The Empire Strikes Back

A good reminder that movies are, at the end of the day, their plots. You can have as many great ideas in a movie as you want, but if you don’t have a good plot, you’re screwed.

What follows is a screenwriter’s exercise: take a favorite movie and reduce it to its plot.  Take away the performances, the production values, the dialogue, the special effects, everything but the plot and see what makes it all work.  The plot is the engine that makes the movie go.  The result is a kind of retro-fitted treatment.


Darth Vader wants to find Luke Skywalker and his rebel friends. As well he might; the kid did blow up his super-weapon after all. He sends probe droids all over the galaxy looking for him.

One lands near Luke on the icy planet Hoth. Luke, on patrol at the moment, stops to investigate. The probe does not find him, but a snow monster does. The snow monster drags Luke back to its cave.

Back at the rebel base, Han Solo is preparing to leave; he must pay off Jabba the Hutt or risk getting killed. The rebel commanding officer, a master of the bleeding obvious, says “A death mark is not an easy thing to live with.” Before Han can go he feels like he has to have a confrontation with Princess Leia, who he imagines has a thing for him. She protests too much. Han is ready to leave at that point but Chewbacca has done a poor job repairing his ship. Before he can get his ship fixed, Han learns that Luke hasn’t come back from patrol yet. Han goes out looking for him as night falls on the rebel base.

Meanwhile, Luke has used his first inklings of practical Force ™ use to escape the snow monster. He runs out into the snow storm and wanders in the stormy night. He collapses and receives a vision from Obi-wan Kenobi — “You will go meet Yoda and learn to be a Jedi.” Han shows up and saves Luke’s life.


Darth Vader wants to find Luke. Han wants to pay off his debt to Jabba the Hutt. Leia wants Han but cannot admit it. Luke wants to become a Jedi. Chewbacca wants to fix the ship. The snow monster wants to eat.

First rule of screenwriting: character is plot. Plot does not appear out of nowhere, it comes from the characters’ desires. “What does the protagonist want?” is the first important question (after “who is the protagonist” of course) because everything else in the movie flows from it. (The next two questions are “who is the antagonist?” and “what does the antagonist want?”)  (And yet, it is commonplace for studio executives to demand plot from a writerbefore they even ask who the protagonist is.)

Next morning, Han and Chewie blow up the pesky probe droid, which alerts the Empire to the rebels’ presence on Hoth. Darth Vader sends Imperial troops down to invade Hoth and reports to the Emperor that young Skywalker is almost within grasp. The Emperor says something cryptic about Luke being the son of Annikin Skywalker. Now we know why Darth Vader wants Luke — because otherwise he’ll be in trouble with his boss. And since we see how Darth Vader treats under-performing employees, we understand his anxiety.

The Imperial army invades. Luke and his pals defend the base but the cause is lost. The rebels flee Hoth, but in the confusion Leia is separated from her command and must flee with Han (that guy she hates) in his poorly-repaired ship. Luke takes off with R2D2 in his X-wing fighter to go to Dagobah.

End of Act I: Darth Vader does not have Luke, Han is not on his way to see Jabba, Leia is stuck with the guy she hates, Luke is on his way to go get his Jedi training. Chewie cannot fix the ship, much to everyone’s annoyance.


Luke gets to Dagobah. It’s not what he imagined. He meets Yoda; also not what he imagined.

Out in Space, Han, Leia and Chewie flee the Empire. There’s some thrilling hugger-mugger in an asteroid field. Han and Leia, on an adventure with high stakes, cannot help but express their true feelings toward each other.

Darth Vader is pissed; Luke is gone, the rebels are gone. He’s got to get that ship with the princess on it; if he does that, it will bring Luke on the run to save them. He doesn’t care about the rebel army, he only wants that Luke pipsqueak. He brings in a small army of bounty hunters (independent contractors) to go look for them.

(Side note: one of the bounty hunters is Boba Fett. Jango Fett, Boba’s father, was the model for the entire Clone Army, which was recycled to be become the Stormtroopers when Palpatine took power. Why does no one on the deck of Vader’s Star Destroyer mention this? “Hey, isn’t that Jango Fett’s kid?” No, instead we get two officers carping about the bounty hunter “scum.” I ask you — is this proper? Is there no respect for Boba Fett in this galaxy? He’s the model for your whole damn army, guys, come on!)

