Watching Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back one after the other is like watching a hijacking: you’re seeing a juggernaut being held up and driven in another direction. You can sense that Lucas and his team aren’t focusing on the current film any more – they’re setting up the third part in what would now be a trilogy – and they are no longer interested in wars in the stars. Despite its title, The Empire Strikes Back is rarely about the Alliance v the Empire, it’s about who is related to whom and who is in love with whom (the two sometimes overlap). It twists the saga from the political to the personal, from space opera to soap opera. Is it possible to say whether the Empire is better or worse off at the end of the film, after all that supposed striking back? Not really. None of that matters, apparently, compared to the booming declaration: “I am your father!”
If The Empire Strikes Back had been a one-off, I could have forgiven it by now. But what about all the many films that have used it as a model – all the films that have tarnished Star Wars by contradicting its mythos and obsessing over its family trees? All the tiresome dramatic revelations which have tried and failed to be as mind-blowing as the one about Luke’s lineage? I was annoyed when Qui-Gon Jinn was shoehorned into Obi Wan’s past in The Phantom Menace, annoyed when Rey became Palpatine’s granddaughter (or something) in The Rise of Skywalker, annoyed when the emergence of the all-conquering First Order in The Force Awakens reduced everything done by Luke, Leia and Han Solo to a footnote. But I accept that the writers and directors of those films were only following The Empire Strikes Back’s bad example.
It’s not just Star Wars films that have made the exasperating mistake of prioritising franchise-building over simply making a good film, either.. Think of all those films and TV shows that assume we’ll jump for joy when the villain is revealed to be Sherlock Holmes’ sister or James Bond’s childhood pal. Think of all those superhero blockbusters that waste time teeing up the next instalment in the series. I’m sorry, but The Empire Strikes Back has to take the blame for all of them. Search your feelings, you know it to be true.
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