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Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back


Perhaps the strangest take away from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is that its director created something so artful, so captivating and impressive, yet the rest of his filmography goes virtually unnoticed. Irvin Kershner even helmed entries in three other movie series (The Return of a Man Called Horse, unofficial Connery Bond return Never Say Never Again and Robocop 2, as well as attempted M*A*S*H cash-in S*P*Y*S), all of which were mediocre to disappointing. Lucas himself recognised that The Empire Strikes Back (just consider the lack of finesse of that title for a moment, and how the picture’s actual content redresses it as something more elegant) had far more substance and resonance than he ever intended. It’s the high water mark of the saga, and it’s unlikely it can ever be equalled, not least because anyone trying for that Empire “thing” will more than likely fall victim to producing a poor imitation instead of striving to make their own beast (which is also why the picture stands out from 90% of sequel fare).

We got that with JJ Abrams and his spin on Star Trek II: The Wrath of KhanStar Trek into Darkness, in a series which already had a prior spin on the same in Star Trek: Nemesis. To an extent, Lucas has already looked back to Empire with Attack of the Clones. It’s best not to be referencing other entries in a series really, at least not in such a studious manner; strike out for new territory, if your fumbling imagination or fanboy urges permit it. It remains to be seen if JJ has realised this with The Force Awakens.

The Empire Strikes Back was viewed as something of a disappointment at first shout, of course, criticised (even by genre fans) for being exactly what Lucas intended it to be; a second act, with a cliffhanger ending (or “no ending”) and a structure that was one long chase (well, Luke aside). As Lucas said, everything goes wrong in a second act (or problems are set up to be resolved) and closure comes later; at the time Starburst’s John Brosnan (always a great, opinionated read) this was exactly the picture’s failing. That, and its indebtedness to the “magical grab-bag” of the Force.

In contrast, the ever-wilfully iconoclastic Pauline Kael loved it.  It’s interesting that the fundamental resistance in some quarters to Lucas’ design (even the box office was markedly down on Star Wars, while still markedly huge) has since become a readily adopted narrative form, and not just by the generation that grew up on his galaxy; it’s there in the mini-trilogy Star Trek began a couple of years later, and Back to the Future Part II is fundamentally indebted to unsatisfied momentum that promises to be paid off at a later date.

The notion that a movie in a designated series of movies must also be fully functionally stand-alone, making it more integral and respectable (just like other movies), is one of the takeaways from this. One would assume, if you concur with such a view, that you have problems with serialised storytelling at its core. The Empire Strikes Back fully embraces its opportunity not to adopt the accepted cinematic form, while encompassing that rare thing for a mainstream blockbuster (let alone a science fiction or fantasy offering); the chance to be a character piece.

The picture runs at a fair clip, its two hours flying by, yet as far as traditional action sequences go, there are only really two, and they are bookends (the Hoth battle and the Vader-Luke confrontation; the asteroid sequence might also be argued for). This isn’t to venerate The Empire Strikes Back as superior for eschewing wall-to-wall action (although it’s successor is undoubtedly inferior for abandoning much of the hard work put into character development), but to identify how completely it succeeds on its own terms. It often takes time for a movie that does something different to be embraced (provided it has essential merit, of course), and when people say they want to make a sequel as good as The Empire Strikes Back, the things they shouldn’t be pointing to are its “darkness”, the twist (which is fundamentally character-related), or the lack of closure, but rather the majesty with which it allows its characters breathe and grow.

Pauline KaelThough Empire, released in 1980, didn’t have the leaping, comic-book hedonism of the 1977 Star Wars, and, as the middle film of the trilogy, was chained to an unresolved, cliffhanger plot, it was a vibrant, fairy-tale cliffhanger. The director, Irvin Kershner, brought the material a pop-Wagnerian amplitude; the characters showed more depth of feeling than they had in the first film, and the music – John Williams’ variations on the Star Wars theme – seemed to saturate and enrich the intensely clear images.

As Kael attested, this aspect is all down to Kershner. Which isn’t to diminish the contributions of Lucas and Kasdan, or Leigh Bracket (who gets a screenplay credit, but whose draft was felt to be tonally quite wrong), but you only have to look at (again!) its successor, which had the two story/screenplay central players and was entirely lesser (“in Jedi the effects take over”, Kael opined), to identify the someone who was taking painstaking care over what they were doing.

