Thursday, June 11, 2015
The Empire Strikes Back
I've always loved EMPIRE, but for years was not among those who considered this the crown jewel of its galaxy. Maybe my younger self was just frustrated by the loose ends, the much darker tone of this entry. As much as I appreciated grim scenarios back then I actually favored the more juvenile, playful tone of Episode VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI. The original STAR WARS remained my favorite.
These days I recognize that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, Episode V, is indeed the strongest of the lot; the screenplay (Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan), acting, and direction (Irvin Kirshner) represent a series high. Things get damned near Shakespearean. Everything clicks. And it has aged rather well. For each subsequent movie, the special effects became more spectacular though just about every other element declined. Maybe things got a bit too cozy with RETURN; we'll consider that in the respective review.
The Rebel Alliance continues the good fight against the Empire. It is a few years after the close of STAR WARS, when the Death Star was destroyed. Luke, Han, Leia, and company have set a base on the frozen planet of Hoth. Darth Vader aggressively seeks to find Luke via probe droids. The now more mature young boy from Tattooine spends most of EMPIRE separated from his compadres, training with the miniature Jedi sage Yoda on the swamp planet of Dagobah. The others -after a series of obstacles which includes a harrowing flight through an asteroid field and ahem, the belly of the beast -land in Cloud City, overseen by Han's shifty old pal Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Skywalker is continually plagued by strange premonitions and dreams, leading to a climactic confrontation with Vader. Some startling news awaits the young Jedi wannabe. I won't spoil it but, is there really anyone who doesn't know by now?
EMPIRE is an excellent chapter for the complexity of its characters. A rocky but steady romance develops between Han and Leia. Their dialogue and behavior are far from fairy tale fluff. Calrissian is also drawn with some realism - think of him as that corporate opportunist who'll change his spots on a whim. But he's not malevolent. Luke begins his transformation from awestruck fighter pilot to focused master of Jedi teaching. The screenplay so expertly weaves each story in the tapestry. The plot lines flow nicely together, scene transitions are fluid and don't feel as episodic as in RETURN OF THE JEDI. And I love how our good guys are seriously flawed and conflicted. Most of the bad guys are pretty one dimensional, yet Vader begins to display some indication of a certain duality. Perhaps some old feelings.
Yes, the f/x are sensational. The battles are exciting (AT-AT Walker attack on Hoth). The locations are nicely diverse and maintain visual interest and have texture. There is humor among the relentless drama but never edging into silliness. The hardware is fascinating. John Williams again conducts otherworldly accompaniment. The climatic events are crazily emotional, heart thumping. How frighetened we were for Han. Carbonite! Will he be OK? Frustrating to a kid, yes, but even then I was enraptured, hungry for more. We had to wait three more years.....
NOTE: Unless you have the old (pre-1997) videocassette of this and the other original STAR WARS films, these days you can only view the spruced up special edition versions that have tweaked effects and extra footage. Purists have been in a lather over this for some time. I understand the hostility, and I can join the invective aimed at Lucas for screwing with these beloved films. But I don't feel the damage is sufficient as to wreck the experience. I would contribute to a petition to rerelease the intact originals, though....