Sequels generally suck. They rarely distinguish themselves and more often tarnish the artistic integrity of what came before: Jurassic Park 2 and 3; Rocky II, III, and V; Spider-Man 3; Superman III and IV; Batman Forever and Batman and Robin; Speed 2; every Terminator and Alien after their second installments; every sequel to Police Academy, Lethal Weapon, Transformers, and Jaws. Even The Godfather Part III falls into the sequel trap.The Empire Strikes Back crescendos with one of the most famous reversals in movie history. It’s a monumental, epic, Sophoclean tragedy.
After Star Wars became the second-highest grossing film of all time (a position it still holds, adjusted for inflation), the temptation to make a sequel was irresistible. George Lucas had planned a massive nine- or twelve-part saga from the very beginning, and the smashing success of the first film invited him to revisit the galaxy far, far away and simply print money.
It is little short of a miracle that Empire Strikes Back not only did not embarrass itself but became the second consecutive film in the same franchise to be a great film—even, one of the greatest. In fact, Empire has aged even better than its predecessor. It is currently #7 on Letterboxd.com’s list of the greatest films of all time, while Star Wars is far down at #87. Similarly, it stands at #12 on IMDB’s list, compared to #19 for Star Wars—a judgment that I suspect will eventually be reflected on the AFI and BFI’s lists of greatest films.
Even more remarkable is that even though Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back are stories set in the same fictional universe and same space-fantasy backdrop, they are completely different story-arcs or narrative forms. This may sound confusing because we are used to thinking of science fiction as a kind of “genus,” and treating all stories with lightsabers, robots, or spaceships as various “species.” This is an unhelpful way to categorize stories. I would characterize science fiction as a backdrop, not a story-type. It is the furniture of a story, not the story itself. Science fiction tells you what kind of props to buy and how to paint the set; it says nothing at all about the characters, plot, or story. Any backdrop can serve for any kind of story.
Classically, there are two broad story-arcs: stories of light and stories of darkness. Aristotle called these two stories “comedy” and “tragedy.” We have, again, lost the meaning of these words. “Comedy” are stories of light, stories that end as the universe truly ends, with hope and joy. They sometimes involve laughter, but often only through searing pain and loss. Return of the King, with its epic battles and frightening Nazgûl, is one of the best comedies ever made. Dante’s Divine Comedy went through hell itself to reach the ultimate comedic apotheosis in the music of the spheres. Star Wars is a comedy, one of the greatest.
Then there are stories of darkness, what used to be called tragedy but are now called “dark” and “gritty.” If we cared a whit for proper English, we’d reserve “grit” to describe sandpaper and peanut butter, not storytelling. Regardless of the name, stories of darkness tell the true story of the world as we experience it, within the horizon of our earthly, mortal lives. Short of the coming Kingdom, life is pain, the bad guys often win, and then you die. Aristotle said tragedy depends on a revelation and a sudden reversal of fortune. The Empire Strikes Back, which crescendos with one of the most famous reversals in movie history, is a tragedy—a monumental, epic, Sophoclean tragedy.
In the greatest of the classical Greek tragedies, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus goes hunting for a sin that has brought the wrath of the gods down upon his city. He discovers a shocking tale of parricide and incest. Worse, he finds the sinner: himself. Abandoned as a child, he grew up, then murdered a king and married the widowed queen, not knowing that that pair had been his own father and mother. Oedipus recoils in horror at his own true nature, unmasked.
Luke Skywalker has a similar journey in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke journeys to discover his destiny and find out if he can become a true Jedi Knight. He is also on a quest for vengeance. In the first film, he was told that Darth Vader had murdered his father; subsequently, Luke watched as Vader struck down his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke wants revenge for both murders—which means he needs to take on the dangerous and fanatical Dark Lord of the Sith. In his mind, the two quests become fused: he will only become a true Jedi once he tests his mettle against Vader and emerges the victor.
