In the mid-1990s, one of those deep-dial networks – I wanna say it was USA? – used to play the Star Wars Trilogy (back then that’s all there was) one per night around holidays. I believe it was around Christmas, but it might’ve been Thanksgiving or even both. My roomates and I and other people in the dorm would pick a room and watch together. As we started watching "A New Hope (aka Star Wars)," one friend commented that "people seeing this for the first time when it came out must’ve been like ‘what the hell is going on?’" For all the complaints that The Empire Strikes Back drops you right into the middle of the action, baldly assuming you’ve seen the original, you really can’t help but notice that the original, well, does that too. In fact, there’s even a visual cue for it. All three original movies (which is to say, all three Star Wars movies – yeah, I’m that guy) start with a camera drop right after the opening text crawl. It’s a neat cinematic way of reminding us that we’re "dropping in" on events already in progress.1
Writing for the BBC, Nicholas Barber exploits this to make the case that Episode IV: A New Hope should’ve been the only Star Wars movie they made – to wit, that there should only ever have been "Star Wars."
You can read the whole argument for yourself, but it distills down nicely to a paragraph making one and a half points. The "half point" is, of course, that all the endless iterations are just tedium, kind of the way Roger Ebert describes the Star Trek franchise as "much of a muchness." He’s definitely not wrong about that. Like a lot of people, I think the best strategy at this point is probably to just pretend there never were any Star Wars movies after Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. The real point is that one of the things that was cool about Star Wars back in 1977 was that it presented as part of a series even though it wasn’t (yet).
Paradoxically, one of the cleverest aspects of A New Hope is that it always seemed to be part of a series. When it was released, it wasn’t labelled Episode IV – that tag was added for the 1981 reissue – but it did give the impression that its story was already well underway. Nodding to the Saturday morning science-fiction serials that inspired him, Lucas included a so-called “opening crawl” of introductory text which explained what went on in the previous notional episodes: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.” And from then on the film maintains the mischievous illusion that, if we’d come to the cinema a week earlier, we might have seen those Rebel spaceships striking from that hidden base.
He loves this because it amounts to "a sophisticated postmodern joke," like Tarrantino’s trailers for nonexistent movies or Conan Doyle’s allusions to Sherlock Holmes cases he never wrote.
And the reason they should’ve left it at one movie is because the prequels came along and "…answered its questions, solved its mysteries, filled in its blanks and narrowed its mythical scope to the prosaic tussles within one dysfunctional family." And that ruined the sensawunder for him.
In point of fact, even Empire ruined this for him, albeit for a slightly different reason:
As technically superior as it may be, though, the fact remains that Empire does what we expect a Star Wars film to do, whereas A New Hope did what nobody expected.
See, when Star Wars did it, it was original. When Empire continued in the same universe, it was … not original?
That’s the part I don’t get. How?
Neither Empire nor Jedi actually ruined anything by explaining anything. In many ways, they raise even more questions. We learn that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, and that Obi Wan is a big liar, but this doesn’t really tell us much. We don’t know what happened to Anakin to turn him. We have no idea who the Emperor is or where he came from. It seems curious to us how misplaced his confidence in Darth Vader turns out to be, given how generally clairvoyant he is otherwise. We don’t know how Luke and Leia got separated and raised apart. We’re no wiser about what the "Clone Wars" were. Contrary to what Barber is implying here, the original trilogy never stopped doing what I’ve argued elsewhere that Star Wars did best: the uncanny.
Barber can only sustain his argument by pulling two deceptive tricks: (a) ignoring how actually unresolved A New Hope was and (b) misrepresenting what people like about Empire. To be fair, it is only the second of these that he does with any awareness (and so maybe I shouldn’t call the first a "deceptive trick"). But they’re both foundations without which his argument won’t hold.
The first movie is a lot less resolved at the end than people think. It’s true that the plot ties up neatly. Luke starts out as a farm hand, gets wrapped up in a mystical quest that, although clearly global in scope, focuses on a singular, achievable goal for the duration of the movie. In the process of achieving this goal, Luke displays some signs of being a Chosen One, but they’re largely inconclusive. Achieve the goal they do, though, and so the movie ends resolved.
