Thirty years ago, George Lucas sprung his Star Wars sequel upon a young moviegoing public that was simply unprepared for what they'd see: An unrelenting operatic downer, filled with pain, sacrifice, revelation, and loss. Good times.
Friday is the 30th anniversary of the release of Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back. There have been, and will be, a ton of pieces commemorating that fact, looking back at the best of the Star Wars saga with dewy-eyed reverence — or recalling how good Star Wars can be when George Lucas isn't directing it.
But it's worth remembering that there's a whole generation of people for whom Star Wars was a formative influence — people who were young enough when it was first released in 1977 that A New Hope calibrated both their moral and storytelling compass. Star Wars was a children's fable, a story of good versus evil in which evil gets its ass kicked and good gets an awesome medal and the thanks of a grateful rebellion. And so, 30 years hence, it's easy to forget what a world-shaking shot to the gut The Empire Strikes Back was: Han Solo is frozen solid, Luke gets his hand chopped off, and Darth Vader reveals himself to be his father.
Movies, as far as we knew, weren't supposed to end like that.
The Hero is supposed to win.
The Empire Strikes Back introduced an entire generation of moviegoers to the notion of tragedy — to the concept that not every ending will be happy, that sometimes the Hero doesn't win, that sometimes you have to go through the dark before you get to the light. And Empire was the first time we walked out of a theater depressed.
Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett's screenplay was like Shakespearan screwball; it swung between the heavy father-son themes of the Luke-Vader-Yoda thread and the light, "never tell me the odds" flirtation shared by Han and Leia. So much so, at times they felt like two different movies — and, let's be honest, the Dagobah stuff is really kind of boring — united by a common soundtrack. But its masterstroke was the abject downer of an ending. Sure, today's moviegoing sophisticates might know that classic story structure dictates that the second act of your story is where the hero is at his lowest point, emotionally and physically, so that the third act can see him triumph. But try telling that to a nine year old whose entire cinematic worldview has been formed by Star Wars and Walt Disney, both of which told us, yes, that the Hero is supposed to win.
But sometimes he doesn't.
The Empire Strikes Back acted sort of an accelerated growth agent: It spurred our maturation as ingesters of popular culture. It explained to us that the twist you didn't see coming is the best kind. That despair can be a beautiful thing. And that, sometimes, the Empire striking back is exactly what's called for.