The world is celebrating the premier of The Empire Strikes Back, the highly anticipated sequel to the spectacular Star Wars in 1980. I was a kid in the audience. Being in a theater with a primed audience watching a great film shine is a thrill like no other, communal Joy.
The Empire Strikes Back premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on May 17, 1980, and was released in the United States on May 21, 1980. May 21st is now celebrated by fans around the world as Empire Day (not to be confused with the Empire Day in the actual movies)
The judgement of history is different than what the crowd thought back when Empire was new. More people preferred the first film at that time. And that doomed the Star Wars franchise to the long, slow degradation we’ve seen today.
My friends and I thought Empire was great, the rare sequel that surpasses the original. Story, characters, design, music, effects, everyone did their very best. Easily the most memorable plot twist in film history. So I was kind of shocked when I saw the actual numbers, years later.
Over time, new ideas and great art that were initially controversial become accepted. But that initial rejection left its mark. Lucasfilm reacted to the divided audience and tried to go back to A New Hope instead of forward beyond Empire Strikes Back. Return Of The Jedi is great fun but they are holding back. If the general audience had accepted ESB back in the day Star Wars films of today would be better written and more satisfying. The potential is still there, we see that in the Mandalorian. Television is now where the potential of Empire can be partly realized.
There’s much more to the history of science fiction than can be discussed in this post. In my opinion, 2001, Blade Runner, and Empire are inspirations for many great science fiction film of the last 40 years. Matrix, Inception, Arrival, the new Planet Of The Apes. All films that have both strong light and dark interwoven, deep character moments.
Today it’s the Marvel films that have an excited audience primed for the next episode. They took a slower gradual approach to get to the dark and textured drama. Kevin Feige is a big Star Wars fan and you can see the influence in many MCU films (Trilogies, details that reward repeat viewing, splitting up a team then reuniting, heroes and villains related). He may produce a SW film!
As you may have guessed, I was one of the people that thought Star Wars was good and Empire was even better. I knew there would be a happy ending in the next episode but I guess the rest of the audience didn’t share my confidence. All you had to do was look at Yoda and listen to John Williams and the London Symphony and you knew things would be all right.