But it’s not, not really. Darth Vader is conspicuously not killed. The Empire is not beaten. Luke clearly has a story ahead of him as far as the Force is concerned. But at the core, what really tells us that this story isn’t resolved is that our collective unconscious recognizes this as a hero’s tale, and we know there’s a second volume. Not only that, we know that the second volume involves the hero suffering great setbacks. Every epic fantasy cycle takes this form. You start with an unlikely humble hero (who often turns out not to actually be common). The hero is forced to confront an important obstacle before he’s ready. He succeeds by drawing on whatever it is that makes him special, which is to say he succeeds where he shouldn’t. This leads to overconfidence, and it is in the second volume that he is confronted with just how big the world actually is, and how his significance in it must be earned.
I like Star Wars primarily because it takes this standard-issue fantasy plot structure, but it does it in a science fictional setting. A lot of people call Star Wars science fiction, but of course it isn’t. It arguably isn’t really even science fantasy – just straight up fantasy in a futuristic setting. Notwithstanding, it has an element that, to me, is critical to good science fiction: the Sense of Wonder. Properly speaking, I suppose I should really call it a Sense of the Uncanny in Star Wars‘ case. We’re not so much marvelling at anything wonderous as marvelling at things that are familiar-yet-alien. It’s the breathtaking scope of the world, the depth of detail about it, that Star Wars really lives from.
Well, for me, Empire is critical to achieving that. Because it’s only in Empire that Luke learns he’s small.
In A New Hope, he gets everything he wants. He’s always thought of himself as someone who belongs out in the stars, away from his farm, and the Universe happily confirms this for him. Obi Wan comes along and tells him he’s special. He goes on adventures and makes a "one in a million" shot that saves a great many lives. And there is never any real doubt that he will make the shot. Luke ends the movie a decorated hero. He has no reason to believe he is anything other than the center of the universe.
In Empire he’s knocked off his horse immediately, and not only does he stay down, the Universe keeps beating him down until he’s literally hanging by a thread – suspended over Bespin and slowly losing his grip. It’s only when he comes to terms with just how vast the universe is, and just how insignificant he is in it, and puts his faith in something he doesn’t really understand – this is the only way he survives.
Barber is right that A New Hope works as a standalone film. He’s right that it works very well as a teaser for a larger series. He’s right that it’s very cool that that series doesn’t actually exist. Where I think his reasoning goes off track is in failing to recognize that just because something works well as one thing, it doesn’t follow that it isn’t actually another.
A New Hope works as a standalone, but it’s actually part of a trilogy. This was, in fact, always the plan, and Lucas only wrote a resolution for A New Hope because he wasn’t sure it would be a hit. What’s more, the viewer – even the naive first-time viewer sitting in an actual bricks-n-mortar theater in 1977 – senses this. Many know this consciously. But even those who don’t know it consciously sense it in their souls – because they’re human, and they’re born to respond to this particular brand of hero stories. There’s a reason those stories follow the same formula by and large. And that’s becuase the hero’s story never ends with his first triumph. The first triumph is empty and false, but the hero can’t see that yet. It never means anything until the setback comes – because the hero is actually not a hero without that setback.
This is even truer of Star Wars than most fantasy epics, because Star Wars makes a bigger deal about the sheer enormity of its worldbuilding than most fantasy epics. If we know the fall, and the accompanying leap of faith, are not just coming but necessary to the meaning of any fantasy epic, we’re doubly sure about that with Star Wars.
I said Barber might not be aware of all that, and I meant it. Alternately, Barber might be aware of it and just honestly disagree that the underlying fantasy epic structure hinted at in the first one matters all that much. Maybe he thinks it’s cool that our underlying sense of that (universal) story contributes to the feeling that this is part of an (unwritten) serial, and that that’s the extent of it: there’s no actual need to continue into the sequel for Luke’s victory in the opening chapter to gain perspective. I strongly disagree, but hey, it’s an honest disagreement.
