Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the entire Star Wars franchise, including The Rise of Skywalker and Knights of the Old Republic.
There’s one very powerful moment in the film most fans agree is the best in Star Wars’ cinematic canon that is both the high point of its success and a weight around its neck. This one moment defines Star Wars’ place in popular culture, and was a twist so unexpected and shocking that it transformed a couple of exciting space fantasy films into a franchise that continues to this day. You know the moment I’m referring to, right?
But this has been a double-edged sword. After the incredible success of The Empire Strikes Back, the next film in the series – which rounded out the Star Wars trilogy and concluded the series for almost two decades – felt, to some fans at least, like a bit of an anticlimax. It’s difficult to remember now, given all of the other controversies Star Wars has endured from the prequels to the sequels and beyond, but for a long time, Return of the Jedi was considered the weak link in the trilogy.
I vividly remember the first time I watched Star Wars – at the behest of a friend who was a pretty big fan – in the early ’90s. He had all three films on video, and as we sat down to watch them, his father, who was also a Star Wars fan and had introduced the films to his son, insisted to us that the first two films were great, but Return of the Jedi was absolute crap! Part of the reason why some fans felt – or still feel – this way is that Return of the Jedi has nothing that comes close to comparing to the “I am your father!” moment. Nor does any other Star Wars film.
Though the prequel trilogy didn’t try to outright replicate that moment, I think it’s not unfair to say that nothing in those three films compares to the revelation of Vader being Luke’s father – and perhaps that’s because fans already knew the broad strokes of the prequels’ storyline before sitting down to watch any of the films. There were bumps and twists along the way, but we all knew before we sat down to watch The Phantom Menace in 1999 that Anakin would betray the Jedi and become Darth Vader, and that the mild-mannered Palpatine was a Sith in disguise. It’s hard to have a shocking twist under such circumstances!
But the sequel trilogy definitely tried to recapture the magic of the moment between Luke and Vader on Cloud City – not once, but at least three times. In The Force Awakens, Kylo removing his helmet for the first time was an attempt at a shocking surprise. In The Last Jedi we can point to the reveal of Rey’s parents as “nobody,” as well as the death of Snoke, and in The Rise of Skywalker we again have Rey’s parentage but this time Kylo explaining to her that “you are a Palpatine” – one of the worst lines in the trilogy.
None of these moments, and many others in Star Wars, have come close to achieving the success of the Darth Vader line in The Empire Strikes Back, and it feels like the franchise doesn’t really know how to respond to the overwhelming power of that one moment. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Star Wars’ entire success is based on one moment in one film, nor that it’s the franchise’s sole accomplishment. But it’s undeniably one of the high points in the whole franchise, so if Star Wars is to see continued success the creative team in charge need to understand what the moment represents, why it worked, and most importantly they need to understand why recent attempts to replicate it have fallen flat.
For me, the closest Star Wars has ever got to recreating the magic of that Darth Vader reveal came not in a film but in a video game. In Knights of the Old Republic, toward the end of the game it’s revealed that the player character is, in fact, one of the game’s principal villains – a Sith Lord named Darth Revan. Revan had their mind erased after being captured by the Jedi, and was re-trained in order to follow the path of the light side. I remember sitting there with the Xbox control pad in my hand with my mouth hanging open, stunned!
So why don’t I feel that way when Kylo is revealed to be Ben Solo? Or when Rey is revealed to be a descendant of Palpatine? Figuring this out is important, because I’m not the only one who recognises that Star Wars is trying and failing to live up to this moment.
By the time of The Rise of Skywalker, Rey’s parents had been established, and changing that arbitrarily to follow a fan theory just felt wrong – and more than a little stupid. Not to mention that the execution was clumsy and it came in a film with myriad other problems. But the reveal that Kylo Ren is, in fact, Ben Solo – the son of Han and Leia – should have garnered more of a reaction, surely? After all, this is the son of two of Star Wars’ principal characters and biggest heroes, yet he’s the villain having fallen to the dark side.
