'Lost' & 'Empire Strikes Back': Pop culture milestones, same weekend

'Empire Strikes Back,' courtesy LucasFilm
It is a dark time for the Candidates. Evading the dreaded Smoke Monster, a group of island castaways led by Jack Shephard have escaped the Widmore sub and established a new temporary base on the remote Dharma Island. The evil demigod Man In Black, obsessed with finding Shephard, is dispatching a final plan to kill the survivors and escape the far reaches of the island …

On May 21, 1980, The Empire Strikes Back opened in theaters and has been received as not just a great film in its own right, but as one of the best blockbusters and finest sequels in movie history. On Sept. 22, 2004, Lost premiered on ABC and has since become one of the most celebrated dramatic shows in television history.

It seems fitting – and worthy of the prologue/plot mashup above—that the 30th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back occurs on the same weekend that Lost will conclude with the two and a half hour series finale. In addition to being personal favorites that blew my mind, earned slavish devotion and launched countless conversations, both are significant pop culture institutions that changed what many of us can expect from entertainment, but also what entertainment can expect of us.

As a child, The Empire Strikes Back was a film I loved and loathed. It was my first “What? Aw, hell no!” movie. It ended on a down note where the villains won, the Big Bad made a shocking reveal that stomped the hero’s soul and the audience was left with a three-year cliffhanger. I was too young to remember much about
the theater experience of The Empire Strikes Back, but I nonetheless consider myself lucky to be of a generation that didn’t know about Luke Skywalker’s daddy issues before reaching the movie’s final act.

As an adult, I’ve had many of the same reactions while watching Lost over the course of six seasons. I don’t remember when exactly I became a fan—sometime around the end of the first season, I think – but I remember the impact it had on me. The many cliffhangers, even the ones that spanned only one week as well as between seasons, felt like they lasted for years. The reveals have been shocking, and “What? Aw, hell no!” has been shouted many, many times.  Although I’ve loathed Lost at times, overall, I’ve enjoyed that it pretty much from the beginning.

From the opening credits, where one logo zooms away in space and the other floats through darkness towards the screen, the connection between Lost and the Star Wars series has always been evident. Creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, along with showrunner Carlton Cuse, have allowed Lost to proudly wear its geeky heart on the sleeve. Instead of trying to hide it, the Lindelof and Cuse team frequently make direct and indirect references to the George Lucas franchise, and have quoted it within the show.

The character of Hurley even attempted to re-write The Empire Strikes Back in one episode. Instead of being merely homage, however, Lost has channeled what made The Empire Striks Back great.

With two dueling protagonists of the hero complex boy scout and the self-serving lovable rogue, with a strong but conflicted woman caught between, the Lost trio of Jack/Sawyer/Kate is the new trio of Luke/Han/Leia from The Empire Strikes Back. Jacob has the Obi-Wan act manipulating the truth and being noticeably absent when needed the most down pat. Hurley and Miles at times serve the purpose of C-3PO and R2, and Richard Alpert has remained a man of mystery who generates intense curiosity despite very little screen time – not unlike a certain bounty hunter. Finally, Locke has been both a Yoda and Vader figure as a man who preached of faith but was consumed by darkness. And both are steeped in paranormal pop culture aspects of with ghostly guides, psychic powers and monsters.

Beyond the obvious comparisons, Lost and The Empire Strikes Back are alike, and probably so beloved, because they are both deceptively simple stories of ordinary people in extraordinary situations contemplating the questions about – to borrow from Douglas Adams—life, the universe and everything. They revolve around the nature of light vs. dark, good vs. evil, science vs. faith and ultimately about the redemptive power of love and sacrifice.

Moreover, like the Dark Side cave in which Yoda warns Luke to “only what you take with you,” The Empire Strikes Back and Lost both allow the viewer to imprint his/her own experiences, philosophies, beliefs and theories upon the stories.  When fans spend significant time searching or clues and connections, and twist the plots around in their brains, they become involved. The question of “what does it all mean?” becomes quite personal.

OK, so that’s admittedly a gooey nugget of a “deceptively simple story” covered in very lofty, convoluted candy coating.

Additionally, faith has been more than a recurring theme within the plots of both stories; it’s also part of the viewing experience. Both request the viewer to place trust in them, and have essentially redefined what it means to be a fan of something. The Empire Strikes Back and Lost are entertainment that requires the patience of the audience, and as a result, there is a contract with the fans that promises some sort of resolution.

That faith is why many of us have been able to stick with Lost despite Nikki and Paulo (and the Bai Ling episode, which was a hot mess of Jar Jar Binks and Ewoks rolled into one). It’s also why the emotions viewers feel are real when invoked by the death of certain characters, or bad things happening to these on-screen people we’ve accepted into our lives. Frankly, if you ever want to trigger the waterworks in me, show me back-to-back scenes of Han saying goodbye to Leia, and Sun and Jin holding hands in that submarine – then you’ve got Niagara Falls, Frankie Angel.

So, you don’t have to be a member of the congregation to enjoy either, but for the converted, The Empire Strikes Back and Lost are pop-culture belief systems that inspire worship. They belong together in my best-of library, and I’m happy to say happy birthday to one, and sad to say goodbye to the other – but I’m pleased I can do both in the same fitting weekend.