It’s December 31st, 2015, and by now everyone in the galaxy has seen “The Force Awakens.” I thought this would be a good time to revisit “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), aka the first sequel to “Star Wars” (1977). “Empire” is most notable for its originality – a rare quality in a sequel – and for taking some major risks.
Here’s where Lucas’s independence worked in his favor. If Disney had owned Lucasfilm back then, “Empire” might have mirrored “Star Wars” more closely. It might have been about the Rebels discovering a second Death Star under construction and Yoda would have been played by an elderly human who, like Obi-Wan, would have accompanied the heroes on their mission and dispensed occasional wisdom/Force training. (And incidentally, it probably would have been called “Star Wars 2.”)
Instead, the heroes were split up; Han and Leia were pursued by an obsessed Darth Vader and Luke traveled to a swamp for long, slow scenes in which a puppet taught him about the mystical workings of the universe. And the movie ends with one hero captured and another dismembered. This was the sequel to the biggest blockbuster of all time.
But it worked beautifully. It gave fans what they wanted, i.e. the characters they loved, but it scattered them throughout these worlds and situations we never would have imagined.
If you’re sensing a veiled criticism of “The Force Awakens,” you’re not far off. I loved a lot of choices that J.J. Abrams made, especially the return to practical effects and real sets. Story-wise they played it safe and basically mirrored the plot of “Star Wars” but, to be fair, the film had the weighty task of establishing a lot of new characters and conflicts. Its main objective was to make us care about the new cast of characters, and in this “The Force Awakens” succeeded where “The Phantom Menace” (1999) failed miserably. Rey, Poe, Kylo, and BB-8 all have their admirers now. I don’t recall legions of fans being won over by Qui-Gon, Amidala, and that CGI rabbit who shall not be named. So, much like “Star Wars,” “The Force Awakens” provided some fun visuals and introduced a host of heroes and villains that fans loved; mission accomplished. Some laziness in the plot can be forgiven. (This time.)
And while we’re on the subject of risk taking, I want to point out again that Yoda was played by a puppet. This was unprecedented. While the Muppets were hugely popular by 1980, and performed alongside humans regularly, there was never any attempt to make them lifelike. The conceit in the Muppet universe is that these characters are just accepted as normal people even though they look like crazy puppets. Yoda, on the other hand (*wink*), was meant to be taken seriously as a living, breathing creature. The fact that they even tried this is commendable, but his enormous success as a character is astonishing.
“The Empire Strikes Back” is well regarded as one of the best sequels of all time. It reunited the characters from the first movie and tossed them into new territory. It introduced new characters that would come to be beloved. Most importantly, it took some major risks. Let’s just say, Episode VIII has a lot to live up to.