There is a great deal of material about the creation of the first sequel to Star Wars. You can not possibly do better than JW Rinzler’s book The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, one of the best ‘making of’ books I’ve ever read, and there’s not a word of supporting evidence in there for the theory I have. So it’s probably best to see what I’m about to say as a thought experiment, rather than some amazing intuition of an actual thing.
Nowadays, sequels are often a way to go bigger. A film was a surprise success, so a follow up is greenlit with a bigger budget, more spectacle, it widens out the mythology. Think about Terminator, The Matrix, even things like The Hangover. Back in the day, though, the sequels to Jaws, Dracula or Planet of the Apes were the exact opposite. They were a cheap option, a way to reuse props or trade on the goodwill of the audience, and they were subject to diminishing returns, both artistically and commercially. The industry rule of thumb was that they would make a little under half of the previous entry in the series.
So, a ‘traditional’ sequel to Star Wars would have reused a lot of props, it would be cheap to make and quite limited in scale. And so I was wondered if there was, at some point, a cheap option for a Star Wars sequel. The first spin off novel, 1978’s The Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, has been presented as such a ‘cheap sequel’, but it’s unclear how seriously it was considered. It would certainly have been cheap to film – the story was mainly confined to one planet, there were no space battles or armies of aliens. The sense I get is that it was written with one eye on the possibility it could be adapted, rather than ever seriously developed as a movie.
I realised that there’s a version of The Empire Strikes Back that would work as this hypothetical ‘cheap sequel’. More often than not, the changes are actually relatively small ones. The main differences are that it starts straight after the first film, and it never leaves the Yavin system. So, here goes, as illustrated by Ralph McQuarrie concept art:
It’s the day after the Death Star was destroyed. The Empire now know the Rebels are based on a Moon of the gas giant Yavin, and the Alliance is preparing to evacuate. Han and Luke are on patrol when they see something come down in the jungle.
Luke is attacked by a jungle creature before he can reach it.
Han and Chewie investigate and see a dark shape … Darth Vader. They shoot at the Sith Lord, but it’s clear Vader has found the exact location of the Rebel base and will be able to call in the fleet.
A fleet of Star Destroyers arrive, the ground invasion begins, with Imperial tanks crashing through the jungle terrain.
The Rebels begin a frantic retreat. Han and Chewie end up evacuating Leia in the Falcon. R2D2 runs off to find Luke.
Luke escapes from the jungle creature, but is wounded. He is tended to by a small gnomelike creature. When R2 finds him, and tells Luke of the Imperial attack, Luke is impatient to return. It becomes clear that this is Yoda, the Jedi Master. Yoda is reluctant to train Luke.
The Falcon escapes the Star Destroyers with a daring escape through the vast field of shrapnel and wreckage that was once the Death Star, but the hyperdrive is damaged so they can’t make a clean getaway.
Luke faces a test from Yoda – he enters a mysterious tree, and confronts Darth Vader … but Vader is a phantom, and when Luke defeats him, he sees his own face under Vader’s helmet.
Han realises that his old friend Lando is based in Cloud City, a mining colony in the atmosphere of Yavin. He waits until the Imperials have passed by, and heads for Yavin … followed by the real DarthVader.
Lando saw the Death Star and saw the Imperial fleet. He genuinely had no idea the Rebels were based here. To demonstrate good faith, he hands Han, Leia and Chewie over to Vader. Vader demands to know the rendezvous point of the Rebel Fleet.
Yoda begins Luke’s training, but Luke realises that his friends are in danger. He gets back to the ruined rebel base and finds an X-wing that he and R2 can repair quickly. Yoda warns Luke that his training is not complete.
Luke flies to Cloud City, and frees his friends. As they run to the Falcon, there’s a virtual replay of the escape from the Death Star, only this time it’s Luke duelling Vader, not Ben. At the end, Vader falls to his doom down a vast shaft.
The heroes make a triumphant rendezvous with the Rebel Fleet.
As I was thinking this through, I realised there are a couple of bits straight out of The Phantom Menace. The attack at the beginning would be far less spectacular – no AT-ATs or big battle scene. It would actually be more like the invasion of Naboo at the start of Episode I – a few big machines crashing through the trees. The Luke / Vader fight at the end would end up very like the Obi Wan / Darth Maul one. Star Wars, of course, is one of those narratives that often rhymes with itself.
This cheap version actually solves some of the problems with the plotting of The Empire Strikes Back. The timing of the movie is weird – there are two plots running: the Luke and Yoda one and the Han and Leia one. The Han and Leia one takes place over two days. They leave Hoth, but get to Bespin in time for bed. (And Han and Leia consummate their relationship that night in Cloud City. After wearing nothing but white up to that point, she never wears white again. Just saying). Each time we cut back to Han and Leia, it’s not that long since we saw them last. Each time we cut to Luke, he’s halfway through some new training ordeal. There’s something of a mismatch.
In the movie, we know that Darth Vader isn’t hiding in a tree on Dagobah, it has to be a dream sequence. In the cheap version, it could be the real Vader because he was last seen in the same jungle. And speaking of Vader, in this version, he’s last seen falling down a shaft, so it’s very possible he could reappear in any Star Wars 3.
There’s no revelation that he’s Luke’s father here. Well, that’s another discussion. My feeling is that Vader as Luke’s dad was a relatively late decision, and I’ll just note that Lucasfilm were happy to authorise this artwork from Star Wars Annual 1 showing Luke’s father at the time they were drawing up plans for the sequel:
The Rinzler book, and other sources, make it clear that the Star Wars sequel was no sure thing. More American Graffiti made $8M, after the original had made $140M. In the end, Star Wars 2 got an unprecedented vote of confidence: so many cinemas booked it so far in advance that it was the very first movie to have gone into profit before principal photography was completed.
Like I say, I’m not claiming psychic insight, but for a long time it’s struck me as a little odd that we leave the first movie with our heroes in a rebel base in a jungle overlooked by a gas giant, then The Empire Strikes Back takes half the movie to get from a completely different Rebel base to Luke in a jungle and the Falcon to a gas giant. The expensive model sequences, the AT-AT attack and the asteroid field escape, are not all that essential to the plot. I think there’s some circumstantial evidence that The Empire Strikes Back started out as a cheaper movie, or that it was designed in a way that would allow expensive sequences to be cut out if money became a problem.