Ring theory - essentially the best read on the interrelationships between the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy to date - is based around nested correspondences among the films. The fringes of this, which pair Return of the Jedi with The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith with A New Hope, are an inherently tricky business, with its interpretations standing in opposition to the more intuitive approach of reading The Phantom Menace and A New Hope as roughly analogous. But the middle, in which Attack of the Clones and The Empire Strikes Back are read as fundamentally related films, is a rock solid bit of interpretation that pays considerable and rewarding dividends.
The most obvious similarity is structural: both films spend their middle sections alternating between two roughly equally weighted storylines, to the point where they very clearly have two protagonists, in this case Luke and Han. This is most interesting in terms of Han, whose upgrade to co-lead serves as confirmation of his moral centrality to whatever the saga is doing in this second trilogy. And in this regard, the most interesting thing about The Empire Strikes Back is its ending, with Han encased in carbonite. Sure, it’s not the only massive misfortune to befall our heroes by the end, what with Luke being maimed and all, but he’s already got a proesthetic by the end. The change that has consequences and that provides the direct hook going into Return of the Jedi is Han being taken off the board. After all, our case for Han’s centrality to A New Hope was rooted in a willfully silly reading of it in contrast to the prequel trilogy. In terms of the film’s own concerns, Han is a secondary character introduced well into a film that’s almost entirely about Luke’s journey. Here, however, his removal from the narrative is a deforming crisis.
Which brings us to the big difference between Attack of the Clones and The Empire Strikes Back. Where Attack of the Clones was liberated by its status as the middle portion of a trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back is constrained by it, and especially by the fact that it has to be the middle part of a trilogy whose first part was made under a completely different mythology and without the assumption that it would be part of a trilogy. We’ll come to the biggest consequence of this in good time, but for now I want to look at the ways in which this means the film has to set up a new status quo without it seeming like setup, which is the lengthy opening on Hoth, the primary narrative purpose of which is to quickly reconfigure the relationship among the principal characters so that Han/Leia is a more obvious ship than Luke/Leia and reaffirming Han’s loyalty by having him abandon his plans to leave in order to rescue Luke. (Arguably this makes Han/Luke the most reasonable ship of all, but never mind.) This mostly gets hidden behind what’s admittedly the best action sequence of the original trilogy, but it’s still flagrantly what Hoth is there for.
But there’s more setup than just that. The big and obvious one is Darth Vader, who has inexplicably gone from overseeing a catastrophic military defeat to being given a seemingly more expansive command than ever before, hanging out with bounty hunters and criminals, and being obsessed with Luke. All of this is the raw material for a stunning series of comics by Kieron Gillen that probably have the best case of any spin-off material for being essential, just because once the saga commits to being about the Skywalker family the moment where Anakin finds out that his life for the past twenty years has been a lie becomes by some margin the most staggering omission from the saga. (One suspects that the rejigged dialogue inserted when Ian McDiarmid was substituted in for the Emperor here was intended by Lucas to be the moment he learns Luke’s his son, but the lack of an actual reaction from Vader and the fact that the opening crawl makes it clear Vader is hunting for Luke specifically makes this a less than successful retcon.)
Luke, meanwhile, finds himself shunting over to a different sort of plot. Unlike Vader or Han, this is something we see unfold on screen, but nevertheless A New Hope ends with Luke being understood primarily as the Rebellion’s newest recruit, whereas The Empire Strikes Back makes him into the last Jedi. Indeed, once the Battle of Hoth is resolved Luke is basically done with being a member of the Rebellion, as his plot in Return of the Jedi is decidedly isolated from the Rebellion as well. Instead Luke is used as a lens to understand what the Jedi are/were. Which is to say, he spends most of the movie with Yoda.
Obviously this requires one of our periodic forks between chronologies. For the intended audience, Yoda is a strange turn that, like the cantina scene in A New Hope, dramatically increases the sense of what’s possible within Star Wars. From that perspective, he’s the first real alien character to appear in the series, and the first one to have time to focus mainly on explaining the Jedi instead of having to do everything that Obi-Wan was saddled with in A New Hope. This makes him full of potential, which is only deepened by the fact that he’s a fantastic character design and genuinely funny.
Of course, if this is the fourth film you’ve seen him in then you’re mostly struck by the bizarreness of his first scene being a bunch of Jar Jar-style physical comedy. (Indeed, in practice Jar Jar is probably best understood as Lucas trying to recapture the tone of Yoda’s first scene.) And then pretty much everything he actually teaches Luke comes off as lame pseudo-Buddhism belonging to an ethical system that the series has already examined and found wanting. To some extent this smooths the film a bit - within its own logic it’s not entirely clear whether Luke is wrong to go after Han and Leia or not. With the prequels bolted on, Yoda’s advice to stay and keep training comes off as exactly the same sort of moral cowardice that led to the Jedi just standing by in the face of the Sith and slavery, or to Yoda going into exile after one battle with Palpatine.
