A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

 
 

RANK: # 2

 
 

STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK jjjj

25th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1980, PG, 127 mins.

Luke Skywalker: Mark Hamill / Han Solo: Harrison Ford / Princess Leia: Carrie Fisher / Lando Calrissian: Billy Dee Williams / C-3po: Anthony Daniels / Yoda: Frank Oz / Darth Vader: David Prowse / Vader's Voice: James Earl Jones / Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi: Alec Guinness

Directed by Irvin Kershner  / Written by Leigh Brackett And Lawrence Kasdan / Story by George Lucas

 
 

Many people often ask me what I think makes a film a classic.  

I overwhelmingly and confidently respond with a rather simple answer:  

A classic film - in my mind -  is a film that I can watch persistently and obsessively, over and over again, and it still nevertheless feels like a brand new experience every time I watch it.  

I canít think of a more quintessential film that fits this description better than the 1980 sequel to the original STAR WARS. 

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a film that is literally bathed in joyous  and energetic euphoria all the way through its 127 minutes.  The film, on purely visceral and visual levels, is one of the most awe-inspiring and opulent films ever created, where scene after scene provide endless visions for us to take in and absorb.  More than that, EMPIRE is in the grand tradition of epic storytelling, further extrapolating and elaborating on the universal, mythic and historical archetypes that creator George Lucas established with the first STAR WARS film in 1977.   

Yes, EMPIRE definitively lacks the same sense of newness and freshness that made the Academy Award winning original such a memorable film.  However, it does such a thoroughly great job of actually surpassing its predecessor on so many distinct levels, that its no wonder that cinephiles and critics often hail EMPIRE as one of the greatest sequels of all time. 

EMPIRE is many things.  It's the greatest and best of all of cinemaís sequels.  Itís one of the most elaborate fantasies ever conceived.  And, yes, itís most assuredly a masterstroke work in the arena of big budget, epic filmmaking.  EMPIRE is able to transcend its own image as a space opera.  Itís truly a masterpiece, all the way through, and even despite the fact that not all of the STAR WARS films have yet to be released, I can say confidently that I will never see a better STAR WARS film.  EMPIRE is the conscious, the heartbeat, and the emotional epicenter of Lucasís grand six-film saga.

No question about it. 

I have seen the film too many times to even begin to contemplate, perhaps at least 100 viewings from beginning to end.  Yet, revisiting it again, 25 years after its initial theatrical release, one predominant thing continues to astound me about the film: its overpowering sense of timelessness.  The film has, in no way, dated, and it is the sheer confidence and perseverance of the filmís story, visuals, and overall look that remains completely intact.  When I first viewed the film in a darkened cinema some 25 years ago, so much of it appeased to my natural and childlike sense of admiration.  Revisiting, countless times subsequently and finally on a remastered DVD special edition that was released in the fall of 2004, these feelings of marvel have yet to subside.   I still watch with awe.

The images continue to thrill and inspire, and the film is bursting with them: gigantic armored tanks that walk on legs that stand hundreds of feet tall like some sort of industrialized and mechanical Trojan horse; vast snowscapes and the gigantic rodent-like beasts that ride through them; immense and tranquil cityscapes that float high in the skies of a colorful planet; strange, ominous, and murky swamp- like planets; a perilous gantry that overlooks a seemingly endless abyss...and so on and so on.   Everything holds up so marvelously well in EMPIRE, not to mention the final shocking revelation by the filmís antagonist, Darth Vader - one of cinemaís greatest scenes - and it still manages to send a tingle down me.  If the scandalous surprise of the filmís final 15 minutes still resonates deeply today, one can only imagine what it was like for contemporary audiences of its time. 

If we are to compare EMPIRE to its prequel, the principal impression one gets is its tremendous darkness in terms of tone.  The first STAR WARS film was a loving homage to the sort of gee-whiz innocence of the adventure and science fiction serials of the 1930ís and 40ís that Lucas cherished as a child.  In a decade of continual and overpowering nihilism and pessimism (we are talking the Watergate, Vietnam-era 70's), the incredible whimsicality, sense of fun, and easy and exciting spirit that STAR WARS created was an instant hit.  The films of the 70ís were saturated with depressing tales of film noir detectives and homicidal taxi drivers bent on revenge.  When STAR WARS hit the screens, it was literally a breath of fresh air for those that were yearning for old fashioned escapism.  STAR WARS was cheerful, wooden, emotionally simple-minded, and entertaining in a cavalier sense.  Those expecting the same colorful and light-hearted diversion in STAR WARS would not altogether find it in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. 