The buildup to Kylo Ren’s reveal wasn’t as intense, and by the time it’s finally understood who we’re dealing with, perhaps elements of that had already been teased in such a way as they weren’t as big of a shock. Then there’s the fact that The Force Awakens is where we first met Kylo Ren; he didn’t have an entire film to grow on us as his own character – mere minutes after meeting him for the first time we learn his true identity. Darth Vader had almost two entire films as the “big bad” before it became known to us who he really was – and I think that has a bearing on how we perceive these different moments in the two films.
Partly this is a consequence of the way the original trilogy was created. Darth Vader was not Luke’s father in the original film; this is an addition that came later, during the writing of The Empire Strikes Back. There was nothing in the first film to set up or telegraph this moment – because no one, even those involved with the film, knew that the moment was coming. In The Force Awakens or The Rise of Skywalker, the moments which attempt to recreate it were planned, and the films were almost constructed around what the creative team hoped would be the big shocking twist.
Overall, though, I think the fundamental problem is this: The Empire Strikes Back didn’t set out to create a story that all depended on a single moment. The film has many other truly fantastic sequences that would still make it an outstanding film even if the Luke-Vader moment didn’t exist or came in a different film. The creative team behind The Empire Strikes Back weren’t trying to recreate something from a prior story, they were pioneering something new. And while they knew it was going to be a seminal moment in the film, I don’t think anyone involved could have predicted just how important that one moment would turn out to be for the entire Star Wars franchise.
But even by the time of Return of the Jedi a couple of years later it was apparent that Star Wars was in danger of feeling like a one-trick pony. A new Death Star had been created to replace the one Luke destroyed in the first film, which is hardly anything original, and after the big twist of the Luke-Vader connection in The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi made the first attempt to recapture that moment by arbitrarily making Luke and Leia siblings. Neither moment lived up to the comparable moments in previous films, and perhaps that’s a contributing factor to why some fans felt let down. Star Wars had already begun living in its own shadow.
Mimicking or recreating a story or narrative moment almost never results in something better. The most that Star Wars can hope for is to hit the same high notes – but trying to copy something it’s already done won’t ever lead to the franchise exceeding it. The Empire Strikes Back succeeded because it pioneered a storyline that no fan could have expected. Subsequent Star Wars projects – from Return of the Jedi to The Rise of Skywalker – failed to live up to that moment because they didn’t try to create their own unique moments, they tried to copy the successful one from The Empire Strikes Back.
I’ve spoken on a number of occasions about Star Wars as a franchise being trapped by its own past, unable to move on from the shadow of the original trilogy and tell truly new and different stories. But because the new films rely so heavily on nostalgia for the originals they weren’t allowed to stand on their own two feet – and when The Last Jedi tried in its own way to branch out and do something different, the result was controversy and a divided fanbase. It’s almost unsurprising, in that context, that Star Wars would simply choose to retreat to safer, more comfortable ground – even if that means it won’t ever surpass its original incarnation.
For me the question is this: is that moment in The Empire Strikes Back all Star Wars can ever be? Or will it one day aspire to do something different, maybe even something better? Right now the answer is that Star Wars seems to want to stay firmly in that nostalgic space, chasing the one moment the creative team knows fans adore; the moment on which Star Wars’ modern iterations hang. But for all the films and television shows produced since that moment in 1980, forty-one years ago, the franchise has never succeeded at recreating its magic.
Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to emulate past success, to move on to newer and different things. There are amazing stories in the Star Wars galaxy waiting to be told – but first the creative team in charge of the franchise has to come to terms with the fact that nothing they do will ever match the revelation Darth Vader gives to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. When they finally realise that, and desist from trying to forcibly make it happen, the franchise can finally start making its own magical moments again.
The Star Wars franchise – including The Empire Strikes Back and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of LucasFilm and the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.