The Empire Strikes Back: How Darth Vader's Reveal Changed Star Wars
In 1981, one line of dialogue did more to rock movie audiences around the globe than every special effect combined: “I am your father.” THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK would have been one of the greatest sequels ever made if it had merely come close to what George Lucas and crew achieved with the original STAR WARS. But this first sequel to the adventure set in a galaxy far, far away didn’t merely echo STAR WARS; it was better in almost every way. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK adds more characters to the Skywalker Saga, develops new mysteries, and hits audiences with two of the best cliffhangers in modern movie serials.
We’re playing THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as part of our Comeback Classics series, and there’s no better way to experience this classic chapter of the saga on the big screen! Let’s look back at the summer of 1981 to revisit what made the second STAR WARS movie so special.
A Challening Sequel
It’s hard to remember now, but once upon a time, STAR WARS was not a sure thing. 20th Century Fox, which released the movie, wasn’t certain that it would find an audience. Even friends of George Lucas were concerned about the fate of the film — at least until they saw it with all the completed effects and the stirring, emotionally powerful score by John Williams.
STAR WARS was more than just a success. It did more than any other single film to reshape everything about how Hollywood works and what audiences want from spectacle entertainment. The runaway success created another issue for George Lucas, however. How could he catch lightning in a bottle again — and how could he do it even better?
The answer was in the very stories that inspired Lucas’s space opera in the first place. The writer/director drew inspiration from old movie serials, with their over the top twists and turns. Most serials ended with a cliffhanger, the better to draw audiences back week after week.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK doesn’t merely have one cliffhanger. It features several, with the movie playing almost like several serial episodes strung together. Han Solo has to save a nearly dead Luke while trapped in a snowy wasteland with virtually no supplies. The Rebels must escape an overwhelming show of force by the Empire on the ice planet Hoth. Han is frozen in Carbonite, leaving his future very much doubt.
Ending EMPIRE on that note might have been strong enough to leave audiences panting for more, but George Lucas came up with an idea that changed everything about STAR WARS
Four Words That Shook Cinema
After all the big ideas in EMPIRE, there is the movie's ultimate power move, which takes place as Luke finally comes face-to-face with Darth Vader. In that sequence, Luke doesn’t merely confront his enemy; he must come face-to-face with all of the ideas he has taken for granted about his past and himself. Luke finally feels the power of the dark side in action, but even that harsh flow of energy is overwhelmed by the impact of four words of truth spoken by Vader: "I am your father."
That statement was a seismic event in every movie theater playing THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980. It was just as impactful when it came to the STAR WARS series as a whole. George Lucas came up with the idea of Vader claiming to be Luke's father when revising the original script draft by Leigh Brackett, who died shortly after submitting her EMPIRE script to Lucas. Fully committing to the idea of Vader being Luke's father wasn't just a gimmick to make the sequel pop; it reshaped the entire idea of the movie series. One line that pointed back to the story's past gave the series a new future direction.
Writing the Future
George Lucas and his many collaborators had a lot of ideas that could fit into a STAR WARS movie. The first film certainly did an amazing job of creating the image of a galaxy full of a wide variety of planets and intelligent species. But neither the idea of the Force nor the conflict between Rebels and Empire had the same power to structure the series as a whole that was inherent to the relationship between Luke and Vader.
That reveal gave Lucas a powerful backstory for the movies. He came up with the idea of Vader as Obi-Wan's apprentice who had been lured to the dark side of the Force by the Emperor. Suddenly, the larger battle between the Empire and Rebels had a personal angle. STAR WARS already featured a lot of lore; now it had legends as well.
While Lucas had just begun to toy with the idea of designating each STAR WARS movie as a chapter of a larger saga, the familial relationship between Vader and Luke is what transformed THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK into Episode II of the burgeoning Saga. As Lucas developed the full backstory of Anakin Skywalker's downfall, the movie became Episode V — thereby promising the Prequel Trilogy that would arrive nearly 20 years later.
If you were in the theatre in 1980 — and even if you see THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in a movie theatre this year — the audience reaction to Darth Vader's revelation is one to remember. But that one line, and the story ideas behind it, changed STAR WARS forever, and went a long way towards turning it into a movie series that is still as popular today as it was 40 years ago.
See THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as part of our Comebackl Classics series!
All images courtesy of Lucasfilm.