What makes EMPIRE work and work so fabulously is its inherent and abrupt change in tone.  Yes, EMPIRE is still a hell of a fun ride and still faithfully maintains the sense of innocence of those classic adventure serials, but it manages to go further than that.  EMPIRE moves away from being yet another visionary and enjoyable space opera into something thought-provoking, hurtling its characters into the deepest and darkness pits of despair.  In the first film, good thoroughly and completely triumphs over evil.  In EMPIRE, Lucas flips this conventions of the genre on its head entirely.   That strange and ethereal sense of warm fuzziness that STAR WARS may have left you with is completely gone at the conclusion of EMPIRE.  The storyline of the film sends us in one direction and then radically changes gears and heads in opposite directions.  By the end of the film, characters have been tortured, one who is most definitely a main character has been given over to the bad guys and left for dead, and the good guys are left in a state of chaos, confusion, and moral uncertainty.  The main protagonist has been seriously wounded, emotionally and physically, and is even left to deal with the loss of a friend and the impending mystery regarding his own upbringing.  Oh yes, the bad guys unquestionably win in the end.  

Itís kind of revealing, in retrospect, what a challenging bit of determined filmmaking this was for Lucas.  What EMPIRE has is the most open-ended and gutsy climax in film history.  Considering that evil has succinctly triumphed over the forces of good and that nothing has been settled, compromised, answered, or explained, itís startling how Lucas managed to maintain this vision.  Consider: he was making a sequel to the biggest hit of all-time at the time.  If the EMPIRE succeeded, there would undoubtedly be a third film in the series.  If it failed, there would have been no third film and the series would have ended abruptly in a most unsatisfying manner.  Okay, it seemed pretty clear that EMPIRE would be a hit, but if you consider the what-if possibility of failure, it only further reinforces what a daring and confident filmmaker Lucas was.  It is his fierce and persistent diligence of vision and integrity to his own universe and story that echoes all through EMPIRE.  To make a film that was darker, murkier, and ended on such a downer, Lucas could have lost the farm.  Yet, the film did succeed, and despite its genuine lack of a beginning, middle and end and a conclusion that lacked closure, EMPIRE still remains a rousing and brilliantly realized entertainment. 

Lucas himself decided in the late 70ís not to write or direct the film, a point that many people have labored to point out could have been key ingredients to the filmís success.  He did conceive the story to which he gave over to master screenwriter Leigh Brackett, a bold and unusual choice, considering her previous film credits included classics like 1946ís THE BIG SLEEP.  She unfortunately died of cancer before a full final draft was completed (Lucas, in a kind move, still gave her a co-screenwriter credit for the film).  Lucas then hired then unknown Lawrence Kasdan, who had never written a film before.

To make matters even more intriguing, Lucas offered the directorís chair to his former UCLA film professor, Irvin Kirschner, who had never had any exposure to the type of grand and epic filmmaking that the STAR WARS films were.  His previous credits donít seem to lend credence to his abilities to handle a film as large as STAR WARS (his 1970's outings included THE RETURN OF A MAN CALLED HORSE).  Yet, Lucas was not really looking for people who were good at escapist fantasy; rather, he was looking for good writers and directors, and this can be seen by watching EMPIRE.  The plot is tighter, leaner and meaner with characters that are further developed and explored, not to mention that the effects themselves have grown more mature from the original.  All in all, not bad for a few people that had never had exposure to large-scale populist entertainment.  The film is still not that altogether psychologically complex or meaningful, but it still resonates as a film that creates interesting and intriguing personalities placed in dire circumstances.  The narrative and characters are more dense and literate than the film ever gets credit for. 

As for the basic story, the film ostensibly takes place after the conclusion of the first film, where the Rebellion has had its first major success after destroying the infamous and deadly battle station of the Galactic Empire.  Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) continue to stay and fight with the Rebellion and have relocated its operations to the planets of Hoth, one where its entire surface looks like a Saskatchewan prairie on the worst winter day.  An Imperial Probe Droid shows up and reveals their hideout, and the nefarious Darth Vader (Voice of James Earl Jones, played by David Prowse) decides to launch a full scale invasion with hopes of capturing Luke, who he seems to have a strange interest in.  Well, the Empire does indeed strike back, in one of the more virtuoso special effects action scenes ever created.  They land and invade the Rebels in a surface battle involving giant armored tanks that walk on legs.  The Rebels have been driven back, and the heroes are forced to go their own separate ways.  Han and Leia (Carrie Fischer) board his ship, the Millennium Falcon, and make for their quick escape, while Luke heads for the dreary swamp planet of Dagobah to further learn the ways of the mystical force by Yoda (puppeted and played by Frank Oz).   

