One of my favorite movies released in theaters before I was born. The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars: Episode V) hit theaters in 1980. While I think The Return of the Jedi was the first Star Wars movie I saw, The Empire Strikes Back was the one that stuck out in my memory. Why?
Well, honestly, I didn’t like where the story went. I mean, how are you supposed to love a movie where your hero ends up with his hand chopped off? Where he learns that his father is evil? And where your favorite character ends up frozen in a rock and shipped off to parts unknown? How can you experience a story like that and love it?
I didn’t love The Empire Strikes Back until I learned more about telling a story. See, the best stories aren’t the ones where everything always goes right. The best stories are the ones where everything goes wrong, and your heroes still never give up.
It may just be me, but the stories that mean the most to me aren’t the ones where the characters are always happy. The stories that speak to my heart at the ones where the characters have to overcome great obstacles without the promise of victory. Because that’s life.
Life isn’t about rejoicing in the good times. Life is learning to rejoice in the rotten times.
Think about The Empire Strikes Back. What goes right for the poor characters? What good thing happens in the story?
- The Rebellion loses a major battle and an entire base at the beginning of the movie.
- The Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive doesn’t work for the entire movie.
- Han Solo and Chewbacca are constantly trying to get away to freedom and constantly end up dragged back into the Rebellion’s problems.
- Luke Skywalker goes looking for a great Jedi Master and finds a quirky, mouthy alien who doesn’t have a high opinion of Luke’s capabilities.
- Han and Leia and the crew can’t even hide properly in an asteroid without being swallowed by a giant worm.
- Han’s good friend betrays them.
- Han gets frozen in carbonite.
- Luke runs out on his training before completing it.
- Darth Vader chops off Luke’s hand before he reveals the giant horrible secret: “Luke, I am your father!” (cue the dramatic music)
- And the whole thing ends without ending.
Nobody’s happy. And it feels like nothing has been accomplished.
But is that true?
Through all that strife and pain and drama, no one gives up. They keep pressing on. Even though they’re crushed and broken and lost and overwhelmed by sorrow, they keep moving forward, and that tells you something about those characters. That tells you more about the characters than you’d learn if everything went right for them.
That’s why The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite of the Star Wars movies. They have every reason to pack it in, give up, head for the hills, and run away, but nobody does. They keep fighting. They don’t surrender, not to terror or horror, not to self-loathing and insecurity, not in the face of betrayal and threat. That’s what makes those characters heroes. That’s why I love them, and that’s why I want to know how they bounce back.
Because they will bounce back.
And they do. In a big, big way. The Return of the Jedi solidified Star Wars as one of the most beloved science fiction franchises in history, but you couldn’t have the victory of The Return of the Jedi without the agony of The Empire Strikes Back.
As another famous trilogy tagline stated: There can be no triumph without loss. No victory without suffering. No freedom without sacrifice.
Star Wars: Episode VII releases on Friday this week. It’s only the most anticipated movie of the year–maybe of the decade. And while I won’t be one of the folks in the theater for opening day, I do hope to hit a show on opening weekend.
I care about the story because the people in it struggled and succeeded, and I walked that road with them. I can understand loss and betrayal and hurt and hope, and seeing them win against all odds means that maybe I can too.