On Dagobah, Luke learns about the Force from Yoda. Here is the soul of the movie, the thing that gives it its weight, the “big message.” Luke has a “symbolic moment” in a cave (a cave, it’s always a cave).

Luke gets a distress call from Han and Leia — they’re in trouble! He’s got to go! Ah, but this distress call is from the future, how can we trust it? Luke consults with Yoda and the always helpful Obi-wan “Truth From a Certain Point of View” Kenobi; they say “Don’t go, it’s stupid, you’ll ruin everything,” so of course Luke must go.

Unaware of Luke’s dilemma, Han and Leia (their ship still a wreck) elude the Empire (or so they think) and head over to Bespin, where an old pal of Han’s lives.

End of Act II: Vader does not have Luke, Luke is not a Jedi and has been warned against losing everything for everyone, Han is a little bit closer to his goal of paying off Jabba the Hutt, Leia has Han for the moment but not under ideal circumstances. Chewie has still not fixed the damn ship.


We meet Lando. Lando used to be a scoundrel, now he runs a whole damn mining facility. Now that he has responsibilities, he can’t have fun any more. (Responsibility is a big theme here — everyone has duties to obey, the princess to her people, Han to Jabba, Chewie to Han, Vader to the Emperor, Luke to the Force. The frustration of their efforts to their duties is what drives the story.) Lando is both a mirror of Han and of Luke — he’s taken the money, the “good life,” but it’s brought him nothingbut headaches. Han has a scuzzy ship (once Lando’s scuzzy ship, we learn), Lando has a city; which one is happier? While Luke is tested to choose the “easy way” (saving Han and Leia) over the “hard way” (letting them suffer but serving the Force).

C3PO gets blasted by someone — turns out to be Stormtroopers. Chewie, disgusted with his inability to fix Han’s ship, finds he cannot even properly fix C3PO.

So it turns out Han and Leia didn’t get away from Vader after all; he (or Boba Fett at least) has tracked them the whole time and now Bespin is a trap. Vader tortures Han, not to obtain Luke’s whereabouts but to bring him on the run. He succeeds.

Vader plans to freeze Luke in carbonite and take him to the Emperor. Unsure it this idea will work, he decides to test it out on Han. The freezing goes off without a hitch (Vader brings Leia, Chewie and everyone else to witness the freezing for some reason; in any case, Han and Leia get to say goodbye) and Boba Fett gets Han to take to Jabba. End of Han’s arc: the guy who wanted to go see Jabba is getting to finally go see Jabba, just not the way he intended. Leia finally admits her love for Han at the moment she loses him.

Lando, having had a change of heart, tells Leia and Chewie he knows how to get Han back from Boba Fett before he blasts off. It turns out he’s wrong about this. So instead he decides he’s tired of running a mining colony and calmly advises everyone to leave. Just like that. “Sorry folks, this facility has been taken over by the Empire. Been nice knowin’ ya, you’re on your own.” Well, they did say he was a scoundrel, but even Roy Nagin stayed in town as everything fell apart. So Lando, the one with responsibilities, finds he’s happier without them, regardless of what that might mean to his people. I might want him on my side in a fight, but I’m never voting for Lando for mayor again (oh wait — Bespin doesn’t have a mayor, it’s a mining colony. But then what rights do its citizens have? Are they Lando’s employees? Do they get health insurance? What happens to all their pensions now that the Empire has taken over their operation?).

All hell breaks loose as the people of Bespin rush to get out of there. Boba Fett gets away with Han as Leia, Lando, Chewie, C3PO and R2D2 get away in Han’s ship. (I wonder if Lucas decided to make it Lando’s old ship to justify why he’s able to pilot it — as though Chewie wouldn’t be able to do it himself.)

That just leaves Luke and Vader, alone on Bespin. They fight. Luke is stronger than Vader thought he would be but not strong enough. Vader cuts off his hand. Vader could kill Luke but that’s not his job. His job is to get Luke back to the Emperor.