Yoda emerges as a character that single-handedly steals the film, and he is arguably one of fictionís best creations.  Heís small and unassuming; a two foot tall gnome like figure that talks in a manner that begs for better syntax and grammar, but underneath it all lies a warrior and wise old sage.  Much like Gollum in the recent LORD OF THE RINGS films, Yoda is the product of cinemagic - in this case, puppetry, but the technique is so invisible because we invest so much in him as a character, so much that the techniques that were used to create him become almost tertiary.  Yes, I am always concretely aware of the fact that Yoda is a puppet (or a computer generated figure in the recent prequel films), but Yoda is such a multi-emotional character, and itís a real testament to the work of Frank Oz.  Oz and Lucas just didnít want to make Yoda a superior puppet; they really wanted to make him a fully realized character with real depth.  Ironically, it is Oz, through Yoda, that gives the filmís best and most memorable performance (Lucas even tried to secure Oz a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, but the folks at the Academy were too limited in foresight and mind to honor the work of what they then thought was just a puppet). 

Things do not go very well for the heroes.  Han and Leia end up on Cloud City, where Hanís friend, Lando Carlissian (Billy Dee Williams) works.  Yet, it turns out to be a trap that has grim and ominous consequences for the heroes, especially for Han.  Luke, meanwhile, peruses his friends to the city, where he has his now infamous battle with Darth Vader, in what would ultimately become the defining moment of the entire STAR WARS saga.  The final battle between the two starts as something we see as being relatively simple.  Luke, the good guy, wishes to defeat Vader to avenge the death of his former mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Yet, by the fightís conclusion, which occurs in a wonderfully realized marriage of special effects and practical sets, Vader reveals his true identity to the mortified Luke.  Luke, not willing to join this machine (or man?) chooses to fall to his death instead.  Well, he does not die, but the whole build up to that moment left a series of painfully unanswered questions that viewers, at the time, would have to wait three years to have answered.  Lucas - 20 years before M. Night Shyamalan made it popular - unveiled the mother of all twist and shock endings, and one that gives new meaning to the word cliffhanger. 

There is just so much to admire in the film.  One aspect that never gets as much praise as it deserves is the level of precise and astute attention to detail that Lucas has in these films. In EMPIRE, along with the rest of the films in the classic and prequel trilogy, there is ALWAYS something happening at every corner of the frame, and the images contain such an awesome amount of density and detail.  This gives Lucasís world such an enormous level of verisimilitude.  His universe feels real because heís got details down with the minutest aspects.  Considering the endless times I have seen the film, I still see something new every time.  This is why the world of this film series is so expansive and decisive. 

Lucas uses effects, and heavily in this film (the classic trilogy utilized effects as much as the prequels) to create environments that, strangely, never draws attention to effects that create them.  Everything is so seamless and real, nearly to the point where when we see Vaderís lead ship - a Star Destroyer that appears miles long - we are so transfixed in its scale that we never second guess its reality or cadence.  When the Millennium Falcon travels through the cityscape of Cloud City, the frame is busting with activity at every corner, from small ships flying in the distance, to the subtle lights of the skyscrapers, to the smallest of images of people looking out of their windows.  Production design and effects have never been as generous, comprehensive, and exhaustive as they are in the STAR WARS films. 

Yet, despite its visual flare, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK works primarily as a mythological drama, and Lucasí other underrated skill is in his ability to tell stories that feel fresh and new while maintaining their edge of familiarity.  The film continues to tell (with what was started in the first STAR WARS) the most basic and primal of all mythological archetypes Ė the heroís journey.  However, the film truly makes the series mythic in its exploration of the main characters and how it slyly and slowly reveals aspects of certain characters (and their relationships with one another) and channels that into something that is progressively more mysterious.  EMPIRE compels its viewers more than its predecessor, and for that it makes it the most involving, compelling, and thrilling of all the STAR WARS films. 

I think the best films work as transcending entertainments.  The worst have no illusory qualities and make us fill in all of the blanks.  More than any other film, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK works by working on us .  The story of this film and the other films in the saga are as universal and penetrating as the art of storytelling itself, but it does so by inspiring in us a sense of escapist wonder in which we stare lovingly at the screen for two hours, bathe and drink in all of the miraculous visual sights, and are just simply receptive to them, kind of in the same way a child is receptive to something he/she has never seen before.  Thatís what makes the STAR WARS films stand apart from other popular films.  We watch them with our eyes as wide as a child and we respond to them in naÔve, innocent, and trusting ways.  We respond to the awesome sights as if they were real and never question their integrity.  We sit back with a wily smile on our faces and simultaneously are allowed to become startled at the proceedings.   Few films have this authority, and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK remains, a quarter of a century after its release, to be one of cinemaís most powerful of entertainments. 

I still watch it...with awe.

 
 

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