THE EMPIRE STRIKE BACK continues creator George Lucas's epic saga where STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE left off. The Rebel Forces--which include young adventurer Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), rogue pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and the beautiful but seemingly humorless Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher)--have been successful in destroying the Evil Empire's Death Star. However, the Empire's top commander, the terrifying Lord Darth Vader (played by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), is scanning the galaxy for the Rebels' secret location. After a visually stunning showdown on the ice planet Hoth, the Rebels are forced to flee, and Luke separates from Han and Leia. Masterful storytelling weaves multiple, archetypal plotlines that pit Vader against Han and Leia as he desperately attempts to capture Luke for political--and, secretly, personal--reasons. Luke, meanwhile, finds himself under the tutelage of the tiny but powerful old Jedi Master Yoda, who teaches him the ways of the Force and warns the impatient but talented student against the threat of the Dark Side.
The movie that redefined sequels, franchises and “dark” movies in general. This movie changed the way we see and make films. It is complex and fun. It’s dark and emotionally tearing. It’s innovate, fresh and original, yet still loyal to the archetypes of old. It’s also proof that other people do a better job filming George Lucas’ ideas than Mr. Lucas himself.
The Story: What can I say? The movie has a narrative outline that has you guessing from the start. Until this point, sequels (sans Godfather pt. 2) really just followed the same outline as the first installment, with writers playing Mad Libs in their creation. This film takes place shortly after a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Our characters have moved on a bit from when we last left them so we’re already hooked to catch up with them before they take off for their newest arcs. Luke is kicking ass as the leader of the rebels, Han Solo is sticking around to do what he feels is right, and Leia is keeping her mouth shut about something.
After the end of A New Hope………who the hell saw all that coming? Well, don’t worry, cuz we’re running past that right away. Han decides he’s gonna blow town and get Jabba off his back so he can….well we never do find out where he’d go after that. I, personally, always believed that he just did that little song and dance to get Leia to out herself and her feelings for him. Space pirates need lovin too. And our boy Luke? Well, when he’s not being used as a pawn in Han and Leia’s love games (which is really sick if you think about it), he’s right back to disobeying his mentors. In this case, the amazing Yoda. And no kiddies, this was before talking in backwards fragments was cool. Obi Wan is ghosting around on occasion, but the real haunting presence comes from Darth Vader, looking for the young rebel who screwed up their plans in the first movie, seeking his revenge. Err….so we think.
Then we find out that Vader is actually after him to try and give him a sales pitch to join the bad guy club. Uh…wait…nope, we’re wrong again. And then we get hit with the biggest and greatest twist in movie history (The 6th sense can kiss Empire’s ass). Oh, and did a mention we get Billy Dee Williams as a Diet Han Solo? Well…..when you have someone as badass as Billy Dee in a side role, you gotta water him down so not to steal the sun from Harrison. All that leads to a culmination of ends for all the characters. You never guess how Luke will end his training, how Han pays his debt to Jabba, Darth’s sales pitch to Luke. All the stories going on are incredibly impossible to predict, which, in my opinion, is what makes a great movie. In this case, one of the absolute undisputed BEST of all time.
Acting: Everyone really steps up here. Maybe it’s because Kershner gave them something past “Faster and more intense.” Hamill is able to play the whiney and emotional character that Hayden Christianson wishes he could have been allowed to hit. Harrison Ford really understands what Han Solo is all about. Not that he didn’t in the first, but you can just really feel the pirate badass in him this go around. Carrie Fisher does a fantastic job as well. For once I have a female lead who is a badass fighter…..and it doesn’t feel forced or “in the movie to have an independent woman.” She’s not trying to be any of those, she just is. Which is what makes her the best female heroin I believe I’ve ever seen. Her emotions are real, she’s still a woman, but still holds a sense of reason and accountability.Directing: Irvin Kershner is my hero. Character directing is what I love the most, favoring it over plot directing. Kershner knows how to blend the characterization with the plot and doesn’t over do it the way Lucas does in the prequels. The story moves through them and we actually care about the characters in a way we never thought we could. We really feel like we’re in it with them and at the end of the first time you see this movie, you’re pretty flabbergasted at what the hell just happened. The mark of great directing if you ask me.
Cinematography: Well done for what it was. I know that filming in snow is a ridiculous and very ambitious job, but I love them for it. The sets of Hoth are beautifully photographed and really open up the worlds. It doesn’t feel like we’re in the arctic. We’re on another world. And that all subtlety comes through the way it’s shot.
Production Design: Once again, excellent. This is before George Lucas was able to go CGI crazy on the film and take the realism out of them.
Editing: Bar far, absolutely great. The dogfights, the chases, the lightsaber duel. All of the above are just so well handled and paced. The movie never really lags sans a couple bits with C3PO, but it flows very well. It’s in, tells ya what you need to know and makes you feel what you need, and then moves on.
Score: John Williams is film composer God. Need I say anymore?
Special Effects: Impressive. Most impressive. A step up from the original, the colors of the lightsabers are better maintained this go around. The Imperial walkers are very realistic, as are the speeders and other ships within the film. All well designed and shot.
In closing: “In every great story, you know that when you launch into the second act, everything goes to hell. And that’s usually the best part of any story.” That’s a loosely paraphrased quote from Lawrence Kasdan, one of the producers, during Empire of Dreams. I live my screenwriting life off that quote because it’s so true. It’s very much echoed in the superhero films of modern day – because they’re franchises. Spider-man 2, Superman II, The Dark Knight and no doubt countless more to come. There’s a great quote from Spider-man in which the Green Goblin explains to Peter, “The one thing people love more than a hero is to see a hero fail. Fall. Die trying.” The epitome of drama is in the fall from heaven and this movie makes you realize how hard you can fall. George Lucas is a master architect of story plot, just not always the best person to tell them. The Empire Strikes Back is a sci-fi epic tragedy that connects us closer to the characters that we thought were just “really cool” at one point. But now we hate them, love them, feel for them. Because of this movie, we’re in it with them. We’re ready to embrace our destinies and do what needs to be done in the next go around……