The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back ★★★★★

My Forty for 40: # 2

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
Dir. Irving Kershner

It would have been easy for George Lucas to make the typical, expected, “let’s rehash everything” rote sequel to Star Wars. He would have made a ton off the merchandising, and people would have gone to the theater in droves. Sequels of the era, such as Airplane II: The Sequel, Jaws 2, and Halloween II exist along a varied spectrum of quality, but they are similar in that they don’t really bring anything new or different to the table, and they were financially successful. It would have been easy for Lucas to follow the trend and cash in. Instead, he decided to raise the stakes and subvert expectations, offering a darker entry that ends on an inarguable down note, as well as a cliffhanger that sets up Return of the Jedi. It was a massive risk, but its success established a pattern for trilogies that has been followed by series within the Star Wars world (The Last Jedi) and without (Back to the Future Part II); moreover, it made the marketplace safe for long-wait cliffhangers, which very well might have been the precedent for our age of prestige television – would we have had a “Who Shot J.R.?” (or, for that matter, “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”), “How’s Annie?!”, or the entire run of LOST without The Empire Strikes Back’s massive gamble?

Star Wars is an exciting romp whose depth comes from deep roots in Classical mythology; Lucas drew heavily (and intentionally) from Joseph Campbell’s work on the “monomyth”/”Hero’s Journey” in order to shape his narrative. We might not consciously realize it while watching, but Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Darth Vader, and Obi-Wan Kenobi are all archetypal figures. As has been widely discussed, The Empire Strikes Back manages to add to the dimensionality of all the characters (even Darth Vader) and gives them multiple, complex conflicts in order to drive and motivate them, while still adapting the monomythic style to structure the individual film and to give structure to the entire trilogy: just as each individual movie follows the “Hero’s Journey” structure, so too does the trilogy when taken as a whole.

Less-discussed is how gorgeous this movie is. While George Lucas’s first three films – THX 1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars – have visually-striking moments (the confusingly empty white space of THX, the twin sunset of Star Wars), he is not a director known for his visual style. Lucas is a filmmaker of ideas, so after the act of directing Star Wars literally nearly killed him, he made the decision to hand directing duties over to Irving Kershner, who at that point was best known for the surprise breakthrough horror film The Eyes of Laura Mars. The combined work of Kershner, Lucas, and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky resulted in what’s easily the most visually-compelling of the Star Wars films: the clear, primary colors of the lightsaber duel in Bespin’s carbon-freeze chamber, the thrilling, breath-taking asteroid field sequence (up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark’s chase scene among the most viscerally exciting action sequences in film history): The Empire Strikes Back elevates the blockbuster to fine-arts status. You could take a random shot from this movie and have it framed as wall art.

This film looms large in my history. It represents a turning point in my understanding of film. I still remember the day well: I was about nine or ten years old, and I went into my parents’ room to say goodnight to my father – it wasn’t time for me to go to bed, but my father had to work the night shift as a patrol officer. He was ironing his uniform, and the television in his room showed a heavily-clad person riding some sort of strange horse-camel-kangaroo thing across a snowy wasteland. Before leaving the room, I asked my father, “Oh, is this one of those Star Wars movies?” I’m not sure how I knew that – I’d never seen them before, but they must have been such an intrinsic part of American culture at that point that I recognized it on an almost collective-unconscious level. It’s like the first time you hear a Beatles song and it sounds simultaneously brand new and familiar. “Yep,” my father said, “you should watch it. I think you’d like it.” And an obsession was born. After a decade of enduring me wearing out my VHS tapes, dressing like Luke Skywalker for Halloween after Halloween (with a silver flashlight with colored plastic wrap over the lens), ceaselessly tracking down Star Wars comic books from 1978 and 1979, riding Star Tours over and over again, I think my father probably regretted that recommendation. In any case, it was a formative experience for me. I realized for the first time how a movie could totally transport you to another world, how a fantasy universe could be at the same time both completely alien and inherently familiar.

Star Wars is, obviously, one of the most important movies ever made. In terms of pure cinema, though, like The Godfather, Part II, this movie takes everything great about its successor and improves upon it, heightens it, and deepens it. It’s a great film, and remains one of our great examples of how excellent popular entertainment rarely, but sometimes, can be.

CJ liked this review