Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back Beat Sheet
Check out our previously posted beat sheet for the original Star Wars (Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope).
Written by: Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, screenplay; George Lucas, story
Directed by: Irvin Kershner
Genre: Golden Fleece (Epic Fleece)
Opening Image: After the iconic “A long time ago…” screen and crawling opening, the camera pans down to an Imperial ship that is sending out probes, one of them landing on the ice planet Hoth.
Set-Up: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), riding on a Tauntaun, sees the probe land. Wanting to investigate, he calls the Rebel base and reaches Han Solo (Harrison Ford) right before being attacked by a Wampa. Back at the base, Han tries to leave because there is a bounty on his head, but not before trying to get Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) to admit her feelings for him. After learning that Luke hasn’t returned, Han takes a Tauntaun out into the encroaching darkness to find him. Meanwhile, Luke frees himself in the Wampa cave, using the Force to grab his lightsaber. In Luke’s thesis world, he is only beginning to learn the true power of the Force.
Theme Stated: Just as in the Wampa cave, Luke will need to face his fears by allying himself with the Force if he is to confront Darth Vader and avoid turning to the Dark Side himself. The Force comes from within, and so Luke must learn that the strength to do what is right and to overcome evil will come from himself.
Set-Up (Continued): Luke wanders in a blizzard, succumbing to the cold. The commanders at the base realize that Luke and Han are the only two patrols not accounted for, but must close the shield doors for protection.
Catalyst: Before passing out, Luke sees a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), who tells Luke to visit the Dagobah system to learn the ways of the Jedi from Yoda. It is through this journey that Luke will learn to truly ally himself with the Force. But on this road, he will need aid from his team if he is to achieve the prize, the defeat of the Galactic Empire.
Debate: Han finds Luke, keeping him warm with the deceased Tauntaun. The next morning, a search party finds them and takes them back to base. While Luke prepares to meet Yoda, Han and Leia banter back and forth, with Leia kissing Luke to make Han jealous. A probe lands outside, giving off a signal that is not used by the Alliance. Chewbacca and Han investigate, taking it out, but alert the Empire in the process.
In space, Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice: James Earl Jones) learns that the probe has found life readings in the Hoth system. Even though others doubt it, Vader is certain and orders an attack. A fleet of star destroyers comes out of hyperspace as the Rebels try to escape.
Break into Two: Imperial Walkers, known as AT-ATs, approach the base. The battle has begun.
Fun & Games: The Imperial troops approach and try to shut down the shield generators while Leia evacuates the remaining ground staff. Luke and the others fight the AT-ATs as the ground troops fight. Han tries to evacuate Leia, but an explosion blocks them from her transport. Han takes her and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) to the Millennium Falcon as Darth Vader enters the base. Luke and R2-D2 set a new course for the Dagobah system.
B Story: Han and Leia’s budding romance forms one subplot, but the main B Story is Luke’s growing relationship with the Force. His connection to it will guide his actions and will determine his destiny.
Fun & Games (Continued): The Millennium Falcon evades the star destroyers and TIE fighters. Unable to jump into hyperspace, Han guides the group into an asteroid field and hides on the surface of one. The Millennium Falcon is located, and Vader insists that the asteroid field be swept to find it.
Luke lands on Dagobah, crashing his X-Wing into a swamp. Yoda (voice: Frank Oz) appears, leading Luke to his home and revealing his true identity. It is in this upside-down antithesis world that Luke will learn that he must free himself of darkness if he is to harness the Force.
Meanwhile, Han and Leia begin to bond, eventually kissing. They are interrupted by C-3PO, who has been plugged in to the ship to learn why it is malfunctioning.
Vader speaks with the Emperor, who feels a great disturbance in the Force. The Emperor does not want Luke to become a Jedi, but would rather see Vader corrupt Luke, turning him to the Dark Side and making him their ally.
Midpoint: Yoda communicates with Obi-Wan, concerned with the anger he senses in Luke, just as he had sensed in Anakin. He refuses to train Luke at first, revealing that he has watched Luke all his life, noting that Luke has always looked to the future instead of where he was. However, there is a false victory as Yoda agrees to train Luke. The A Story, confronting Vader, and the B Story, learning to use the Force as an ally, cross paths.