You can see this in the annotated transcripts of discussions in The Making of The Empire Strikes Back; how Kershner gave Ford his head (and had to deal with Fisher’s insecurities – a stock-in-trade for an actor, and no doubt fuelled by coke, but also understandable, as Leia, even though her arc here is a memorable one, is positioned entirely reactively to Han, rather than embodying the motivated force of A New Hope) and generally wanted to get everything just-so, most conspicuously with the characters and performances, but also on through every aspect of the production (in contrast, Lucas’ “That’ll do” approach is writ large across the prequels).

Luke SkywalkerNo! That’s not true. That’s impossible!

The revelation concerning Luke’s parentage still has an enormous impact, despite being probably the number one movie secret for which everyone knows the reveal (yes, even more than Soylent Green or The Sixth Sense), and one where any future generation watching the series in episode order won’t have the faintest inkling how it might have sent their aged relatives reeling. That it continues to pack a punch is largely down to Mark Hamill, the unsung hero of the Original Trilogy, who by this point is granted the opportunity to move from stock-type innocent to troubled, conflicted young man.

Leigh Bracket’s first draft, based on Lucas’ treatment, didn’t feature this revelation, and instead posited Anakin as a Force ghost materialising to instruct Luke; Michael Kaminski, understandably unconvinced by Lucas’ protestations regarding a mapped-out lineage from the off (you only need look at the flux state of names, places and attributes to see how, on a vast scale, this wasn’t the case) proposes in The Secret History of Star Wars that Vader only fell into place as Luke’s dad post- the rethink arising from the rejected Bracket draft. In particular, he seizes on the lack of reference to such an idea pre-1978. That may be true but, given the swarm of ideas Lucas was entertaining, it had probably at least occurred to him by then, as one of the many different mythical configurations that might be explored.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it filters remarkably well into the pre-existing surrounds of Star Wars. The idea that Jedi tell white lies isn’t really so astounding, given they go about the place manipulating weak-minded stormtroopers and slicing off arms in bars willy-nilly; it’s only with Vader that one might argue A New Hope fogs up the old visor. One so Force adept can’t even twig when he’s in the presence of his own daughter (of which, Lucas hadn’t even set on Leia as Luke’s sister by The Empire Strikes Back, as he would never have included the sibling snog under such circumstances). But I do like that he’s merely the lackey in A New Hope, shifting to take centre stage, and James Earl Jones’ essentially considered tones ensure the revelation of hidden depths and reasoning, come the confrontation with Luke, aren’t nearly the shock they might otherwise be.

Aside from (some of) the Special Edition changes, I’m hard-pressed to find anything in The Empire Strikes Back that doesn’t work; I’m always surprised by how effortlessly it flows. It feels like no sooner have I sat down than it’s over. Sure, the Empire really needs decent pilots for its Star Destroyers (ones who can avoid collisions with other Star Destroyers).

And one point might be the return of Obi-Wan. Lucas and Kasdan fundamentally disagreed on killing off characters during the script conferences for Return of the Jedi (LucasBy killing someone, I think you alienate the audience); Lucas remarks on Kasdan trying to make the story more realistic, which is what he tried when he killed off Ben “but I managed to take the edge off it”. You can hear the regret there, and the willingness to pull punches is an attitude that has led to one of the worst aspects of genre storytelling today (be it Marvel, Doctor WhoStar Trek or whichever), where no one stays dead, where life isn’t ephemeral, where there is no permanent or lasting impact and consequence to actions.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see Alec Guinness again, and his thoughtful pronunciations (especially in Return of the Jedi, funnily enough) are welcome. They even link neatly into his fancy portentous talk from A New Hope (“Strike me down and I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”), but they also take away death’s sting. And it’s only a short step from there to the cosy entourage of Force ghosts on a day trip from Force Heaven to the Ewok camp (if Lucas still held the reins, he’d probably keep tinkering with new editions to the point where there were thousands; every Jedi he’d ever conceptualised would be smiling benignly at Luke).

Perhaps the most crucial point where The Empire Strikes Back could have gone seriously awry is Yoda, though. Revisiting him here, a green muppet who isn’t Kermit, it’s seems almost like a no-brainer, because Frank Oz invests him with so much life, gravitas and idiosyncrasy. Imagine what it might have been like if Hamill hadn’t been granted the chance to share the same physical space as the little Jedi muppet master, if he had been added in post-the-fact? How much integrity would he have exerted then? While the prequels produce a decent enough CGI surrogate, it can’t compete with an actual tangible force, and the subtleties and nuances that come from imperfection.

