Monday, July 14, 2014

1980 Week: The Empire Strikes Back

          Heretical though my viewpoint might be among old-school fans of a galaxy far, far away, I don’t subscribe to the belief that The Empire Strikes Back is a better film than Star Wars (1977)—even though, by most normal criteria, the second film in the Skywalker saga is superior. Yes, the acting is better, the dialogue is crisper, the narrative is deeper, and the storytelling is slicker. Even the special effects are more impressive the second time around. Still, two considerations always persuade me to keep the first picture atop the pantheon: 1) Empire doesn’t have an ending, because the resolution of the film’s plot doesn’t occur until the first 20 minutes of 1983’s Return of the Jedi; 2) By definition as a sequel, Empire cannot match the thrilling freshness of Star Wars. Ideas are only new once—even ideas like Star Wars, which was cobbled together from myriad preexisting influences.
          Having said all that, Empire is such an exciting, fast, intoxicating, romantic, and surprising ride that it’s unquestionably among the few sequels to match its predecessor in quality. One need only look at the precipitous drop from Empire to Jedi in order to understand how difficult it is to keep a good thing going.
          In any event, reciting Empire’s plot serves very little purpose, partially because the movie is familiar to most viewers and partially because the storyline will sound impenetrable and/or silly to anyone who hasn’t yet hitched their first ride in the Millennium Falcon. (See, we’ve lost the Star Wars virgins already.) Nonetheless, here are the basics. After destroying the Death Star, rebel forces decamp to the snow-covered planet Hoth, but the Empire’s main enforcer, Darth Vader, leads a successful siege. Escaping separately from the fight are wannabe Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker, who heads to the planet Dagobah for training with Jedi Master Yoda, and the duo of mercenary Han Solo and rebel leader Princess Leia. While Luke channels his abandonment issues into supernatural Jedi skills, Han and Leia wrestle with their burgeoning attraction—even as Vader conspires to capture the heroes.
          Fantastical sights and sounds abound. The floating Cloud City overseen by suave Lando Calrissian. The epic lightsaber duel that concludes with perhaps the greatest single plot twist in sci-fi history. And so much more. Although series creator George Lucas stepped away from the director’s chair for Empire, enlisting his onetime USC teacher Irvin Kershner, Lucas’ fingerprints are visible on every frame. Better still, cowriter Lawrence Kasdan (beginning a hot streak of Lucas collaborations) helps introduce grown-up emotions into the Star Wars universe. The principal cast of the so-called “original trilogy” reaches its zenith here, with Mark Hamill transforming Skywalker from a hayseed into a haunted hero, Carrie Fisher elevating Leia into a full-on field commander (albeit with a soft spot for the men in her life), Harrison Ford perfecting his charming-rogue take on Han, and new arrival Frank Oz contributing wonderful puppetry and voice work as Yoda.
          Nearly everything in Empire is so terrific, in fact, that a tumble into mediocrity was probably inevitable by the time Jedi came around. Thus, for fans who were kids when the first Star Wars was released (myself included), Empire represents the last moment when we believed Lucas could do no wrong—a galaxy of possibilities, if you will. To say nothing of outer-space badass Boba Fett. (Now we’ve really lost the Star Wars virgins.)

The Empire Strikes Back: OUTTA SIGHT


Jeremy said...

1980 week, eh? Was this signposted earlier and I missed it? Either way, its cool, since so many of these films were being made/filmed in the 70s. What is Raging Bull if not the most polished form of New Hollywood cinema barely escaping the last decade.

By Peter Hanson said...

This is actually the second 1980 week. A brief introduction to this recurring feature was offered on the first 1980 posting (Superman II). These themed weeks will occur every three months or so, as I'm planning to review 100 key films from 1980.

AndyHunt said...

long live 1980 week say I. Whilst my calling to this site is driven by your excellent summaries of the best the seventies had to offer, it's good to push the boundary a little. I doubt there's any movie here that wasn't born in the seventies.
Onto ESB, probably the most accomplished of all three Star Wars films (I shall not utter a word about the three CGI led shite fests of more recent times)
Being a huge Star Wars fan at the time I was looking forward to Empire, but expected just a re tread of the first. In fact I was not as excited as my peers (12 year old boys)seemed to be. What I got was a huge, HUGE, surprise. The darker tone and serious treatment of major story elements hit just the right spot for me. in fact I really believe that Empire is as relevant to the turbulent adolescent psyche as say 'Catcher in the Rye', or 'Lord of the flies'. I mean, we have forbidden (Luke/leia/Han)love, mischievous elderly mentor (Yoda) and the most dysfunctional Father/Son relationship (Vader/Luke)I loved Lukes petulant response to Vaders big reveal, but wish that Lucas in his constant tinkering (I think he calls it improved editing) would have Luke exclaim "I hate you...I wish I'd never been bornnnnnn!". Most of all its the change in Leia from 'Damsel in distress' to full on 'Career soldier woman' with power over men. For a 12 year old that's all heady stuff...especially the leia stuff. forget the glamour of 'Return of the Jedis' bikini Leia. 'Empires' power babe messes with pubescent mind. On that note I better go, the force is strong and my light sabers in danger of powering up.

Will Errickson said...

Can still remember the shock and disbelief I felt at Vader's words when I was 9, and debating afterward with friends I saw the movie with whether Han's "death" was traumatic for the young(er) kids in the audience. The ending never bothered me, my mom was always telling me about "cliffhangers" (in fact that was the name of a Sunday night TV show for 5 minutes in the late '70s) and how they worked. Lucky me.

fab.amber said...

In 1977. A breathless pal of mine found out that the sequel to Star Wars, much awaited and discussed among us erstwhile Trekkie's, would contain the most incredible.plot twist ever. I scratched my head and tossed out the most ludicrous idea I could come up with.
"Don't tell me," I joked, "Death Vader is Luke's father."

The first time on the theatre for.Empire, we get to The Scene, and from my side of.the aisle: 'oh, come ON!"

I couldn't be a real fan anymore.