“No… I am your father.”
The climactic beat of The Empire Strikes Back comes packaged in one of the most well-known movie quotes of all time. Even after having heard that line floating around the pop-culture ether many times before I watched the movie myself, I felt a shock of emotion when experiencing it in the context of its story. That’s because—like all media—it doesn’t exist in isolation. Creator George Lucas famously wove his epic story out of established tropes and archetypes drawn from Westerns, science fiction, fantasy, war movies, samurai films, and many more sources of inspiration, combining them into something that feels new as a whole even while it’s familiar in its basic elements.
Because of this, Star Wars has been hailed as a postmodern masterpiece since its release for its blending of disparate elements and established tropes. However, Star Wars also draws deeply from the Gothic genre, and that a part of its lineage that is often overlooked or ignored. This can be seen most clearly in how The Empire Strikes Back rises out of this fascinating artistic genealogy, undeniably underpinned by its Gothic ancestry.
Since its inception, the Gothic genre has always centered around familial bloodlines. Birthrights and incest are the bread and butter of a Gothic story, from classics of the genre like The Castle of Otranto and “The Fall of the House of Usher” to modern revivals such as The Vampire Chronicles and Crimson Peak (and, again, The Fall of the House of Usher, this time on Netflix). It’s not a coincidence that all but The Vampire Chronicles are titled after the family dwelling the story revolves around, and all but Otranto prominently feature incestuous families. The Gothic genre lives and breathes in the spaces between walls rotting away under the weight of unhealthy family histories.
It would be fun to say that The Empire Strikes Back qualifies as a Gothic story because of Luke and Leia’s not-very-familial lip lock, but George Lucas ultimately wasn’t writing them as siblings until the third Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, so it’s hard to argue that the kiss was a manifestation of Empire’s Gothic influences. Nevertheless, it only helps intensify the feeling that Empire exists within the same realm of sinister, secret-filled castles and corrupted bloodlines as Poe, Shelley, and Polidori’s works.
A kind of secret-filled castle does appear in the form of Cloud City, floating above the planet Bespin, where the movie’s heroes are welcomed into the gleaming, light-filled futuristic corridors that mask Lando Calrissian’s trickery until it’s too late. However, the danger of repeating your family’s mistakes is the thematic core around which Empire truly revolves. The central conflict of this movie may be between the Rebellion and the Galactic Empire, but Luke Skywalker and his father are the figureheads of those opposing sides, and they orbit each other in that battle until finally crashing together at the end of Empire. Even though they don’t meet until that epic climactic scene, the movie makes sure its audience doesn’t forget who our main focus should be.
Halfway through the movie’s runtime, Luke begins taking lessons from a legendary old Jedi Master named Yoda. The most important of the many tests that Luke takes during his training with Yoda is to enter a cave in which the Dark Side is strong. Once inside this cave, Luke must face a vision of Darth Vader, whose face transforms into Luke’s own after Luke defeats him.
This takes place before we know that Vader is Luke’s father, but the message is clear, in retrospect: the atrocities committed by Luke’s family are his to inherit.
This concept of inherited darkness lies at the very roots of the Gothic genre. The first publication to be described as “Gothic” was The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, which was a time of great transition for Europe. Europe often takes credit for things it has no right to, but the Gothic genre is unquestionably a result of its very particular environment. Old monarchies either stood at the precipice of collapse (in the case of France, whose own revolution started in 1789), or had already crumbled into history (in the case of the Ottoman Empire). The Gothic movement was born in bloody soil among people that had lost all faith with aging structures of hereditary power. In a Gothic worldview, clinging to family tradition and rejecting the outside world was the easiest way to ensure your own destruction. Empire reflects this belief by insisting that if our hero follows in his father’s footsteps, everything he cares about will be destroyed.
About halfway through Empire, Darth Vader has a conversation with the Emperor about what to do with Luke. They both agree that Luke would be a great asset if he could be turned to the Dark Side, and Darth Vader promises that it can be done. Like every great Gothic villain, Vader believes too confidently that his progeny will follow in his footsteps. Doctor Victor Frankenstein was similarly certain that he could control his creation, and he paid for it with the lives of everyone he cared for.
Unlike the portrayal of Darth Vader in Empire, Victor Frankenstein isn’t presented as purely a villain. (While it is true that Vader is also eventually revealed to be a tragic figure much in the same vein as Frankenstein in Return of the Jedi, that fact isn’t relevant to a discussion of the inspirations behind Empire because, again, George Lucas did not plan ahead.) Purely within the confines of Empire, Vader is perhaps more like Frankenstein’s Monster: a melding of man and technology with great destructive power.
Out of all Gothic works, the lines that can be drawn between Frankenstein (the novel) and The Empire Strikes Back are the most telling when it comes to establishing Empire’s artistic genealogy. Since Frankenstein is not only a key Gothic text, but is also widely considered the first major science fiction story, it would be shocking to argue that Empire is also Gothic sci-fi without being able to compare it to Frankenstein. Luckily for my thesis, it’s not a hard comparison to make…
If the first Star Wars movie was groundbreaking for the way it brought space opera into the mainstream blockbuster ecosystem, then The Empire Strikes Back upped the ante by taking everything that was unique about its predecessor and melding it with the literary and artistic DNA of the Gothic. Empire ends with Luke receiving a prosthetic hand to replace the one his father cut off during their battle. Like Vader, he too demonstrates that uncomfortable merging of man and machine that Mary Shelley wove inextricably into sci-fi with Frankenstein, and in this one aspect, he does inadvertently follow in his father’s footsteps. However, Luke succeeds in forging his own path, away from the horror of his bloodline.
Luke’s arc in Empire is Gothic in so many ways: he is tempted with hereditary tainted gifts, he becomes like his father and Frankenstein’s Monster in having a part of himself replaced by technology, and—yes, okay—he does make out with his sister. In the end, though, he chooses to keep faith with his beliefs and not fall into the evil for which he seemed fated, defying the apparent curse haunting his bloodline. Empire’s relationship with the Gothic genre parallels this character arc: as a movie, it contains many crucial similarities to other Gothic media, but it ultimately created something new and all its own.
Innovation is how great works are created, but the greatest works are the ones that incorporate and build upon classic truths and ideas, using preexisting art and stories as a framework to shape the new. The Gothic movement sprouted from a lack of faith in monarchical society, but it explores humanity’s universal fear of repeating our parents’ mistakes, which is why it’s stuck around long after (most) monarchies have faded out of fashion. The Empire Strikes Back explores that universal fear and dread, but in a new context, one that audiences had been introduced to in the previous Star Wars movie, which created a whole new mythology out of pieces of the past, from ancient myth to pulp fiction to classic cinema. With its incorporation of the Gothic, Empire once again created a new kind of story by combining a number of artistic bloodlines, resulting in an alchemy of creative transmutation, like birth.
Jay is a writer of speculative fiction that aims to awaken the thing that squirms wetly inside of you. Growing up queer and mixed-race in a religious family taught him that reality is uncomfortable in a box, and there’s no better way to explore that than by bending genres and turning the earthy, dirty things into something more. You can find his fiction in Anathema: Spec from the Margins, and his personal thoughts at @jellicle_jay on social media.