How The Empire Strikes Back changed Star Wars forever

Photo: Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980).. © Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980).. © Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved. /

Empire built on a classic by introducing new characters, planets, and ideas which shape Star Wars storytelling to this day

It’s been 40 years since fans revisited that galaxy far, far away in The Empire Strikes Back. 40 years since fans first saw Yoda, learned more about the Force, and how it shapes our destiny and learned Luke Skywalker’s true heritage. Today, we take a look at just how much the movie shaped Star Wars storytelling.

New Characters  

It seems odd now to think that there was a time when Star Wars was without Yoda, Lando, and The Emperor. A time when fan favorites such as Boba Fett, General Veers, and Willrow Hood simply did not exist. But without Empire, we would not have any of these.

Of course, it was A New Hope that introduced us to the classic triumvirate of Luke, Han, and Leia who we would follow on their journey, but it was Empire that introduced us to a wealth of alien and human characters alike who made the galaxy seem so lived in. It took the cantina aliens, which made the original movie so intriguing and populated the galaxy with them, giving us unforgettable characters like Yoda and Lobot, Zuckuss, and the Ugnaughts.

And the characters themselves changed Star Wars forever. It is thanks to Empire that we now have Baby Yoda and an over-arcing villain for the Skywalker Saga, but not only this, the puppetry and prosthetics that were used to bring these characters to life introduced a new standard for character design which is still there today, not only for Star Wars films but for cinema in general.

New Planets  

Star Wars is known for its diversity of planets, especially planets defined by a specific climate –- such as the beach planet of Scarif or the jungle planet of Felucia. But we would have none of these were it not for Empire which introduced this understanding of planets by showing us the snow planet Hoth, the swamps of Dagobah, and the clouds of Bespin.

Empire told us that no two planets are alike, that each planet has a wealth of creatures, be they Tauntauns or Dragonsnakes, and that each planet poses its own unique challenges, introducing a sense of adventure and exploration which defines our love of Star Wars to this day.

So, when you’re next running as Cal Kestis through the fires of Dathomir in Jedi: Fallen Order or watching the Resistance fly into the lightning planet of Exegol, you have Empire to thank for that.

A Darker Tone 

A New Hope is a movie of good triumphing over evil and is a very positive one because of that and it’s this positivity that makes Star Wars what it is. But Empire did something fantastic. It took the positivity inherent to the galaxy, but introduced bigger threats to it, telling us that just like in the real world, sometimes evil gains the upper hand.

Stream The Empire Strikes Back on Disney+.

From the moment the Rebellion is forced to evacuate Hoth to Lando’s betrayal and Han’s capture in carbonite to Luke’s world falling apart as he learns the truth of his heritage, darkness is ascendant throughout this movie. It heightens the stakes and tells us that morality is not so black-and-white as we may like to think.

George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and the whole group behind the movie were not afraid to let the bad guys win, and, in doing so, they captured the audience’s attention forever. You cannot help but finish the movie and have an urge to watch more, to see if the Rebellion really is triumphant.

And the influence of this darker atmosphere is felt throughout Star Wars storytelling to this day, evident in the tragedy of the prequels and the hopelessness of the Resistance in The Last Jedi. All these important emotional beats only exist because Empire wasn’t afraid to embrace a darker tone.

Watch any Star Wars movie or show since Empire and you will see evidence of its influence, whether that be in a character, a planet, or an idea. It was a movie that shook up the traditional formula and Star Wars today is all the richer for it.

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