Tarkin displays some level of authority over Vader’s actions in A New Hope. However, the audience up until this point generally attributes the role of chief antagonist to Vader. In showing Vader’s obedience to his “master,” Sidious, the audience is introduced to the idea that Vader is a slave, that there is yet another evil figure of an even higher rank.
Master Yoda also receives his cinematic introduction to the Star Wars fanbase in Empire. While Yoda is made out to be quite the cook, a reluctant Luke comes to discover that there is great wisdom under his mask of assumed senility.
Empire would not be complete without Cloud City, the locale for the epic father-son duel between Vader and Luke, and Cloud City itself would be nothing without the leadership of Lando Calrissian, played here by Billy Dee Williams. Personally, I think it is a tremendous shame that the sequel trilogy of the Skywalker saga has excluded the character until his sudden re-appearance in The Rise of Skywalker. Despite this unfortunate absence, the character had some interesting developments in 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, there portrayed by Donald Glover.
Furthermore, Empire served as the original feature-film introduction to the bounty hunter Boba Fett, a character whose origin would later be explored in the prequels. Boba was originally introduced in the cheesy 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special TV program. Additionally, in the 1990s, Boba was retroactively inserted into a scene in the Special Edition of A New Hope.
However, as far as original theatrical releases go, Boba Fett gets his introduction here. We see he is an experienced and efficient bounty hunter who, like so many characters, does not quite agree with Vader’s mode of operations. Boba just wants Solo (alive) to be able to sell to Jabba the Hutt. Meanwhile, Vader just needs a test subject, and Solo is the perfect fit.
Besides the whole host of character intros that the film gives us, it is also the inaugural presentation of several elements typical of Star Wars stories. Empire is the first film to depict a Force ghost in Obi-Wan (although we did hear his disembodied, deceased voice communicate to Luke in A New Hope).
Later, in Luke’s lightsaber duel with Vader, the young Jedi learner loses a hand. The severing of a hand or arm seems to be a bit of a minor trope within the franchise, including such moments as Anakin’s defeat in his first battle with Dooku in Attack of the Clones and Master Mace Windu’s cut forelimb at the hand of Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith. The loss of a limb on account of a lightsaber also had a brief appearance in A New Hope, when Obi-Wan slices off the arm of Ponda Baba, who had been threatening Luke. Star Wars just loves its severed limbs.
Another trope is the cave. In classic sci-fi and fantasy, a cave always signifies a locale filled either with foreboding danger or spectacular enchantment. In Empire, Luke manages to visit several caves. In the first, on Hoth, he battles definite danger. Later, amid the dense vegetation of Dagobah, Luke battles an image of what potentially lies in store for himself — if he were to fall to the Dark Side. These are just a few specific instances in which fictitious caves harbor danger and display mysterious properties.
Overall, Empire carries with it numerous points significant to the Star Wars saga as a whole. It furthers the romantic relationship between Han and Leia. It provides previously unknown information about Vader and Luke’s background. It offers a more in-depth training procedure concerning the ways of the Force. And it introduces a host of stellar characters to the franchise. Due to its placement in the grand scheme of the saga, Empire is one of the most strategic, most well-developed installments of Star Wars, as well as a stunning movie in and of itself.