The problem is that the smoothing does nothing for the narrative drive of the film. Sure, it’s clearer what the film thinks is going on, but it also means Luke is directed by Obi-Wan (who is by miles the more credible of the two surviving Jedi) to go spend an entire film with a muppet fuckup. Indeed, this is probably the second biggest thing the prequels screw for the original trilogy. They unabashedly depend on the audience knowing and loving Yoda, hence their gratuitous reveling in his two lightsaber duels once he becomes CGI. But as a result they put no real effort into earning audience fondness for the character in the way that they have to for a recast Obi-Wan, such that when one arrives at his appearance here it simply doesn’t hold together.
Which, to be fair, is actually a complaint you can level against The Empire Strikes Back in general. It’s frankly difficult to get the timeline to work so that Luke spends more than about a week on Dagobah, and even that requires a maximally stretchy view of how long space travel takes. In terms of what’s actually on screen, where Han and Leia’s plot gives the sense of being relatively continuous action, Luke’s training seems spread out, like we’re checking in on it only occasionally over time.
The film mostly gets away with this, due largely to the arrival of Lawrence Kasdan, who ends up being an odd throughline from here to The Force Awakens when tackled this way. While in reality Lucas directed A New Hope, took on a more producerly role for the next two films, then stepped back in for the prequels, arranged in episode order his influence ends up fading from the series to be replaced by other figures, of which Kasdan ends up being the most substantial. There’s little sense of Kasdan as a visionary figure in the same way Lucas is. Rather, he’s exactly what Lucas isn’t - a narrative technician capable of crafting actual character storylines. There’s an odd sort of tension that emerges from this. On the one hand, Han and Leia’s romance feels relatively plausible and coherent, giving the film a well-structured arc that only A New Hope matches out of Lucas’s films, and even that not in a particularly character-centric way. On the other hand, the same basic anxiety about emotions that leads Lucas to make falling in love the reason Anakin falls to the dark side emerges, such that as soon as they clearly start falling for each other weird carnivorous space slugs start appearing to disrupt things, a level of weird sexual displacement generally unseen outside of Lovecraft. But for the most part The Empire Strikes Back has a superficial coherence that the previous films have lacked. All of which builds towards the bit I’ve been ostentatiously talking around, namely “I am your father.”
And we’re back to the old struggle - a moment that reads one way as the film intends it that reads a very different way after Lucas is done rearranging. And as with A New Hope, it’s impossible not to at least be aware of the famous and totemic power of the line. But its power has always been based on its shock value. As reveals go, it’s pretty much the single most obvious thing Lucas could have done, notable only because somehow he clearly didn’t think of it until well into the development of The Empire Strikes Back. Having failed utterly to set it up he managed the ostentatious shock twist as a replacement, but there’s very little one can actualyl muster up to call this “good” or “impressive.”
Meanwhile, if you come at it having seen everything from The Phantom Menace through A New Hope, the scene is a nothing - a moment one has basically sat through two entire films waiting for the characters to catch up to. Luke’s reaction - already somewhat far from Mark Hamil’s best acting - becomes a moment of sheer bathos. It’s there entirely to be an exclamation point on a shocking reveal, whereas if one comes to The Empire Strikes Back in story order the moment then it has to be about the consequences of the revelation to either Vader, which we’ve already talked about, or to Luke, which, yes, “nooooooooooooooooo” technically accomplishes, but not in a particularly satisfying way.
And yes, this is obviously a ridiculous thing to ask of The Empire Strikes Back, though I don’t think it’s actually any more ridiculous than asking The Phantom Menace to introduce Star Wars or Revenge of the Sith to simultaneously provide a satisfying origin for Darth Vader and a satisfying conclusion to Anakin Skywalker’s story. (If your instinct here is to squawk “but it’s literally impossible,” you’ve gotten half the joke.) But where other films in the series have responded to being asked to do ridiculous things like “exactly what they say on the tin” by serving up intriguing bundles of contradictions and provocations, The Empire Strikes Back ends up revealing just how little there is past the initial sugar rush of “the sequel to Star Wars.” Ultimately, there’s just not a lot this film does beyond set up Return of the Jedi. If you’re in the age range for whom the film landed with precisely that impact, and especially if you’re among the fabled few who got to hear its best-known line in a movie theater in 1980, well, it’s easy to see why this movie holds the reputation it does. For anybody else, well…