And also, the tentative ground of spiritual import, one Lucas took much flak for when he got his galaxy up and running (see John Brosnan’s reaction above) rather has the air sucked from the room when delivered by digital characters or ones bereft of personality. It creates an oppositional state; instead of wonder at the unknown, there’s the sinking feeling of being played. Yoda as embodied by Oz is a shaman, a trickster, a fool, and the wisest “man” you’ll ever meet; even by Return of the Jedi we have forgotten the side of him that will wrestle R2-D2 for a pen torch.

YodaNo, try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.

Unlike Brosnan, I can very much get behind Luke’s training on Dagobah. The content may be platitudinous, with Yoda a stand-in for Carlos Castenda’s Don Juan Matus, but Yoda’s universal teachings, be they construed as Xen, Christian or simple philosophical nuggets regardless of leaning, come down to one’s own ego being one’s own worst enemy, rather than any external force that may seek to infringe on one’s essential rectitude. Be it self-doubt or self-recrimination, Luke only holds himself back (“I don’t believe it”; “That is why you fail”).

By the time of the prequels, Yoda’s ruminations have become banal; they go nowhere and frequently make him look rather stupid (“Evil this is where?” “Behind you it is!”) It’s also the case that the prequels entirely fail to get to grips with the business of being a Jedi; they’re caught up with the iconography (right down to dozens of kids battling remotes) rather than the essence of internal becoming. Hence Mace Windu.

This internal becoming is summed up by the wooziest scene in the saga (complete with atypical slow motion), the moment the series breaks free from its narrative confines and enters the realm of the meaningfully surreal. Luke is sent into a dark tree (why Yoda lives near a tree consumed with the dark side I don’t know, as you’d have though he would disinfect it; perhaps for this very moment left it he did) to face his demons; Luke stares into the abyss, and the abyss stares back at him. He encounters Vader, whom he fells, and his own face is revealed behind the shattered helmet (the pre-emptive aspect here is also crucial; when facing both his phantom and the real Vader, Luke flames up first).

The familial, oedipal angst of The Empire Strikes Back rocked the series to its core, of course, and all manner of speculation ensued in the three years until the docking of Return of the Jedi. Who was the other? Was it Han – because Han fans wanted him to be special, even if that would defeat the point of his character, and as proof he used Luke’s lightsaber, didn’t he? Was it Leia – because she heard Luke’s call? Or was it someone else? It’s been suggested that, as initially conceived, Lucas had a character from Episode III in mind, although evidently not the Episode III that eventually came into being, and definitely not Kit bloody Fisto. Without doubt the strongest element of Return of the Jedi is the confrontation between Luke, Vader and the Emperor, but the actual execution can’t equal the eerie, artful foreboding with which Kershner realises Luke’s first face-to-face with dad.

From passing along the all-but-abandoned corridors of Cloud City, to the meeting with Vader in silhouette above the carbonite chamber, to the duelling through darkened rooms with flying bric-a-brac and out onto wind-lashed platforms, there’s an elemental progression to the encounter that matches Luke’s burgeoning state of emotional turmoil/ disembowelling. If Vader can’t have him, he’ll leave him as a shell, which is pretty much where he’s at when rescued. It’s also interesting to see how straight-up Vader is about the Emperor’s chances with Luke on board (“You can destroy the Emperor. It is your destiny”). But then, the Emperor is about the only element of the saga Lucas managed to tackle with consistency across his six films.

Han SoloAfraid I was going to leave without giving you a goodbye kiss?
Princess LeiaI’d just as soon kiss a Wookie.
Han SoloI can arrange that. You could use a good kiss.

Luke is on the back foot in The Empire Strikes Back, disabused of his face (by a Hoth Wampa), his abilities (by Yoda) or his preconceptions and extremities (by Vader). The real hero plotline, one Lucas consciously invested in but subsequently left to stagnate, is Han’s, and it’s the one audiences instantly respond to; the rogue and scoundrel who does the right thing and becomes the hero, the average guy (not a Force-user) who relies on wits and cunning to evade the Empire and can even fire off repeated shots, on target, at Darth in a one-on-one encounter. Han isn’t even in the last half-hour of the picture, but it feels like his movie start to finish. Ford’s finessing of the script with Kershner pays dividends, and the romance with Leia absolutely works.

Princess LeiaYou have your moments. Not many of them, but you do have them.

Han’s also a bit of a doofus amid the effortless cool, though, and it’s this goofy charm that helps ensure The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t tip into an outright downer. From the constant problems of entropy (the Falcon just won’t work, even when it’s been fixed, leading to the only response Solo can give; “This isn’t fair!” – a very different tone to the way Skywalkers say it, though, as we actually chuckle at his childishness) to his interaction with C-3PO (the latter interrupting his wooing Leia; “Thank you. Thank you very much”).

