The Empire Strikes Back (1980) has grown steadily in critical esteem since its theatrical debut in 1980. This increase in approval is so dramatic, in fact, that The Empire Strikes Back has actually eclipsed its blockbuster progenitor from 1977, at least according to some fans and critics.
Most of all, you get the sense in The Empire Strikes Back of utter confidence.
The film never worries about establishing itself or validating its universe and story line. Instead, it just probes deeper and deeper into the psychologies of the characters -- particularly Luke Skywalker -- at what turns out to be a dangerous turning point in the saga.
Meanwhile, Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance have made a base on the remote and inhospitable ice planet called Hoth.
A series of four visual symbols dominate The Empire Strikes Back, and each one is encoded into a specific setting or location, and intimately linked with the characters and the development of their relationships and feelings.
As viewers, we automatically associate ice with freezing, stagnation, and cold. In terms of the film's characters, we recognize this coldness as relating very much to Princess Leia (whose personal quarters, we are told in the dialogue, are “freezing.”)
Simply put, she cannot admit her romantic feelings for Han Solo. Over the course of the adventure, the icy relationship between Leia and Han “thaws.” I don't want to be accused of being sexist here, but the idea in terms of Leia at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back is, literally, that she is "frigid" (emotionally, I mean.) She covers her feelings in a mask or composure of apparent ice.
In literature and psychology, the tree embodies several vital concepts. Prime among these is the idea that a tree represents knowledge. In The Empire Strikes Back, the tree on Dagobah reveals, specifically self-knowledge, a clue regarding Luke’s biological origin or identity (at this point, unknown to him).
But it reveals more than that. It reveals the nature of Luke's future struggle: whether or not he will turn to the dark side.
Likewise, the characters of Han and Leia here are depicted as conflicted and uncertain about their developing relationship. They settle down in a place (the belly of a space beast), where these issues begin to crystallize for them. Out of chaos, some clarity emerges...
On purely literal terms, then, when the Falcon escapes the belly of the space beast, its crew receives a second chance at life with Han’s scheme to hide the ship among the Imperial garbage.
In character-based terms, there is a also kind of re-birth of the Han/Leia relationship following their kiss. Their love has emerged from the icy, “frozen” quality it boasted on Hoth, and even the chaotic/combative nature of it as witnessed in the asteroid belt. Their time in the belly of the beast is, after a fashion, what allowed them to find some clarity about their feelings and relationship.
Here, Leia and Han admit their love for one another; a higher truth they avoided and quarreled over on icy Hoth.
Similarly, Luke discovers the higher truth about Ben’s story (regarding the death of his father,) as well as Vader’s role in his life. The self-knowledge hinted at in the Dark Tree on Dagobah become clear in the ethereal clouds, a place, explicitly, for truth telling.
Indeed, truth becomes the paramount issue of this final section of The Empire Strikes Back.
Is Vader telling the truth about his parentage of Luke? Is Lando a truth-teller or treacherous? Is R2-D2 sharing the truth (but not believed) when he notes that the hyper-drive on the Millennium Falcon hasn't been repaired? Even the discovery of the "truth" about Leia (that she possesses Jedi-ish abilities) comes about in the location of Cloud City.
From Hoth to Bespin isn't just a journey between star systems, in other words, but one of self-discovery and character evolution.
|Hoth: A place where relationships and tensions are "frozen" in place.|
|Dagobah: Luke explores the Tree of (Self) Knowledge.|
|The Belly of the Beast: A (brief) re-birth follows chaos.|
Perhaps more troubling than all these reverses, however, Luke actually finds his very status as a hero questioned in The Empire Strikes Back.
Yoda informs him he is impatient and intemperate, and may not even qualify to train as a Jedi. Luke is too old, too distracted, and too set in his ways.
The film thus makes Luke reckon with the fact that he may have destroyed the Death Star, but being a full-bore Jedi Knight involves much more than that. The film gives Luke something powerful to confront, and that “thing” is an awareness of himself and his own character flaws. He holds the seeds of the Dark Side within him. He could be just like his father; like Darth Vader. He has learned too many bad habits and must now unlearn them.
As for Princess Leia, she comes to understand in The Empire Strikes Back that she can follow her emotions and yet not be made weak by them, as she initially feared. She can love a "scoundrel" and still be strong and respected. Leia need no longer be afraid of her feelings.
These are the worrisome, valedictory thoughts we ponder as we conclude a viewing of the film, and in this sense, the Star Wars "saga" truly becomes a story -- for a time -- about specific characters, not about special effects, or abstract heroic or mythic journeys.
With The Empire Strikes Back, this is now the tale of three very individual, very human individuals. The Empire may be striking back, but we care less here about a rebel victory over the Imperials than about how each main character faces or makes his or her fate. This film brilliantly introduces us to memorable characters such as Yoda, The Emperor, Lando and Boba Fett, but it is the triumvirate of Luke-Leia-and-Han that rivets and consumes the attention.