When it hit theaters in 1980, “The Empire Strikes Back” changed everything.
Yes, “Star Wars” was huge when it arrived three years earlier, but there had been blockbusters before. Movies like “Jaws,” “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist” drew record audiences and wowed the filmgoing world. But the reality we live in now, the one where every movie has a sequel pre-sold and any movie that goes into the black instantly becomes the foundation for a multi-film franchise? That’s the reality that “The Empire Strikes Back” spawned.
Before “Empire,” sequels were seen as a last-ditch cash grab aimed at milking the final few nickels from a once-beloved concept. Take the most popular science fiction series before “Star Wars,” the “Planet of the Apes” films: The first, released in 1968, was a high-budget, high-profile blockbuster, but by the series finale, 1973’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” the budget had been slashed and the movie was aimed squarely at kids. So though a sequel to “Star Wars” was inevitable, what was surprising — astonishing, even — was just how good that sequel was. Some even considered it — gasp! — better than “Star Wars” itself.
That’s no accident. George Lucas was, I think we can all agree, a great idea man, but sometimes (yes, even in “Star Wars”), his execution left a little to be desired. But for “Empire,” Lucas hired Irvin Kershner to direct and Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett to work on the script. The result was tighter, more intense and more exciting than its predecessor. It didn’t have the same shock of the new as “Star Wars” (how could it?), but it made the most of the universe “Star Wars” established, exploring new worlds, introducing new characters and unleashing at least one huge surprise that transformed everything that had come before.
What’s more, “The Empire Strikes Back” actually felt like a war movie, starting with an epic battle on the ice planet Hoth and ending with our heroes defeated and on the run, seemingly helpless against the Empire they thought they’d beaten. And here’s the kicker — after all that, after the battle on Hoth and the introduction of Yoda and the giant space worm and the carbon freezing of Han and the shocking revelation about Luke’s past, the story still wasn’t over … but the movie was.
It’s hard to remember, after those disappointing sequels and frustrating CGI-reworkings of the original “Star Wars” movies, but Lucas could be a bold, innovative filmmaker, and he was never bolder than when he ended “Empire” right in the middle of the action. It may have frustrated audiences, but it set the new industry standard, where a sequel wasn’t just Part Two of the story. It was Part Two of a continuing story, and you’d have to come back to the theater to see how the heck things turned out.
So, in honor of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” hitting theaters this week, we’re releasing a sequel to last year’s “Star Wars” episode. This time around, we cover all things “Empire” on a special extended episode of Out of Theaters. Plus, as a bonus, it’s also a crossover episode, as Billy and Will talk movies and munchies with special guests Andrew Wright and Max Gersh, hosts of The Weirdoughs, a podcast devoted to all things pizza. So order a pie, fire up “Empire” and listen to four nerds geek out over all things “Star Wars.”
And, of course, may the Force be with you. Again.