If you’ve studied screenwriting, the economics of Hollywood, or those god-awful formulaic screenwriting manuals that infest the film industry, you learn there’s a strict formula at work. And sooner or later you’re going to come back to The Empire Strikes Back and realize that, according to studio executives and highly-paid screenwriting teachers, this movie shouldn’t work. And, honestly, it’s a bit telling that Empire, by breaking the “rules,” is actually a good story.
The Villain Is Also The Protagonist
Probably the most glaring difference between Empire and “proper screenwriting” is that Darth Vader’s the guy driving the whole movie. Everything that happens in Empire, from the first battle to the final fight, is thanks to Vader. He’s the one who finds Hoth, he’s the one who lays the trap for Luke, and he’s the one who ultimately, as far as the movie’s concerned, wins. He’s taken out the Rebellion’s one possible Jedi threat, and their best pilot is safely frozen in carbonite and used to secure the good will of an important gangster family and a useful bounty hunter. While he does underestimate Luke and pushes Lando too far, he’s still probably getting a good job review from the Emperor.
Furthermore, he’s the one who provides the central mystery of the movie. Why is the leader of a galactic military force putting so much time and energy into finding one farmboy? Sure, we all know the answer, but it’s a compelling question when you first watch the movie. Heck, on a fundamental level, you can even sympathize with Vader: If you discover your son’s alive, wouldn’t you want to reconnect with him? OK, so Vader goes about it in exactly the wrong way, but even so.
None Of It Sets Up The Next Movie
Part of the reason Empire works is that it’s a complete story. Revenge of the Jedi was in the back of Lucas’ head, but there’s almost nothing here actually setting that movie up. It’s true, the movie’s ending does set up a story to come. But Empire can be watched pretty much start to finish without having to see the first one. Or, for that matter, the next one.
There’s No Big, Explosive Ending
To be fair, there’s some validity here. George Lucas has never known how to end a movie, so Empire just kinda… stops. But at the same time, the real ending unfolds during the freezing of Han and the ensuing swordfight: Leia and Han confess their feelings, Lando has his heel-face turn, and we learn what’s been driving Vader to ruthlessly hunt Luke. Luke arguably gets the grandest heroic moment in the film, where, faced with becoming corrupted or dying, he chooses the latter. The central question has been answered, and the major emotional arc of the movie has been paid off. Everything else is just batting clean-up.
In short, if you brought Empire to a movie studio, they’d laugh at you and hand you a dog-eared copy of Save The Cat! before throwing you off the lot. And yet, it’s better than the formula insists it possibly could be, something modern film studios may want to consider, if they’re going to try and build a “shared universe” themselves.