Most iconically, his hardboiled response (improvised on set) to Leia’s “I love you”; “I know”, is the ultimate self-assured admission of reciprocity, delivered through the armour of casual indifference.

As mentioned, though, it might be argued Leia comes up short in all this. She is, essentially, there to be impressed and wooed by Han. In the opening scenes, the ice princess needs to be thawed by the man-of-the-world (“You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life”). Leia is still allowed to be right about stuff (she knows Cloud City is a bum deal from the start, fundamentally distrusts Lando, and doesn’t doubt that Luke’s distress cry is real, rather than a figment of her imagination), and Carrie Fisher brings an assertive personality to bear that is at least the equal of anyone else in the room.

But Leia isn’t really proactive in Empire. And, aside from a couple of early scenes in Jedi, she won’t be there either. The difference here is you don’t really mind, as regressive as having her “lighten up” might be; the Han and Leia romance is affecting, and you’re invested in both characters. One might expect JJ to ensure his new trilogy female characters have proper arcs, until one recalls he decorated his last big screen science fiction movie with Alice Eve, who was there entirely for a cheesecake disrobing scene.

Lando CalrissianYou truly belong with us here in the clouds.

I tend to forget how well-introduced Lando is, because he’s so immaterial to Return of the Jedi (while Lucas does this virtually across the board in Jedi, everyone else had two movies to get dug in). He has a really strong mini-character arc here. And however cocky Han is, Lando is the same to the max, the “old smoothie” making it look easy. Billy Dee Williams juggles a difficult role with deceptive ease, required to navigate from betrayer of our favourite character to hero in a fraction of the picture’s running time, and bring the other protagonists on board too. He must also sport a cape stylishly (Larry David knows how difficult that can be). Williams manages to manoeuvre Lando into a place where, like C-3PO, we’re willing Chewie and Leia to forgive him, and by the time he brings Luke into the Falcon he pretty much is, but for that pesky hyperdrive.

The conception and visualisation of Cloud City, a Tibanna gas mining colony, is stunning, and also a tricky narrative move, as the relief that comes with light and airy surroundings, after the oppressive space pursuit, conceals dark secrets around every corner. It’s an environment populated by its own set of briefly sketched characters, including another group of diminutive scavengers (Ugnaughts, as opposed to Jawas).

And John Hollis’s Lobot (he played Sondeergard, who obviously rocks, in Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story The Mutants, which also featured Biggs Darklighter; who knew Lucas was such a devotee of those six episodes?), Lando’s major domo, doesn’t even say a word, but is established as an intriguing persona through visual cues in a handful of scenes.

The Empire Strikes Back does a couple of interesting things through mixing and matching its characters; splitting R2D2 and C-3PO for most of the duration does, to a great or lesser extent, compound C-3PO becoming the extended comic relief of the episode; at any given moment, cut to the droid being wholly self-involved and bemoaning the situation in a shrill manner. It works here because it’s self-conscious (characters put their hands over his mouth, tell him to shut up, shut him down, and ignore him when he actually does have something important to say) but you only have to look at Attack of the Clones to see how this kind of thing can go horribly wrong (that too sees C-3PO being taken to bits).

Darth VaderTake the princess and the Wookie to my ship.

I do wonder slightly at the droid’s relentless maligning of “overgrown mop head” Chewbacca. Is it a function of “human-cyborg relations” that C-3PO respects and behaves with servility only towards human beings? Is he species-ist? And why doesn’t Vader also want a reunion with the droid he created? I can see that he’d want Leia, even still blind to her parentage, for the political aspect, but Chewie? Perhaps he wants to reminisce concerning their one-time good buddy Yoda?

There are some nice Imperial touches here, following from Star Wars, as prospective victims of the Sith choke show wariness around Vader, or foolishness. Future foes of Indiana Jones Julian Glover and Michael Sheard get off lightly (General Veers) or not at all (Admiral Ozzel), with Captain Needa (Michael Culver) also falling by the wayside. It’s left to incumbent Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley) to look about nervously every time something goes wrong with their pursuit of the Falcon (somehow he survives to Return of the Jedi; it’s a shame he didn’t make it to The Force Awakens too, as that would be some survivalist tendency). Mainly, though, the Imperial side is as much a supporting arm to Vader now as Vader was to Tarkin in A New Hope.

Darth VaderTest it on Captain Solo.

As with Star Wars, it’s with the minor characters and creatures that Empire most fires the imagination, and especially so with the bounty hunters. Boba Fett derives from early Vader designs, and was one of the first conceptions for the sequel (to the extent that he shows up in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special). He’s surely the most stylish design of the trilogy (although I like all the assorted bounty hunters, and was particularly taken by Bossk and IG-88’s adventures in the Marvel comic strip).

