There is a conversation that has existed since the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens regarding the narrative direction of The Last Jedi and the possibility of it paralleling certain story elements of The Empire Strikes Back. The Force Awakens was a wonderful successor to the original trilogy – it captured the saga’s serialized thrill and introduced us to new characters who were so well developed that they were adopted immediately and are praised among fans (with the exception of a few vocal minorities). However, one of its biggest criticisms, and one I hold myself, is its narrative parallels with A New Hope.
I love The Force Awakens as a whole and this subject has been talked about endlessly. Suffice it to say that, with characters as good as Rey, Poe, Finn, and Kylo Ren, I would have liked to see them take more chances with the story; although I understand the apprehension involved that drove them to play it about as safe as safe can be. My hope is that The Last Jedi sets itself apart from its original trilogy counterpart by having a different overall direction and narrative beat. However, there are plenty of elements from Empire that The Last Jedi should strive to emulate and they have nothing to do with the plot of the film, but rather how the film itself is told.
Empire is unlike many sequels. It doesn’t seek to top A New Hope in terms of effects or spectacle. It never feels like the unnecessary continuation of a story; or a reactionary effort greenlit in the wake of monetary success. There’s no greater threat to top the Death Star, no McGuffin, no prolonged action sequences that try to distract the audience from a lack of story. Empire is a much smaller film than A New Hope and that may be its greatest asset. It recognizes that the best sequels don’t artificially increase their scale in lieu of story, but expand upon the characterization and emotional scope of their predecessors. It understands that great sequels allow their characters to change. Irrevocably.
Empire is definitely a middle act. It’s a transitory story, almost constantly in motion, and it manages to lay the emotional groundwork for Return of the Jedi without falling into the multi-film trap of feeling merely like a “set-up”. Its most important scenes are in the ice halls of Echo Base, in the close proximity of the Falcon’s cockpit, in the dark side cave on Dagobah, or among the deep blues and oranges of Cloud City’s carbon freezing chamber. It’s in the one-on-one verbal sparring matches between Han and Leia or in the cadence of Yoda’s voice as he imparts some 900-year old perspective on Luke. Its ending isn’t an against-the-clock assault on a planet killing space station the size of a moon, but an intimate duel and a narrow escape. These aren’t set pieces brought on by a bigger budget, but rather smaller, intimate moments that evoke story.
By the end, the characters of the story are changed both physically and emotionally. They mature and, therefore, the audience’s perspectives and attitudes toward them mature as we grow with them. Unlike so many sequels, which simply accentuate the successes of the first film, Empire seems to build on A New Hope’s foundational heart giving it a much broader narrative and emotional scale.
Now, let’s flash forward thirty-seven years.
As we find out more about The Last Jedi, I’ve become more confident that, beyond some familiar iconography and a darker tone, we will be getting something different from Empire. Much of this confidence comes from the film’s director Rian Johnson, who consistently expresses a reverence for Star Wars as a whole while still pursuing his own vision.
Johnson is no stranger to character driven pieces. Johnson’s debut film, Brick, which follows a high schooler investigating the murder of his ex-girlfriend in golden age Hollywood noir style, glides on the effortless dynamism of its characters. The characters drive every moment of the film and you become more interested in their interactions and the complex social web they weave more than in the plot itself. 2012’s Looper could have been any other high concept/poor execution sci-fi film, but instead delivered on its time-traveling conceit with a humanity that elevated it above its contemporaries. In short, Johnson is an excellent choice to carry on the spirit of what Irvin Kershner, Lawrence Kasdan, and George Lucas pulled off with The Empire Strikes Back in 1980.
Johnson has the same opportunity that the narrative triumvirate behind Empire did in the 1980’s. When given a canvas as large as the Star Wars universe, I am sure it’s pretty hard not to paint it with the biggest brush you can find. But just like Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the elements of story are found in the details. The canvas size is very impressive, but the intimate details are what endear us to the piece. Empire succeeds because it tells a much smaller, more personal story inside of a greater one, much like Picasso’s masterpiece. Judging his past work, Johnson understands this, but just how he’ll implement it remains to be seen.
With The Last Jedi, Star Wars has the opportunity to stay relevant for another forty years by offering the audience emotionally resonant stories that echo the oral myths it’s based on. In this age of CGI leviathans, The Last Jedi has the potential to be so much more. Like those oral myths, I hope The Last Jedi can transcend the time in which it was created and, perhaps, become something great.