Vader is on his own quest, though for much of the movie we don’t quite understand why. He pursues Luke and his friends with a monomaniacal insanity and a wanton disregard for the lives of his men or broader imperial strategy. He murders a string of his own admirals and captains who fail him and recklessly risks his capital ships in a wild chase through an asteroid field. Vader embodies the Empire: a totalitarian military autocracy run by religious fanatics.
Their first confrontation takes place in a hallucination. Luke descends into the earth in a swamp cave and confronts a vision of Vader in a scene shot more like a horror film than a family-friendly action flick. His descent has echoes of Orpheus and Odysseus, both of whom searched the underworld land of the dead for loved ones and guidance. But it most closely parallels Aeneas, who descended to Hades to speak to the shade of his father. Luke strikes down his nightmare, only to discover himself inside.
When Luke and Vader finally confront each other face-to-face at the climax of the movie, we learn the truth in one of the greatest scenes ever filmed.
Every son starts out hero-worshipping his dad. At some point, the son figures out dad is just a regular person. Maybe he starts feeling embarrassed because dad isn’t cool—and because dad is old, probably getting fat, can’t throw the football very well anymore. Maybe the son starts to notice that dad gets really dumb if he has a few drinks, or that he isn’t well respected at work. Maybe, once in a while, dad gets violent.Luke’s tragedy resonates because, at some level, it is ours.
We inherit much of our identities from our fathers. This is both a blessing and a curse. Coming to grips with his father’s fallen humanity, while still retaining an independent sense of dignity, ambition, and integrity, is one of the great rites of passages in a young man’s life. If dad was too overbearing, a son can lose his individuality. If dad was too lazy or stupid or violent, a son can lose his faith, his inspiration, or his sense of moral purpose. That is perhaps how God visits “the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7).
Imagine you hero-worshipped your dad and always wanted to be like him and then discovered he was a murderer, a fanatic, and a tyrant.
Like Oedipus, Luke’s main horror upon learning the truth is directed at himself. He set out to become a Jedi; he discovers he is the spawn of the Sith. His own nature repels him. He is, in himself, an object of revulsion. Luke’s newfound identity as Vader’s son confronts Luke with an impossible choice. If he carries out his quest for vengeance and kills Vader, he is a parricide. If, instead, he shows restraint out of filial loyalty (or, worse, accepts Vader’s offer to join forces), he accepts that he is Vader’s son—with unavoidable consequences for who he, Luke, is.
Luke’s answer, within the movie, is suicide, a perfect echo of his ancient Greek forebears, plummeting off a ledge to his presumed death. His rescue is ambiguous: did he use the Force to find the escape hatch? Or did the Force use him? The movie wisely leaves it unclear.
Luke’s tragedy resonates because, at some level, it is ours. In our most honest moments, when the burden of sin presses down on us, we recognize that we, in our very nature and from the moment of our generation, are something awful.
In one of his fiercest denunciations, Jesus condemned those who rejected him by saying, “You are doing the works your father did. . . . You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:41, 44).
The tragedy of fallen humanity is that we, in the person of our original parents, chose the dark father over the heavenly one. His agenda is in our spiritual DNA; the corruption permeates and pervades our being. The story of human life is the story of our attempts to unearth the truth about our natures, and our flight from ourselves when we begin to understand.
The Greek story usually ended in death, but sometimes in apotheosis, as in Oedipus at Colonus. The Bible’s story leads to repentance and faith in the atoning Christ and his substitutionary sacrifice. Luke and Vader’s story, as it continues in Return of the Jedi, diverges from the Greek and Biblical archetypes, mirroring neither exactly, but combining the two in evocative ways. Luke becomes a sort of messiah-savior by fulfilling his Jedi training, converting Vader and defeating the Emperor. Vader dies the martyr’s redemptive death in his final sacrifice. The original Star Wars saga, like Dante’s, is, in the end, a story of light.
But before searching for light, one must meditate on the darkness, which is what Empire Strikes Back does so well. The genius of Empire is to take an ancient Greek tragedy with a dose of Biblical truth, dress it up in science-fiction garb, and sell it as a blockbuster. Few have done better.