And then Vader pulls the big surprise — he tells Luke that he (Vader) is his father. Since that doesn’t bring Luke running, he offers this tidbit — “Hey, join me and together we can kill the Emperor and rule the universe!” Ah, so now we know: this is the dark path that Yoda warned Luke about. This is the offer Luke cannot refuse; it’s either die or betray everyone you love.  What makes the moment satisfying is partly what it says about Luke’s relationship with Vader, but also what it reveals about the plot; Vader did not send the probe droids out in order to find the guy who blew up the Death Star, but to find his son.

Luke chooses death, but the gadgets hanging off the bottom of Bespin won’t let him die. Instead he dangles there, pathetic and miserable, praying for Leia to hear his cry. And what do you know? She does (later that will make sense). And no one is more surprised than herself. So she and Lando turn the ship around and fetch Luke. They head off into space, the Empire still after them.

The ship, damn it, is still broken. Chewie, tears of bitter rage welling in his eyes, pounds the stupid goddamn thing with a wrench. R2D2 meanwhile, receptacle of many arbitrary plot points, fixes the hyperdrive no problem. Vader does a double-take as the ship zooms off into the distance and looks troubled as he contemplates his next step. Will the Emperor kill him for losing Luke, or is Vader too important to the operation?

Luke, Leia, Lando, Chewie, R2D2 and C3PO meet up with the rebels (who must be at least a little relieved that the entire Imperial army was sent scurrying after the Millenium Falcon instead of, you know, the actual rebel army). Plans are made to go rescue Han from Jabba. Luke’s hand is fixed.

Final score: Luke is not (yet) a Jedi, and in fact has come dangerously close to screwing up everything. Leia has learned she loves Han, but now has lost him. Vader doesn’t have Luke, Lando has given up his good life and seems pretty happy about it (what happens to Lobot? Won’t Lobot miss Lando? Did anyone ask Lobot where he was going to go after the Empire took over Bespin?  What does Lobot get for his years of selfless servitude?).  Chewie never got to fix the goddamn ship.

Compare this masterpiece of plotting with Return of the JediRofJ spends 40 minutes on rescuing Han from Jabba.  Then the movie starts.  The Emperor wants Luke, and so he, um, he, well, he builds another Death Star.  (Emperor’s “Get Luke” committee meeting: EMPEROR: I want Luke!  I want him now!  Let’s hear some ideas!  LACKEY 1: Um, well, maybe we could build another Death Star, that worked pretty good last time…)  Luke is told he must confront Vader so he, um, he tags along on a mission to “blow up the radar thing” on Endor.  (And you know, let’s look at this mission: General Solo is told to go blow up the radar thing — apparently there is no lower-ranking officer available to head up the mission [either that or the rebel alliance hands out generalships like candy] — and he takes along Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker, the lady in charge of the whole rebellion and the only guy proven capable of blowing up the Death Star.)  This mission is critical, and yet the bunch of them decide to hang out with the Ewoks for over a day before doing anything.  The Emperor is both all-knowing and utterly clueless.  And you know what happens if the new Death Star becomes operational?  Um, neither do I.  Clearly-directed action is replaced by a lot of running around and fighting; characters who once had vital struggles are now given marginal busywork.  This is why Empire thrills and satisfies and Return merely entertains; it’s all down to plot.

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37 Responses to “The Empire Strikes Back”
  1. craigjclark says:

    Re: RotJ

    As Joe Bob Briggs would say: “too much plot getting in the way of the story.”

    (Oh, and about your Boba Fett side note: Do you think Imperial officers really care enough about who the model for their inefficient army of Stormtroopers is? And if all are the same genetically, why do some of them have different voices?)

    • Todd says:

      Re: RotJ

      I feel very badly for the Imperial officer corps in general. I feel that in another life they would have all been very capable officers, compassionate, thoughtful and wise. It’s only under the command of Mr. Air Strangle and his boss Mr. Lightning Bolt that they become craven and indecisive. When the rebels and Ewoks cheer at the violent deaths of these men I get a weird feeling in my stomach. Luke can’t bring himself to kill the Emperor, but we’re supposed to be okay with the savage murder of dozens of officers and enlisted men, men who no doubt have families on some other planet.

      Maybe you’re right about Boba Fett: maybe the Stormtroopers were cloned from somebody else. More work for the Kaminoians!

