[This year I’m re-watching all of the Star Wars films in the run-up to the December release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. If you’re interested my review of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope can be read here.]
Development of this sequel began in 1977 while the monster hit Star Wars (as it was then known) was still playing in cinemas. Due to a busy workload (running Industrial Light and Magic, producing various other films) George Lucas eventually passed the directing baton for the first return to this galaxy to his former professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Irvin Kershner, though Lucas came up with the story and wrote the early drafts of the screenplay. His first attempt, co-written with science fiction author Leigh Brackett and finished in November 1977, was disappointing; sadly Brackett died of cancer before changes could be discussed. The second draft was written by Lucas alone, and introduced the episodic structure familiar to fans today (‘Empire Strikes Back’, as it was known at the time, was designated ‘Episode II’ initially; a few years from now under the more familiar title of ‘Episode V’ it will occupy the midway point of a series of nine films … though it’s entirely likely Disney will expand their cash cow into double digits in future). It’s with this second draft that the oft-maligned Lucas introduced two of the most interesting and enduring plot points of the series: first the twist that Imperial badass Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) is the father of great white Rebel hope Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and secondly the freezing and imprisonment of smuggler-turned-Rebel Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford), which caused me to break down in tears at the age of five as I mistakenly thought he was dead. (The crying has rarely happened in cinemas since: I was upset at the end of ET, but I must stress that I simply had something in my eye when Leo drowned in Titanic.)
The third draft was just as crucial; by now Lucas had a backstory for Luke and Vader, linking the history of those two characters to Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), and passed his material on to Lawrence Kasdan, an up-and-coming screenwriter who had just finished writing Raiders Of The Lost Ark (a film that Lucas was producing). Kasdan, who received input from Kershner, is widely-credited with imbuing The Empire Strikes Back with its dark tone, ensuring that the adventure and swashbuckling heroism of the first film was largely replaced by a comprehensive ass-kicking as the Imperials respond to their earlier defeat with a counter-punch. This relentless battering is one the reasons that most Star Wars fans (and many non-fans besides) consider Episode V to be the strongest in the series to date, though there are many more aspects that have delighted many: new characters such as Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), Yoda (Frank Oz), Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) were well-received and remain popular today, while new technology such as the AT-AT walkers also captured the imagination (much to the chagrin of toy-buying parents).
It’s the constant failure that ensures The Empire Strikes Back stands out from the pack. Within the opening minutes we see the hero of the first film smashed by a passing Wampa, a giant snow monster native to the ice planet Hoth. Shortly thereafter the Imperials crush the planet’s Rebel base. The core group of heroes splits, and is thus weakened: the impatient Luke’s time on the swamp planet Dagobah with ancient Jedi Master Yoda is peppered with failure as he messes up one trial after another, while his subsequent rescue mission at Cloud City backfires. Meanwhile Han, Leia, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) are beset by technological problems and make several mistakes while trying to avoid the enemy; the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive repeatedly fails, they land inside a giant asteroid creature’s mouth and, perhaps worst of all, trust is placed in the wrong man. By the end the heroes are bruised, battered and scattered. As the character Dante Hicks succinctly puts it in Kevin Smith’s Clerks, ‘”Empire” had the better ending. I mean, Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader’s his father, Han gets frozen and taken away by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. I mean, that’s what life is, a series of down endings. All “Jedi” had was a bunch of Muppets.’
There is, of course, some light – or rather small triumphs and moments that suggest hope hasn’t been completely extinguished – throughout. Lando turns from traitor to saviour. AT-ATs are taken down by plucky underdogs. Some Rebels escape Hoth to fight another day. Luke’s powers as a Jedi Knight increase. With regards to Vader there’s a brief scene hinting that a human being resides behind the intimidating, machine-like exterior. And Han’s blossoming relationship with fellow firebrand Leia builds to a crescendo as action and romance dovetail in Bespin (perhaps the dramatic high point in all of the Star Wars films).
Rather than the battle on Hoth or the lightsaber duel at the end of the film (which is itself the best in the entire series) it’s Ford’s scenes with Fisher that I enjoy the most today, 35 years after The Empire Strikes Back first hit cinemas. They are packed with goofy lines and insults that veer between the old fashioned (‘scoundrel’) and those that could only be uttered in a galaxy far, far away (‘nerf herder’, ‘laser brain’, ‘I’d just as soon kiss a Wookie’), but there’s an undeniable sexual tension whenever they’re on screen, carried over from the characters’ initial meeting in A New Hope. It’s designed to appeal to children and, rather simply, both characters act like children as a result, barely able to admit their true feelings and struggling to act on the mutual attraction. Kershner repeatedly uses physical interaction between the two as a way of developing the relationship, from an awkward stumble in a corridor to an interrupted flirtation to their first kiss proper, delivered during an otherwise tragic moment (one that famously includes Ford’s improvised response ‘I know’ when Leia says she loves him). It may be overly melodramatic for some tastes but it made an impression on me as a kid and I still admire the succinct nature of the romantic sub-plot today; it’s a shame that no other Star Wars film has successfully managed to replicate the tenderness contained here, though there are moments in Return Of The Jedi and with Kasdan employed as co-writer there is hope that The Force Awakens will deliver. Maybe he’ll even carry on working the incest angle.
I probably don’t need to mention John Williams’ score or the visual effects (supervised by Phil Tippett) as they’ve received plenty of praise in the past. Likewise the intoxicating potpourri of design, from costumes that reference spaghetti westerns, folk tales and 20th Century fascist militaria to the weird and wonderful alien faces and bodies populating the worlds imagined. I probably don’t need to mention the superb and creative lighting either, which enhances the final act in particular and constantly reinforces the franchise’s convenient sorting of good and evil, or (more appropriately) light and dark, but hey … I have anyway. The Empire Strikes Back is a visual and sonic treat from start to finish, and a great example of the collaborative efforts of a film crew, with the art direction, stunt, make-up, sound and costume departments all turning in fine work. Yes it’s a silly space opera, and yes in the field of silly space operas the competition isn’t exactly strong, but this is the best by a long stretch, successfully marrying romance with action and moving the overall story along in a way that is thrilling on initial viewing and still impressive (most impressive) three decades later. Its faults have become more apparent to me as I’ve aged but I still enjoy watching it, and not simply for the fact that it transports me back to my childhood. It’s a great adventure film.
[OK, review over, but talking of being transported to my childhood I ought to mention that another reason I’m reviewing this is because I attended one of Secret Cinema’s screenings of The Empire Strikes Back, which are taking place in a secret location in London throughout the summer. I’d love to talk at length about the event but I’d probably give one or two spoilers away by accident and that would be unfair (on the off-chance that someone with a ticket for a future show is reading this), so I’ll just link to this video of last year’s Back To The Future event and the review I wrote at the time. If you’re interested in finding out more there’s a post about the experience over at Cinema Parrot Disco, but there are spoilers. I’ll just say that this recent Secret Cinema was excellent and, on balance, worth the hefty price. Oh, and I got to dress as a Jedi and chat with Obi-Wan, so that’s numbers 49 and 781 crossed off the bucket list.]
Directed by: Irvin Kershner.
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, Leigh Brackett, George Lucas. Story by George Lucas.
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Frank Oz, Peter Mayhew, Billy Dee Williams, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Ian McDiarmid, Alec Guinness.
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky.
Editing: Paul Hirsch, T.M. Christopher (1997 Special Edition).
Music: John Williams.
Running Time: 126 minutes (1997 Special Edition).