Bad Guys Close In: Han realizes that the Millennium Falcon is not concealed in a cave on the asteroid, and the group flees out of a creature’s mouth, preparing to make the jump to light speed. Meanwhile, Luke trains with Yoda to confront his inner bad guys: fear, anger, and aggression, all paths that lead to the Dark Side. While stopping near a cave, Luke is told that the only thing inside it is what he himself takes in. As Luke enters, he confronts a visage of Vader in a lightsaber duel, cutting off his head. Vader’s mask falls off to reveal Luke’s face. Luke begins to learn that evil comes from within, not from without.
Vader gathers bounty hunters to find the Millennium Falcon, Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) among them. When Han can’t make the jump to light speed, he evades and hides his ship on the side of the Destroyer. When the Destroyer dumps its trash, Han follows it to blend in on his way to find sanctuary with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Boba Fett follows.
Luke continues to face his inner bad guys, giving in to negativity and doubt. Yoda tells Luke to raise his ship from the swamp, but Luke believes that Yoda wants the impossible. “My ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is,” Yoda tells him as he raises the X-Wing himself. He tells Luke that doubt is why he fails.
All Is Lost: While practicing, Luke senses Han and Leia in great pain in a city in the clouds. Yoda tells him that he has seen the future. The whiff of death is in the air as Luke asks if they will die.
In Cloud City, Han and the group meet Lando, who will help them fix the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive. When C-3PO is distracted by something, he is attacked and shot.
Dark Night of the Soul: Luke continues to be haunted by his vision and wants to aid Han and Leia, but Obi-Wan tells him he cannot control the Force yet, telling him that the Emperor wants him and his abilities. Luke promises to return to finish his training and will not turn to the Dark Side. Yoda reminds him that only a Jedi with the Force as an ally will defeat Vader and the Emperor; if he takes the easy way out, he will end up like Vader.
Break into Three: Luke departs to rescue his friends. He prepares to enter his synthesis world, one in which he trusts in the Force and refuses to give in to his fears.
Finale: Chewbacca finds the pieces of C-3PO and takes them back to Han and Leia. Lando arrives and takes them on a tour of the city, explaining that he has made a deal with the Empire to keep them out of the city’s business forever. In a high tower surprise, Darth Vader and Boba Fett await them in a room, capturing and imprisoning them.
While Chewbacca reassembles C-3PO, Vader tortures Han, offering him to Boba Fett. Lando arrives and tells the team that Luke is the one Vader wants, and their imprisonment is a trap.
Luke lands as Vader tests out the freezing carbonite process on Han, ensuring that it is safe for when he uses it on Luke. As the team is taken away, Luke confronts Vader, who encourages him to release his anger. Lando double-crosses the Stormtroopers and escapes with Leia, Chewbacca, and the droids.
Vader corners Luke, cutting off his hand as he bids Luke to join the Dark Side and bring order to the galaxy. When Vader tells Luke that he is Luke’s father, Luke digs deep down and drops to the shaft below, choosing the Force as an ally rather than Vader as he calls out to Leia, who hears him. Just as Luke weakens, the Millennium Falcon rescues him. Vader attempts to communicate with Luke telepathically, and R2-D2 repairs the hyper drive just in time as the Millennium Falcon jumps into hyper space.
Final Image: Luke has been transformed, facing his fears while turning from the Dark Side. As he and Leia stand with the droids, looking out into space, they come up with a plan to find Han and get him back. The camera pans back from the ship in a moment of brief respite before the next leg of Luke’s journey… when he returns as a Jedi.
Empire Strikes Back is the 2nd act, of the star wars trilogy. The trilogy is one long story which depicts the journey of Luke from Farm boy to Jedi and the redemption of Darth Vader. Empire is the “Upside World” in which Luke is becoming a Jedi and ends at the “Dark Night of the Soul” moment when Han Solo is captured. I think it works on several levels “SH/ OOTB” (Lukes Jedi powers), Fleece (Defeating the Empire), all are there and work well.
