On May 21, 1980 the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back arrived in theaters. It featured familiar faces, a new adventure, and a plot twist no one saw coming. Thirty-five years later, there have been four more films released set in that distant galaxy, but Empire continues to hold a unique place in the film industry and in the hearts of Star Wars fans around the world.
This may in part be due to the fact that Empire had the difficult job of directly following the blockbuster achievement of Star Wars. While there had been successful sequels to movies in the past, film historian Jeanine Basinger told Boing Boing for Empire to also be as huge a hit as the original was a surprise.
"When you have set a level that you set with Star Wars in terms of financial success, critical success, audience success, quality of production, greatness of storytelling, you don't really think even if the second one is going to be good that it can hit that same level twice because Star Wars was a real landmark film," said Basinger, Corwin-Fuller professor of film studies at Wesleyan University. "It was a real big impact film and so you don't expect the next one in that sequence to also be a landmark. It just doesn't seem possible the way storytelling works but Empire was a movie that did not let down the standards set by Star Wars and that was great. Everybody was thrilled."
According to Basinger the possibility of sequential storytelling on a giant scale became suddenly an option in the business and for audiences in a new way. Andrew Gordon, professor at the University of Florida, said Empire increased the interest in epic sagas in film and opened up the possibilities for science fiction sequels.
"It made possible things like the Matrix series and the X-Men series and all the other science fiction series that have followed," he told Boing Boing.
More than the other films in the franchise Empire is often held up as the best of the Star Wars saga, used as a benchmark for other sequels, and just considered generally to be a great movie. To Basinger, Empire may stand out for people from the rest of the Star Wars films because of how it richly developed the story and characters, and how it involved viewers in the story in a deeper way. That story was much darker than the original, which Basinger said follows the traditional structure of serial movies with the bad guys getting the upper hand. However even though it may be a familiar structure the tragic elements seen in Empire are still highlighted as a major memory that remains with fans that, if they were young enough, were seeing the good guys basically lose for the first time.
Despite 35 years passing, the impact of watching Empire still remains with fans. Rachel Ezzy watched Empire when it opened in August 1980 in Australia and remembers the movie being quite frightening for an 8 year old.
"My most vivid memory is I remember watching the Battle of Hoth and being absolutely terrified, but being exhilarated at the same time…" she said. "When we watched the Battle of Hoth with the snowtroopers and the [AT-AT] walkers and the Rebels getting shot at I was horrified. The music was so intense and I was holding on to my dad's arm and then the rest of the movie was amazing."
Ezzy is now a member of the Redback Garrison of the 501st Legion, a Star Wars costuming organization, and a member of the Tatooine Rebel Base of the Rebel Legion, another costuming group. She has multiple Star Wars costumes, including one of her favorite character which first appeared in Empire: the snowtrooper.
"I always loved the snowtrooper ever since I saw them get blown to bits running through the Rebel base in Hoth," she said.
Phil Fraboni, a member of the 501st's Canadian Garrison, recalls waiting in line all day with his brothers for the opening of Empire. He remembers being overwhelmed by all the effects in the film from the probe droid being sent out to the lightsaber battles. Empire is Fraboni's favorite in the series and looking back at this anniversary, he said it's been an amazing journey. He feels he's come full circle from growing up with the films to now being a member of the 501st where he costumes as a stormtrooper and clonetrooper.
"It's amazing to sort of be a part of it now and to give back to the community through the charity work that we do," he said.
Another fan, Paul Machnick, went to see Empire with his entire family on opening night. While he also remembers going to see A New Hope with his father in 1977 and loving it, after all these years Empire remains his favorite.
"I was again just blown away not only because Darth Vader was back, the Rebels were back, but in comes this green bad guy named Boba Fett that just blew me away. The character I was watching was so smart he could capture Han Solo, and he became my favorite character," he said. Machnick now costumes as Fett for the Midwest Garrison of the 501st Legion.
Earlier this year Machnick lost his father, the one who started his love of Star Wars, but Machnick is keeping the love alive by passing it on to his 12-year-old daughter who troops with him as Fett's daughter. Machnick said his whole family will be one of the first in line in December for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a movie that just may owe its existence to Empire. To Basinger, if Empire had not been a great film we might not still be creating new versions of Star Wars.
"Empire sealed the future forever for us being interested in any kind of variation of the Star Wars story. We'll sign up anytime and it was Empire that sealed the deal," Basinger said. "Star Wars opened it up and we signed on, but Empire sealed the deal with us forever because it was so great."