Revisiting ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)

empire1The Empire Strikes Back is, for me,  the best and bravest of all the Star Wars films (so far, anyway- and isn’t it strange yet so nice to add that little caveat?). It seems to me to encapsulate what the Star Wars films/saga should have been. Its the one that still melts my heart and makes me feel like a teenager. Its Star Wars but its somehow not a kids movie, it’s a grown-up film, it is bigger and darker and feels more real. It’s witty, it’s emotional, its audacious, it’s accomplished. It isn’t a remake; Lucas doesn’t come up with a Death Star 2 and rehash the ending of Star Wars, its something new, a continuation. It moves the overall arc of the saga forward and teases a bigger world, introducing new characters and dynamics, suggesting things that, frankly, Return of the Jedi later ignored or simply slammed the door shut on.

Return of the Jedi, it feels like the elephant in the room when one talks about Empire. I know some prefer it; some love it. But to me it always seemed to ignore so many of the lessons of Empire, ignore what Empire did so right.  I can’t bear to think about what Jedi could have been, indeed should been had it followed the model of Empire. Lucas evidently got tired of his fantasy opus (or more likely intimidated/scared by it as it mushroomed into the huge global cultural icon it increasingly became) and decided to call it a day and close out the plot threads and be done with it. As I got older I later began to sympathise with how Lucas must have felt at the time (the Star Wars saga simply taking over his life and him wanting that life back) but I well remember the genuine feeling of betrayal I felt back when I saw Jedi and read that Lucas wasn’t intending to make any more Star Wars films.

The irony of course is that after Empire, perhaps he should have just done that- stepped away and let others carry the films forward, in a similar fashion to how Disney have now moved on with it without him. I guess he didn’t feeling willing or able to do that, or maybe the businessman in him knew it was to much to lose or risk ruining in other hands. But anyway, back to Empire

empire3Just imagine the pressure. It is 1978, and Star Wars is the biggest film ever. Not just the biggest box-office hit but this huge cultural event, worldwide. Beyond all the merchandising, Star Wars and its dialogue and characters has somehow become part of everyday discourse, quoted in media and in newspaper cartoons and television programmes… Avatar may be top of the box-office now, but it never became part of everyday culture like Star Wars did. Few people wore Avatar t-shirts or quoted its dialogue even during that films release, and it could well be argued that that films biggest legacy is nothing in the film itself, more its use of 3D. Few people could name any Avatar character, but it seemed everyone in 1977-1978, even those few who hadn’t even seen the film,  could name Darth Vader or Han Solo or R2 D2.

So imagine making a sequel. Imagine having to meet the expectation, on an artistic and popular level, to match Star Wars. I think with Empire Lucas and his colleagues met that expectation and more. You can sense the effort in everything you see, everything you hear, everything is taken to some other level. For all its obvious achievements, the 1977 Star Wars often seems self-conscious at times, the tone a little off, some of the cast and crew clearly a little uncomfortable about what they are doing-  some of the dialogue delivered as cheesily as it perhaps merits and it is obviously pushing the technical envelope as far as it can, the effects teams learning their craft as they go along. Empire is simply more confident, technically more audacious, visually more breathtaking, while at the same time usurping the usual dynamics of a film, placing its major climax (the Battle of Hoth) early in the film and then closing the film with something of a cliffhanger after hitting the audience with a major revelation that turned around everything we’d seen before.

empire2Just think where films were with effects and everything back in the late seventies, and imagine the sheer ambition of the Battle of Hoth. Giant walkers striding across the snowy plains, the snow-speeders, the Tauntauns… its not like nowadays when everything is pretty much possible, just a matter of CGI trickery. Think something up now and some young guy with a mouse and keyboard can create it if given enough time. The guys back then had to craft it with their hands; had to somehow get decent mattes with bluescreen photography to generate composites over a white background (a big no-no), with miniatures shot in stop-motion projected up onto the big cinema screen. And then they had to composite complex passes using the optical printers of the day for the chase through the asteroid field, create the swamps of Dagobah on a soundstage and bring a small puppet to life for a central character named Yoda. It’s so brave. It’s such genius stuff, a level of creativity beyond Star Wars that Jedi three years later didn’t match. Sometimes I think films just get made at the right time, with the right people in front and behind the camera. I think thats the case with Empire just as it was with Blade Runner a few years later, only with Empire you clearly had them rising to the challenge of making a sequel to the biggest film on the planet. Jack Lemmon used to have a saying about acting, about magic time. Empire was, well, magic time.

If only that ambition had continued through to Jedi. In a perfect world, the follow-up to Empire would have been an adventure just about rescuing Han Solo, chasing Bobba Fett and thwarting Jabba the Hut, while continuing Luke Skywalker’s arc, training him to be a Jedi and developing the ramifications of Empires climactic revelation about the Skywalker family. I don’t think it should have ever been considered a trilogy- the whole Emperor/Death Star 2 thing should have been a whole fourth (Episode 7) movie for me. Somehow Jedi feels tired, forced. The magic is gone somehow. It sort of reminds me of how Gene Roddenberry seemed to lose interest in the original Star Trek by its third season, walking away from it and ensuring it was the weakest and last.

But with Empire you’ve got Lucas with something to prove. Star Wars wasn’t a one-off. Infact it wasn’t as good as everyone was saying, Lucas could do better. His team could do bigger, better.  And Empire was. It was pretty much perfect. The performances were better, the photography more beautiful, the scale and complexity just a whole other level, the John Williams score just sublime. Everything just seemed to come together. Alas it wouldn’t ever again. Well, not up to now, anyway.

I don’t expect The Force Awakens to be as good as Empire. I think the day a Star Wars film could be as good as Empire are long gone. Films have changed so much now. Films are too big, too fast-paced, to ever match what Empire was.  I only hope the new film and those after, follow the model of Empire, suggesting a bigger and more complex saga, with more exotic characters, more exotic places. We’ll see pretty soon. Well, I guess some of you reading this already have. I see the new film tomorrow. A new Star Wars film! Weird. But however it turns out (and I have my doubts about the film), we’ll always have Empire.

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