- Cory Milles
Hi, Sean. Thanks for your comments. Actually, in my initial draft of the beat sheet, I included Superhero as part of the genre, with the overall story arc being one of a Golden Fleece. I probably should have left that in, as it is an accurate description. Return of the Jedi is the same way, clearly more Superhero than others. I was basing my final decision off of a discussion in the forums in which Blake weighed in and suggested Empire being overall a Golden Fleece. But I agree with you that Superhero is a great description. Also, thanks for your wonderful blog… it’s fantastic!
- Patricia Burroughs aka Pooks
I’m writing a fantasy trilogy that, like the original three Star Wars flicks, tell a single story. When plotting them out I ended up with three STC story boards on the wall simultaneously. I recognized that the overarching genre I’m writing is Superhero.
However, I also realized that each individual book had to have its own complete arc and yes, The Empire Strikes Back was my model for a perfect middle. That said, I ended up using Whydunit and is more similar to All the President’s Men.
So my point is that each movie can be a different genre in an extended series. My three are #1 – Superhero, #2 -Whydunit, and #3-To be determined.
Thanks for posting this beat sheet. It’s great.
- Jack Martelli
Hi Cory, thanks for your beat sheets! I respectfully agree with Sean that there is something structurally different in TESB, and it is that it seems to be a reactive superhero story about surviving an onslaught of attacks (military, spiritual, psychological, environmental, familial, romantic, emotional) from the antagonist, Papa Vader. If Star Wars is the story of how Luke joined the wars, i feel that The Empire Strikes Back answers the question of whether he will survive the return volley.
He will survive it but at the cost of a five-bladed mutilation. He will be deprived of A) a hand B) his best friend C) the glory of the Empire’s military defeat in the previous film – (the Empire seems to be just fine) D) the romance with Leia and most importantly E) the belief system which propelled him through both movies i.e. that he should and can honor his noble Jedi father’s legacy by defeating Darth Vader.
So while i disagree with David that the AIL is Han being frozen (i think it is the ‘No, I am your father’ moment), i wonder if the actual catalyst for The Empire Strikes Back might be straddled between the scene in which the probe droid finds Echo Base and the one in which Vader directs the fleet to prepare for ground assault.
Hidden away from the Empire, albeit in a wasteland, Luke and the rebels might get along just fine. But when Vader finds them, all the glory of Star Wars dissipates and a sequence of increasingly terrifying attacks occur on our heroes: Wampas in caves, AT-ATs, Vader and snowtroopers, TIEs, asteroids, mynocs, space-worms, bounty hunters, training hardships, dagobah force-caves, treacherous old friends, visions of suffering, training failures, torture, droid dismemberment, carbonite and physical-spiritual amputation. It’s almost like a disaster movie, a relentless ‘back strike’ onto Luke, Han and Leia.
So I submit to you that the A story might be one of ‘Surviving Vader’, split into A1- ‘Luke learning the force in order to survive a confrontation with Vader’ and A2-‘Han & Leia evading capture by Vader’.
Conversely, the B stories would be the love stories that blossom in the middle of this mayhem: Leia and Han, Luke and both of them (his ‘brother’ and his ‘sister’), Luke and Yoda, ‘New Lando’ and the gang and even C-3PO and Chewie.
This is one of the reasons why I think The Empire Strikes Back is up there with E.T. And Close Encounters on the podium of ‘most devastatingly romantic sci-fantasy film of all time.’
It is an overwhelmingly tragic story of love surviving under attack.
When the love begins to bloom, it is turned against itself.
A brief aside on ‘EVADING VADER WITH LOVE ‘: Consider the ‘evade capture’ moments of the Falcon loop (with sweeping romance in the score) and Han floating the Falcon away with all the rubbish and earning a kiss and a Boba for his troubles.
Luke’s love of H&L is used to make it impossible for him not to walk straight into the trap (SH curse, as Sean suggests).
Han’s friendship with Lando is exploited, as is Lando’s fondness for his own citizens.
Vader’s shred of humanity (he will strike back, but at Luke’s HAND), is what powers him to scour the galaxy for his son, and this weakness (glimpsed when we see under the mask for an instant- hinting at human remnants – of paternal love) is being exploited by the Emperor. Palpatine seeks reassurances that Vader will be up to the task of capturing and either turning or executing ‘the son of Skywalker’. Vader will NOT be up to this task (a brilliant set-up for ROTJ). Nevertheless he lies (to himself / the audience) and declares ‘he will join us or die’.
