The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)

Three years on from a movie that did as much as any to usher in the era of the Hollywood blockbuster, Star Wars returned, but with several important differences: independent financing, a bigger budget, and a morbid and operatic storyline. Busy with his bustling toy company and the full-time job of owning rights to things, George Lucas elected to hand this sequel off to others, namely: two professional writers, Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, and a real live director for hire, Irvin Kershner, who taught Lucas at film school. In perfect fashion for this series, Kershner balked at the job until his agent told him he’d be set for life — so he spent a few months on swampy sets at Elstree and in the blazing cold of Norway (there’s lots of snow in the movie) and, freed of Lucas’ pedestrian instincts, made a film superior in nearly every conceivable way to its predecessor.

We can even go so far as to proclaim The Empire Strikes Back a fine film and a great piece of pop entertainment, but it’s nevertheless one that will only speak to you personally if you have a lot of affection for Star Wars itself. That’s its central flaw but also a major aspect of its brilliance: it relies entirely on the mass audience’s familiarity with and warmth toward another film, hence it’s the perfect sequel, but it does take that audience into some decidedly thornier territory and has the audacity to assume their trust. Gone is the hokey simplicity and vaguely creepy hero worship of Lucas’ film, replaced by noirish ambiguity and a careful, rhythmically paced establishing of mood that doesn’t necessarily “pay off” in a typical sense. And yet: Kershner and company are also applying extremely serious tricks of classically-trained melodrama to characters who were quite intentional ciphers in the first movie. It’s like giving a back story to Dick and Jane, but if you’re willing to go along with it, there’s fun to be had.

Some elements of Star Wars didn’t beg to be toyed with anyway, and The Empire Strikes Back — in its original, undoctored version — is equally a marvel of visual effects and (especially) iconic, elegant production design, which as before is the most unassailable aspect of the film’s artistry. It looks simply incredible, and its strange and seductive visual ideas come faster and longer here, with more than twice as many sets as Star Wars. By the introduction of the “Cloud City” and its almost Magritte-like pop surrealism, one is tempted not to even bother paying attention to the story at all, instead just ogling the disconnected images like the individual works of painterly art they frequently are.

Except for the always delightful Billy Dee Williams, the cast proves reasonably enthusiastic but completely unhelpful; Harrison Ford, so memorable in the first film, seems to be doing nothing but mugging for the camera and only a trip to Mr. Freeze’s candy bar factory makes him sort of appealing. Mark Hamill is the worst, shrimpiest kind of “hero” for a film like this; it’s very difficult to accept that he’s seen by any omniscient force for good or evil as a “great hope” (much less someone worth moving an entire Holy Roman Empire around the galaxy to track down). His Luke Skywalker is crudely separated from the others early on so he won’t prove a burden to the burgeoning romance between the other two principals, Ford and Carrie Fisher. Their love scenes are a bit of Hawksian contrivance without the wit (Leia: “I love you”; Indiana Jones: “I know“). The gobbledygook but engrossing story has Luke beginning training to become an Amway salesman, and villainous Darth Vader holding all his best pals hostage until he comes to save them so he can cut his arm off and sing Pearl Jam’s “Alive” to him. More or less, and unless you’re the sort of person who knows this by heart, the ins and outs of the plot aren’t likely to be your main attraction anyway.

Nevertheless, Brackett and Kasdan develop these characters expertly, and not with the typical impulse for constant jolts of audience pleasure. It refuses to resolve any of their arcs, instead leaving them in various states of distress — Vader’s strange outer-space Third Reich casts a shadow over the whole universe, it seems, and Han Solo is being frozen solid as a debt collection tactic which bums everyone out. Even R2D2 and C3PO don’t escape with their optimism intact — the former gets sloshy swampy bog juice all over him, the latter is dismantled for a time (and still doesn’t shut up). Nor does the film itself continue the gung-ho Why We Fight bombastics: the major characters, returning after a three-year absence to adoring fans the world over, are all introduced casually and with no fanfare — except Vader, whose great flaw is that he cannot exist without fanfare (because what else is there?).