      • craigjclark says:

        Re: RotJ

        Maybe they lost the original Jango Fett DNA code, so they had to start cloning Stormtroopers from existing clones. As Mulitiplicity has shown us, when you make a copy of a copy, it’s not going to be as bright as the original.

        • Todd says:

          Re: RotJ

          Someone should make a movie about the planet where they put all the duff clones, the retards and slobs, the deformed and the sickly.

        • greyaenigma says:

          Re: RotJ

          Oddly, I just made a reference to Multiplicity earlier this morning.

          It’s also worth noting that Boba Fett is also a clone of Jango, not really his son. The main difference is that he wasn’t born programmed to take orders. Which, even if the Stormtroopers knew who he really was, probably makes him pretty close to scum for the authority-based mind.

  2. dougo says:

    This is all too easy. Now do Inland Empire. I’m still stuck on “who is the protagonist”. I’m thinking it’s not Laura Dern.

    • Todd says:

      Strangely enough, Inland Empire has not yet come to Los Angeles. But mostly Lynch’s movies defy plot analysis.

  3. gazblow says:

    I often wonder if my lifelong fascination with Star Wars is rooted directly in the superb plotting of Empire. Star Wars is also extremely well plotted but was also a phenomenon when it was originally released. To my mind, the superiority of this sequel solidified my connection to this material despite the four rather inferior movies that followed. The story is credited to Lucas but the screenplay is credited to old Hollywood hand Leigh Brackett and (at the time) up-and-comer Lawrence Kasdan. Brackett died in 1978, two years before the movie came out and Kasdan is credited with the RotJ script (with Lucas credited with story again). I place the blame for this excellent script firmly on the shoulders of the woman who also wrote Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye (Altman!). Too bad her lessons did not seem to rub off on the series’ subsequent entries.

    • Todd says:

      And yet, Kasdan also wrote Raiders, another streamlined, inexorable masterpiece of plotting.

      • gazblow says:

        Yeah, but he had Spielberg there to make sure he didn’t mess it up. Oh to wonder what would have happened if Lucas had asked his buddy Spielberg to helm the rest of the Star Wars movies.

        Bunch of black and white stormtroopers with one red Jar-Jar in the middle?

      • laminator_x says:

        As I understand it, Kasadan parted ways with StarWars after being constantly overruled on RotJ plot issues.

        RotJ still shows his sweet dilogue touch, sometimes subtle sometimes bold. Contrast that (or Raiders, for that matter) with the more recent Kasadan-less SW films. It’s night and day.

        • Todd says:

          I will say this for the structure of RotJ — it gets around the typical 2nd-act problem by making the bold decision to simply not have a 2nd act. Instead, it has two first acts and a third act. Or, if you like, it has the fourth act of Empire Strikes Back and then two acts of traipsing around Endor.

  4. dougo says:

    Also, it seems wrong to say Leia’s motivations are all about Han. She wants revenge against Vader for blowing up Alderaan (and, in general, freedom from the empire), and Han is just a distraction– until the carbonite thing makes her realize she has feelings for him, and probably also realizes that she needs his help to get revenge.

    • Todd says:

      Alderaan never comes up once during Empire — or Jedi either — it’s almost like it’s never happened. If Leia wants revenge against Vader, why does she never do anything about it?

      • dougo says:

        At the start of the movie, she’s leading the rebel army. Then she gets pulled off into this crazy adventure, but she just wants to get back to her army (until the Han thing). Which she finally does after escaping from Jabba in the next movie.

        Vader’s final words were (to Luke): “You were right about me. Tell your sister you were right.” He wants his daughter’s forgiveness, so she can end her revenge against him.

        • Todd says:

          Leia feels a responsibility to the rebel army, but no sooner does she gets back there (after the whole “strangling Jabba” thing) than she pounces off for another adventure with Han. Her sense of duty as a monarch is utterly non-existent. Maybe rightfully so; the rebels certainly never turn to her and say “What should we do, Princess?”

          While Leia does make pretenses toward her leadership duties, I say her revenge against Vader is fulfilled when her rebel army blows up the first Death Star. She’s traded her planet for his and they’re even: it’s one more reason why the plot of Jedi seems so perfunctory and sullen.

          • adam_0oo says:

            Well, to be fair, she isn’t actually the Rebel Leader in ROTJ, is she? I thought that was Mon Motha (sp), the red headed toga lady.