Finally, Luke’s love for Obi Wan blinds him to the truth and his love for the idea of somehow spiritually rejoining his long-lost father makes the notion of living after the Vader revelation unsustainable.
Letting go of the railing, Luke literally commits suicide, selecting the ‘or die’ part of Vader’s either/or. It is only through the joint transitive love of Han and Luke that Leia, Lando, Chewie and Artoo rescue Luke and succeed in those twin A-stories: survive Vader / evade Vader.
Thinking of ‘Surviving Vader’ as the A-story and of ‘through Force and Love’ as the B-Story also dovetails with the correct intersections at midpoint, dark night and break into 3.
If that holds muster, then I reckon that the catalyst for the film is Vader finding Luke on Hoth.
The vision of Obi-Wan serves the purpose of implanting the notion of Dagobah in Luke’s mind, but I believe that his mission, his goal, his end purpose is to ‘survive / evade Vader’ long enough to fight another day (which he does) and not to complete his Jedi training (which he does not).
His ‘learning the ways of the force’ is a means to that end, rather than the end itself. And the story of surviving / evading Vader begins when Vader finds him, upturning the relative (if chilly) safety / happiness of a guy that starts the movie petting his tauntaun and laughing at ‘Han old buddy”s jokes.
What do you reckon?
- Jack Martelli
Having re-read your beat sheet, and the other posts (including mine) I now have some doubts on the all is lost beat. Is it Luke’s vision of Han and Leia suffering? Is it Han’s freezing? Or is it ‘I am your father’?
My feeling is that it is ‘I am your father’ – in the sense that that is the moment when everything is literally lost and there appears to be no way out – even thematically. I also always thought that Luke drops to his death, not ‘to the Force’. Then again, he does have a defiant glint in his eye, so I wonder. However, this would make for a very short third act which is all synthetically about evading / surviving. What’s interesting is there is a pretty clear ‘God/ father why hast thou forsaken me’/ ‘dark night of the soul’ kinda line (‘Ben, why didn’t you tell me’?), although visually and in terms of rhythmic uncertainty, the moment when Luke is hanging upside down callingfor Ben and Leia is also very DNOTS.
My feeling is that TESB plays with convention a little bit, in that the hero ‘storms the castle’ but it is he who will need rescuing.
I reckon the synthesis cannot be that Luke is ready and able to face Vader without fear, because the whole point is that he fails (about as badly as a hero can — because he wasn’t ready), but somehow snatches survival and escape (and physical/emotional scars) from the jaws of defeat. I mean, the film ends in a hospital…
In this sense, i suspect that the screenplay offers up a premature false break into 3 (Luke’s journey to Bespin). Isn’t Luke still very much lodged in an antithesis world in which he is apart from his friends (their union being their strength – on Hoth, through the Force, etc)?
I am going to go look at the timecode again now. Thank you again for your beat sheet and for the fascinating questions it raises about a film I love.
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I’m going to respectfully disagree, Cory, and say Empire is Superhero. We glean that right from the opening crawl, which has the Nemesis (Vader) obsessively searching for the hero with the Special Power (Luke is the last potential Jedi, and can singlehandedly turn the tide of the war against or in favor of the Empire), who exploits his Curse (his loyalty to his friends, since the ascetic Jedi Order discourages such sentimental attachments in favor of the Bigger Picture) through a trap designed to capitalize on Luke’s impatience, his lack of discipline. The dramatic question that drives the film is, “Will Luke’s allegiance be swayed to serve the Dark Side?” (And we get a definitive answer to that question, which is why I disagree with filmmakers like Joss Whedon who claim the movie has no conclusion.) The dramatic question of A New Hope was, “Will the rebels destroy the Death Star?” — classic Golden Fleece. But, Empire was something different, hence the reason critics often note its darker, more mature story. Structurally, Empire is a totally different beast from its predecessor: The heroes spend the entire movie reacting to the villains (hence the pulpy subtitle of Episode V), which is not how the engine of a Golden Fleece is designed to operate.
Star Wars is one of those franchises, like The Hunger Games, The Bourne Identity, and Rambo, that has switched story models throughout the run of the series, as I’ve written about here on Save the Cat!
Anyone else care to weigh-in? Curious to get other opinions…