All the same, you can “develop” them all day but nothing will make these breathing humans. If you didn’t care about Lucas’ puppets and action figures to begin with, ambition and a welcome streak of darkness aren’t going to make you start caring. No wonder that the only truly three-dimensional occupants of the film are those it adds. Frank Oz’s Yoda is a deservedly beloved creation, a complex Muppet with awkward mannerisms, deceptive senility and a sense — improbably — of the sort of wizened gravity a film with a story this deadeningly self-serious demands. (Alec Guinness cameos as a ghost, if Shakespeare is your thing.) Yoda’s entrance is one of the few injections of Lucas-ish bad-case-of-the-cutes humor that’s ever worked (compare C3PO, who becomes just about intolerable by an hour into this). As for Billy Dee Williams, his sort-of-but-not-really-joking entrance that has him calling Han out on his numerous galaxy-wide loose ends, his kissing up on Leia and his dramatic betrayal of the heroes actually add up one of the more sophisticated characterizations (and performances) in this series. Lando is one of the few people in the Star Wars franchise who doesn’t necessarily do what the audience automatically expects in any given scene, and Williams is smart enough to have loose, spirited fun with the character, also a rarity in these films (but that’s probably because of Lucas’ toxic pretension).

Best known before this for the John Carpenter-scripted Faye Dunaway thriller Eyes of Laura Mars, Irvin Kershner is so vastly superior a director to George Lucas it’s kind of humiliating; the last half-hour of Empire in particular is so beautifully shot and designed it seems like a bit of coy gamesmanship. True to form, other studios were soon fighting for his presence and he would reluctantly make two other “big” movies, Robocop 2 and Never Say Never Again, both of which are — alas — dreadful. So maybe there is something about the audience’s relationship to Star Wars that makes Empire uniquely qualified to go out on this sort of a cinematic limb; the mass cheering in the aisles and raw, almost pandering appeal to base instincts in the first film — which frequently plays like a sporting event — gives way now to somber reflection and shocked revelation, hence (presumably) the “space opera” label becoming more widely used. But however the responsibility is divided, Kershner’s work here is agile and appropriately textured with a sense of boldness and beauty that’s visible in none of Lucas’, before or after this. (Lucas put a cap on this competitive spirit by hiring the completely anonymous Richard Marquand next time around. Marquand’s cynical, idiotic Return of the Jedi — the worst in the six-film series — not only makes Star Wars look good, it makes Robocop 2 look good.)

However, as mentioned when Rush was reviewed here earlier in the week, it’s too damn easy to give a film like The Empire Strikes Back a little too much credit — especially if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it. (For me, the last time before this was its 1997 theatrical rerelease, but I don’t even know how many years prior to that I’d last watched the non-Windows 2000 screensaver version.) It’s still a Star Wars movie, which means: setpiece after bloody setpiece with an opening 45 minutes that are surprisingly leaden, big electronic monsters laboriously wandering through snow and Luke almost freezing to death primarily so we can find out what he’s learned about the Force so far. The whole movie doesn’t really rise above this problem, and some won’t even see its episodic Saturday-matinee format as a problem — but story-wise, its only leap forward from Star Wars is its thrills just exhibit more consequence.

The experience of the initial audience seeing The Empire Strikes Back is tied inexorably to its closing twist — just about any modern viewer already knows that Darth Vader is Frank Sinatra — and if you ask anyone who was there at the time they will remember it as a momentous moment in their lives, a thunderous music cue and then the pop culture world shattering all around them. And what a tremendously beautiful vision! But it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t happen that way at all. James Earl Jones, providing Vader’s voice, says That Line in a manner that’s almost tossed-off, a moment of scarcely veiled contempt but with just enough pain in its ragged edges that you know that no lie is being told. Kershner is too smart a director to play up a moment like that; he knows the viewer’s mind will fill in the blanks, will make it too large and feverishly tragic a thing to comprehend.

But in my heart of hearts, I prefer the version that people falsely remember — the fun, over-the-top, crazy version. The subtlety almost doesn’t seem to fit. That’s because Star Wars as a phenomenon is really only interesting to me personally from the sidelines, for the place it holds in the culture as something that matters to other people that’s a function of dreams and fascinations I can only experience at a distance. So while The Empire Strikes Back is undoubtedly the best film in the series, in a sense it doesn’t seem to belong, and thus it can only really work as a surprisingly sophisticated tangent in the chronology of a popcorn curio: a noble attempt, but finally a futile gesture.

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