Key Scene is a new feature series on entertainment.ie where we look at a key scene from movies, how it locks into the overall story, and why it works so well that we're talking about still to this day.
'The Empire Strikes Back' may have given birth, or at least popularised, the idea of the Darker and Edgier Sequel with its ending. Han Solo is frozen in carbonite, Luke Skywalker minus a hand, the Rebellion on the run once again, Darth Vader having revealed himself as the father of Luke Skywalker. It's all in there.
Even though it goes out on the hopeful strings of John Williams as Luke and Leia stare out at a galaxy whirl while Lando Calrissian takes off to find Han Solo, the reverberations are still playing over of that reveal - that Darth Vader is in fact Luke Skywalker's father.
When people refer to 'Star Wars' in general as space opera, they're supplanting the soap for space. A long-dead father, suddenly revealed as being alive and being the villain all along, is prime soap opera tosh. 'Dallas' or 'Dynasty' could have easily done something similar back then, and probably did for all the storylines they rattled through in a single season.
Even more upmarket soap operas like 'Mad Men' featured long-dead relatives coming back from the grave to haunt the protagonist. Don Draper is haunted by the memory of his half-brother who just wanted to know him, and the guilt Draper carries from the suicide which took him flows throughout the entire series.
Indeed, space opera was originally a derogatory term. Wilson Tucker, an American critic and author who coined the very phrase in the '50s, used it to pummel what he described as the "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn." Serials like 'Flash Gordon', 'Buck Rogers In The 25th Century' and the like regularly ended on cliffhangers with key pieces of information revealed in the final reel to keep people in their seats to the end, and to ensure they came back for the next one.
It's what Stephen King referred to in 'Misery' as "the gotta" - the thing that you've just gotta know how it ends. If you're told how it ends, it doesn't really matter. It's the exhilaration of wanting to know what happens next, not actually being told it.
When Darth Vader hacked off Luke Skywalker's hand and, in a moment of rare vulnerability, pleaded with his son to join him, it's right out of the space opera / soap opera playbook. It's riven with deep, primal emotions - betrayal, anguish, yearning - and it's leading right into the conclusion with 'Return of the Jedi'.
Whether the conclusion is satisfying or not is irrelevant, because in that moment, the exquisite build-up is more important than what happens after.
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