It’s probably inevitable that a design (rather than a fully-formed character) taking on a life of its own in the fan consciousness should be then fundamentally misused, but it’s still peculiar how very wrong Fett has gone. As originally portrayed by Jeremy Bulloch and voiced by Jason Wingreen, Fett’s minimalist presence enabled the viewer to project on him as an equal and opposite cool character to Han Solo; Solo’s Vader, if you will (more Lee van Cleef than Lucas’ idea of Clint Eastwood). He shows the same kind of lateral thinking and cunning (getting into his prey’s head such that he too dumps himself and Slave 1 with the garbage), and he’s also no one’s stooge, standing up to Vader when his pay cheque is threatened (“He’s no good to me dead”).

There’s a whole backstory of Mandalorian warriors the prequels appear to have disinherited, while creating a fundamental imbalance by instilling all this motivation in the son of Jango that leads to him… doing very little in the Original Trilogy. Lucas, at that time – I guess because he didn’t have the Internet, the clot – was unaware of how Fett had seized the popular imagination, and proceeded to dispatch him in the weakest of ways in Return of the Jedi (killed by accident). Then, rather than redress that amongst the various crappy Special Edition additions to Episode VI (he thought about having Boba escape the Sarlacc pit) he added a few unnecessary additional shots of the bounty hunter, including a flirtation with a couple of dancers that makes Lucas comes across as the most hopeless fan boy.

But Fett’s cool here. He anticipates Luke and shoots at him, the way Han does Vader. He has a cool spaceship he has to stand up in. He has a cool jet pack (and a cape, not a wise combination, but he’s cool, so it works). What isn’t so cool is having Temeura Morrison overdub Wingreen. There’s no reason, unless one ascribes to nurture being entirely absent, that a clone of Jango should grow up with the exact cadence of “dad”, but Lucas just cannot resist.

Generally The Empire Strikes Back gets off lightly from Special Edition changes. Indeed, I go as far to say that – in the main – it benefits. The attempts to reach beyond the original’s grasp in the Hoth sequence (model work and matte lines abounded) benefit from the clean up. I don’t mind the new Hoth Wampa, the new shots of Cloud City, or even the (entirely superfluous) shot of Vader boarding his shuttle. I’d prefer it if swapping in McDiarmid for Clive Revill’s Emperor had the former looking like he did in Return of the Jedi rather than the Pruneface look of Revenge of the Sith (the Jedi make-up looks better, and less like prosthetics), but the change at least makes sense (for ones that mostly don’t, see Jedi).

Generally, though, the lack of overt amendment to The Empire Strikes Back is a sign of how immaculately it holds up, and the care that went into it. The texture and variety encompassing Lucas’ galaxy is added to immeasurably, from ice worlds to asteroid fields occupied by giant worms, from cities in the clouds to swamp planets (Dagobah looks amazing, a sign of what can be done creating a planet in a studio if sufficient time and love is put in).

It furthers that thing Star Wars does so well, of having multiple suggestive things going on around the edges, but never becomes too busy the way the prequels do. The strange pockets and asides of the universe continue to capture the imagination, but to lesser effect in Return of the Jedi, and by the preequels, where anything is possible, there’s no longer any wonder left.

Kershner brings elegance and opulence to the proceedings, and Williams’ score, the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service of Star Wars scores, that even offers a new iconic theme (the Imperial March) you didn’t know was essential until he came up with it, adds majesty and moments of pure visual poetry (the Falcon looping into the asteroid cave, or dropping into the garbage trail, Yoda levitating the X-wing; go to any scene and there’s probably something there that Williams has enhanced).

To top Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (which, despite what I’ve said, does have a beginning, middle and end; it just doesn’t offer that there closure), a Star Wars film would have to do something fairly comprehensively amazing. It would have to advance the series core story while not appearing to do so in a cynical manner, it would have to add layers and depth while not repeating itself or resorting to mimicry, and it would have to do something fresh and emboldening with its characters rather than ingraining them.

These things aren’t impossible under the Disney mantle, but a $4.5 billion investment leads less to taking chances than it does ensuring what comes forth is echoing what already exists. Since the generation that grew up with these movies is now making them, there’s very rarely the necessary distance to make such choices. Kershner and Kasdan had the eyes to see what the saga needed to advance, in the same way Nicholas Meyer did with the second Star Trek movie. It’s more the pity that such storytelling (and filmmaking) finesse is now so few and far between.

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