CLASSICS: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) ****
May 31, 2010
Our CLASSICS series of reviews sheds a light on what we consider to be classic films, whether in recent or distant past….
written by: Lawrence Kasdan & Leigh Brackett
produced by: Gary Kurtz
directed by: Irvin Kirshner
rated PG (for sci-fi action violence)
2 hrs. 4 min.
U.S. release date: May 21, 1980
DVD release date: September 21, 2004
1980 was a good year to be an eight year-old obsessed with anything Star Wars. The ground-breaking first film had been released three years earlier and it’s merchandising was, well, an empire. Anywhere you went in the world, it was easy to see how this space opera had become more than a blockbuster, but a cultural phenomenon. So, when the ambitious sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back”, released 30 years ago on May 21st, actually proved to be bigger and better in many ways, it was quite a big deal. That may be blasphemous to some, especially since at the time it was clearly a darker film, ending with evil triumphing over the good guys. How can the dark grip of the Empire be superior to the New Hope that was introduced in the first film?
In retrospect, it’s simple to comprehend why Episode V of the Star Wars saga remains the best of them all. It’s the second dramatic act in the classic trilogy (the best trilogy cinema has ever seen), hearkening back to the Greek tragedy and myths from long, long ago. With the first sequel, the Star Wars universe had opened wide, introducing us to new planets, heroes on the run, intergalactic bounty hunters, a Jedi Master and a one of the most revealing endings in film history. But it was the high drama mixed with impeccable characterization that made this sequel the most satisfying. All the amazing visual effects would be worthless if we didn’t feel for the characters. It still blows my mind that there are some people my age who have still not seen any of these films.
For anyone reading this who is unfamiliar with what The Force is our what a Wookie is, you may consider just stopping right now since this is written by a Star Wars fan who considers this film to be the single greatest sequel of all time. Now, you may find it hard to believe that there are folks out there who have never seen this film but as shocking as it is there are some who have never seen any Star Wars film. You may also find it hard to believe this could be the greatest sequel ever. But I ask you to try to choose another. “The Godfather 2?” Close but it doesn’t come anywhere near the drama and spectacle that this film had, let alone the cultural phenomenon it would become. I have such a fond affinity for this film that I cannot even bring myself to calling it “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” which Lucasfilm did after the prequels were released. It remains “The Empire Strikes Back”, as it was when it was first released.
While “Star Wars” got us hooked into the universe that writer/director George Lucas created, it was “Empire” that would become, in many ways, a better film. It was visually more appealing, introducing three new systems, snowy Hoth, swampy Dagobah and dreamy Bespin, home of Cloud City. All of them unique in design and meticulous in detail. “Empire” was also more thought-provoking, dealing with themes of destiny, friendship, and sacrifice in an engaging and inventive manner. The film benefited from having a darker tone compared to the hero’s journey of the first film. With the bad guys maintaining the upper hand throughout, the audience would be more engaged and captivating to the plight of the good guys. The title of the film prepared us but we were no less enthralled by the events that transpired which is a credit to fantastic writing and directing.
Lucas’ energy was occupied with various production roles as well as forging ahead with groundbreaking special effects as he oversaw the birth of ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) which go on to work on countless movies. Handing over the reigns of director to his former professor, Irvin Kershner, who had never worked in the sci-fi genre, proved to be a blessing. Kershner focused on dramatic characterization while balancing dazzling special effects with compelling situations. The recent prequel trilogy is proof that Lucas is better at creating than he is writing or directing and “Empire” is the best proof of this.
Kasdan and Brackett set the film three years after the destruction of the Death Star which would turn out to be a short-lived victory. The villainous Darth Vader led the forces of the Galactic Empire in pursuit after the Rebel Alliance, specifically Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Solo not only has to deal with a price on his head and a feisty Princess but also the unpredictable temperaments of his beloved spaceship. While Vader chases Han, Leia, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and Threepio (Anthony Daniels) across the galaxy, Luke, accompanied by Artoo (Kenny Baker), studies the Force under Jedi Master Yoda (Frank Oz). Vader uses Luke’s friends to set a trap for him on Cloud City, run by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), an old friend of Han’s, which leads to a compelling confrontation between the Dark Lord of the Sith and the young Jedi-in-training which ends with one of the most shocking revelations in cinema.
The writing fleshed out all the characters as it introduces intriguing new ones while widening the scope in an epic fashion. Bracket’s contributions were in before she died in 1978, which left Lucas working on the screenplay’s draft until Kasdan came in after wowing him with his script for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. While the jargon and terminology indigenous to the Star Wars universe was intact, gone was the corny dialogue from the first film. It was replaced with a smarter, more poignant script laced with humor despite the repeated peril the heroes found themselves in.
While the film initially received mixed reviews, it is now heralded as the best in the saga. But really, it doesn’t matter that it has a 97% “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is on countless “Top Film” lists, because the fans know. Those who grew up in a time when there was no internet or entertainment shows to spoil everything, know of the absolute thrill in seeing such an event in theaters for the first time. Experiencing the Snow Walkers, Yoda, The Emperor, Boba Fett and the often misquoted, revealing line uttered by Vader at the end, is an unforgettable milestone in one’s life.
It became the first time I was aware of the variety of talent that went into making such a film. Animators like Phil Tippett and designers such as Ralph McQuarrie and Stuart Freeborn would be forever embedded in my cinematic and artistic awareness. Finding out how everything was made and seeing how it all came to life would prove to be quite a rush. In no way did it take away from the countless viewings, if anything, my enlightenment had enhanced it.
In retrospect, this is the Star Wars film that features the best acting in any of them. All the actors looked their best in this film and excelled with the best material out of all of the three original films. But most notably is the work done by two actors you never saw, Frank Oz and James Earl Jones. The fact that a muppet wind up stirring such emotion while conveying such expression and, well, humanity, is a tribute to Oz and the way Kirshner chose to consider Yoda as a real character. Vader was established as a legitimate threat in the first film but Jones turned him into an ominous and relentless presence in “Empire”, complete with his own thematic march.
Speaking of that march, one cannot praise “Empire” without acknowledging its incredible score. Composed and conducted by the amazing John Williams and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, it appropriately heightened the movie’s emotion and drama. Williams invoked a tenderness in tracks like “Yoda’s Theme” and “Han Solo and the Princess” while instilling a foreboding doom in “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)” and “The Duel”. This iconic soundtrack remains an integral source of the film’s iconic status. No one can think of the film and not immediately think of William’s Oscar-winning score.
“Star Wars” cracked open what could be possible with science fiction fantasy in film but “Empire” broadened those possibilities in every aspect. I could go and on and on about the cherished lines from the film along with the classic scenes. Nothing will ever come close to being this perfect and much of that had to do with the time in which it came out. It’s no wonder that this was the least tampered-with when the 1997 Special Editions were released. It’s just that great. Back in the summer of 1980, “Empire” would evolve into a cultural experience and its cliffhanger ending left us all wondering when we would see the next film. This film is the reason why people fall in love with the medium, it certainly is why I did.