What’s not honest, though, is crap like this:
Never mind about that, say the Empire-icists. What about all the classic characters who were in the 1980 follow-up? What about Lando Calrissian and Yoda and Boba Fett? To which I’d have to reply, what about them? If I want to see a Millennium Falcon-piloting smuggler who finds his conscience in time to join the Rebels, I don’t need Lando. I’ve got Han Solo.
That, Sir, is a straw man. Sure, there are those people out there who only know they like Boba Fett. But then, these are the same fanboys who will dutifully watch all the cartoons and pronounce them Rad. These are not, properly speaking, "Empire-icists." Speaking as a for-real "Empire-icist," I can tell you that what I liked about Empire most is exactly what I said above. It’s that Luke is forced to confront the reality of just how insignificant he is in the greater universe, and to take a leap of faith. To my mind, he isn’t a real hero until that’s happened, and so the surface story in A New Hope is only an illusion. It doesn’t really gain its meaning until we’ve seen this one. It points to the real story, but it isn’t the real story. Empire is the real story, and the supposed self-containedness of A New Hope is a mirage. Without Empire, A New Hope is just a better-than-average adventure movie. Star Wars wasn’t something truly great until Empire – and I honestly think the original would’ve been nothing more than a major cinematic landmark without it.
THAT is how "Empire-icists" see it, Sir. We’re not just collecting Boba Fett dolls, and what’s more, you know this.
What’s more, he’s not even really right about the point he has to lie to make. He’s trying to say that there are no original ideas in the following movies, that Lucas just keeps recycling the same archetypes in different forms. Yes, there’s another smuggler, and yes, there’s another wise old teacher, and yes, there’s another Death Star battle. And yes, the repetition in the more recent movies seem like a man out of ideas. But in the original trilogy they’re not. We need another Jedi Master to tell Luke he’s not ready, and that he has to be trained, because Obi Wan only ever told him he was awesome and special and destined for greatness. The guy cautioning him has to be Obi Wan, but not Obi Wan, and that’s what we got. Likewise, Lando is a larger-scale Han, not so much because Lucas is out of ideas, but because a larger-scale Han is thematically right for this point in the story. Again, fantasy epics always do this. Volume one is always individual-scale, and volume two makes it world-scale. It’s not just Luke who’s getting reminded that the universe is bigger than him. We start with Han going back to pay off his bounty – an individual problem – but we end up with Lando having to make the right call not so much for his friend, but for the tens of thousands of lives he’s responsible for. Lando is critical to convincing us that this conflict isn’t just a family soap opera – or, more accurately, that the family soap opera has real-world consequences. And blowing up the Death Star – again – in the final movie is necessary because Luke didn’t actually get it right the first time. Darth Vader warned us: the power of the Death Star was "insignificant next to the power of the Force." In the first story, Luke blows up the Death Star and thinks of that as a real victory. We have to go back to the Death Star in the final movie to remind the viewer that this is a conflict that takes place on two levels, only one of which is really important. In the final movie, Luke hits the actual target, but we see the Rebels outside fighting the physical Death Star as though that were what really mattered. The point would not be nearly as effectively sold without a Death Star backdrop.
But OK, rhetorical skills will only get you so far if you’re swimming against the Truth, as Barber is, so I guess we need to spot him this one. If he represented us fairly, he’d have a lot more work to do, and I don’t like his chances.
Empire was the better movie. Everyone knows this. True, the prequels were horrible and should never have been made. True, The Force Awakens proved conclusively that that shark is effectively jumped and no one is taking this project seriously anymore. Yes, if Star Wars had been a standalone movie, it would be a better situation than what we have now. This essay contains some good points, in other words. But it’s still ultimately wrong, because it’s still missing the bigger picture. Star Wars as a standalone would be better than what we have, but Star Wars as a trilogy – which we had for 16 blissful years – was better still.
And The Empire Strikes Back was the jewel in its crown.