            • greyaenigma says:

              It’s also worth noting that being monarch (or intended monarch to be) of a non-existant planet doesn’t get you all that much in a galaxy with hundreds, or even thousands of worlds. Her title as “princess” may be less relevant in terms of authority than the term of “general” which is given out like candy.

              Which doesn’t mean she doesn’t have any authority, just that there’s no reason to assume it comes from her royal (adopted) lineage.

  5. ndgmtlcd says:

    Yes, good plotting now that you point it out. This explains why of all the Mad parodies of Star Wars movies, the parody of “The empire strikes back” is the best one, in my view. Actually, I enjoyed that Mad magazine parody even more than the actual fim. Now, I understand why.

    But, to your question:

    ­>>No, instead we get two officers carping about the bounty hunter “scum.” I ask you — is this proper? Is there no respect for Boba Fett in this galaxy? He’s the model for your whole damn army, guys, come on!)

    Here’s an answer with a question: Since when did the US Air Force have any respect for the US army?

    Or another: Did the Persians have any respect for any mercenaries they hired, even if they often constituted most of their army? Have you tired to “plot out ” Xenophon’s Anabasis, by the way?

  6. ajsnavely says:

    I feel the need to geek out a bit on the clone issue. Stormtroopers and Clone Troopers are two seperate things. The Imperial Stormtroopers we all knew and loved were not clones, but conscripted humans, with impecable training that apparently did not include markmanship. Now were there any clones left from the switch over from Republic to Empire some 20 years earlier? Probably not, since there would have been aging issues with the clones. (To further geek out, before Han was a scoundral, he was an imperial officer, and I think I read somewhere that he was training to be a Stormtrooper. I may have imagined that part though)

    You have summed up why Empire is the best of all Star Wars movies. I love it, and can watch it over an over. Which I have since HBO keeps showing it. But Return of the Jedi is still, and always will be, my favorite. It probably has something to do with it being one of the first movies I saw in the theater when I was a kid, and the one and only movie I ever saw with my Dad. But I also love the last battles and original Ewok song.

    • Todd says:

      The Imperial Stormtroopers we all knew and loved were not clones, but conscripted humans

      Great, now I feel even worse for them. It was one thing when I thought the rebels were slaughtering clones, now it turns out they were slaughtering the poor of the galaxy.

      • gdh says:

        You know, if it weren’t for Alderaan, you could argue that the Empire was far more in the right than the Rebels. The Rebels sure seem to kill a lot more people and destroy a lot more property. Although the Empire is pretty ruthless in hunting down the rebel “terrorists”, and I suppose you could argue that they’re pretty repressive and authoritarian in general, but we don’t actually get to see much of that in the films.

        In any case, sucks to be Bottomless Pit Maintenance Technician Class B #45678 on the Death Star when the rebels decide to strike a blow for Freedom.

  7. gdh says:

    Have you seen this? It has the plot of Episode IV making more sense than Lucas ever could have intended.

    • Todd says:

      Interesting but a little fanciful.

      Strangely enough, back in the day, when Star Wars was serialized as a newspaper comic, R2D2 was very much the protagonist, and the entire narrative took the form of a “final report” to the Senate.

      It would be nice to think that the minor characters in Star Wars, the ones portrayed as clowns and savages, are actually the key players using their outer clumsiness as a front, but that’s a discussion for another day.

      • craigjclark says:

        And that’s a discussion that would have to be done in tandem with a look at Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress since the two bandits in that film are very much the models for R2-D2 and C-3PO’s function in the plot.

        • Todd says:

          I was thinking about that the other day when I was watching Star Wars and noticed that, in this hit of all Hollywood hits, the protagonist doesn’t even show up until 17 minutes into the movie. I suddenly remembered that that was an innovation Lucas transported from Fortress, telling the heroic story of daring and sacrifice from the point of view of the clowns. (I wonder if Stoppard got his idea for Rosencrans and Guildenstern are Dead from the same place.)

          The other thread to the discussion would have to be that of race in the Star Wars universe, where Lucas has, all down the line, taken the roles that used to be played by black people and given them to animals, usually furry and usually bumbling.

  8. megachef says:

    Artoo’s runnin’ thangs.

    The bits with Chewie and R2-D2 reminded me of this: