Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Empire Strikes Back: Still The Best Sequel Ever?

In 1980, when The Empire Strikes Back was released, Star Wars: A New Hope had already established itself as the most popular movie ever made. Beloved by practically every person who saw it, firmly ensconced in the pop culture conversation forever, the film lit up the imaginations of children and adults alike. That’s what made it so special. Very quickly, it went from modestly-budgeted gamble… to an industry game changer, with everything from highly-coveted toys to a rather bizarre Christmas special capitalizing off the goodwill generated by George Lucas’ terrific film. The actors were now stars, and their characters were celebrities – Star Wars was the feel- good story of the business, helping to usher in a newfound appreciation – and soon enough, a reliance – on high-concept summer blockbusters.

But a showstopper of this magnitude needs an encore. For all the merchandise and souvenirs offered in the wake of “A New Hope’s” footprint, only a sequel could truly fill the void felt by people who’d seen the movie a half-dozen times or more. If you stand back and really look at it, A New Hope has the perfect Hollywood ending. In short: good triumphs over evil, our conquering heroes are treated like the noble champions they are, everyone lives happily ever after… If the movie had been a gigantic flop, a non-starter, this would have been a very satisfying finale. But as we know, that was never meant to be the end, ideal as it may be. Our heroes have only made the first step in what will continue to be a journey filled with tests, hardships and more than a few significant surprises. The battle is over, but the war is not. The “new hope” must find out just how heavy that crown weighs…Here on Revisited!

Naturally, anyone paying attention to the end of “Chapter Four” realizes there can be no meaningful celebration even as things end simply perfectly for the good guys. The dreaded Death Star has been obliterated, shocking the Empire and placing a great big feather in the Rebellion’s cap. But Darth Vader narrowly escaped, himself rather stunned by how thoroughly they’ve underestimated the Rebellion and their invaluable new allies. Watching him fly off in the aftermath of the Death Star’s explosion, you walk out of the movie elated but cautiously so. Darth may have initially seemed like the imposing right-hand man of autocratic wretch Grand Moff Tarkin, but everyone could suspect that he was much more than a superior henchman. Darth seemed very much a person – if that’s what he was – who wasn’t used to being belittled or beaten, and here these scrappy nobodies have literally blown up everything he’d been working toward. Most likely, there would be repercussions…

The second chapter must see our friends taken down a peg, that much can be assumed. Just how far down can’t be expected, but the harsh truth is, if they’re indeed going to win the war, they’re not going to be flying as high as they were at the end of the first chapter… The title surely hints at what’s in store. The Empire Strikes Back. Simple and informative. Now, it’s a title we know as well as any other, but when it was announced a couple of years ahead of its debut, it must have sounded a bit strange, almost informal in its directness. It sounds like a description of the movie, not the title. Obviously, in retrospect, it works perfectly as both.

This is the dark one. The irresistible joyousness of A New Hope peeks through here and there, but from its opening scenes Empire announces that it will be slightly grimmer, a little more serious, even harrowing. An unconventional war picture where we’re reminded that the enemy is bigger than just one imposing space station – you’d think blowing up the Death Star would have eradicated most of the Galactic Empire but you’d be dead wrong, and this chapter shows us what our heroes are really up against.

George Lucas and his writers Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett have devised a sequel that truly raises the stakes, which sees our old friends constantly on their heels and beleaguered by enemies. Concurrently, the film brilliantly builds on the mystical ideas introduced in the first – we start to understand, if only a little, the power and importance of The Force, the Dark Side and the Light, and what it takes to be a Jedi. If these notions seemed a little juvenile or fantastical in the first film, they take on a much greater weight in Empire, elevating the film out of the simple realm of “sci- fi fantasy” and onto a level that’s truly epic, seemingly creating a genre all its own. Lucas and his collaborators are going to make us buy into the Force, the Jedi, the whole awesome struggle of it all, and we will be rapt with attention throughout.

Our heroes aren’t living it up when we reunite with them – quite the contrary. The film is admirable in the way it wastes no time depicting them as good soldiers in the trenches. We learn the Empire is relentlessly searching the galaxy for the pesky rebels and their base, so eager are they to wipe them out once and for all. Once they stage their first attack, our heroes are split up for just about the rest of the picture – in fact, they’re very rarely in the same space at the same time at all. Without each other they’re more vulnerable, and the more the movie throws at them in their respective storylines, the more it’s clear that they’re all the better off for having found each other in the first place.

This is just great storytelling and world-building, happening simultaneously while director Irvin Kirschner throws marvelous sights and sounds at us at an exceedingly rapid pace. Not unlike “A New Hope,” “Empire” impresses to this day with its ability to titillate with moments we’ve seen dozens of times before. The introduction of the massive AT-AT Walkers – so ominous in the distance, then so startling and terrifying when seen up close. The whole Hoth battle is still such an exciting action sequence to behold, even while you think, “boy they should really just tie the legs together every time…” There’s the white knuckle chase through the asteroid field – where John Williams’ music has never been more thrilling, followed by that harrowing escape from the gigantic Exegorth, or space slug – what a splendid revelation *that* is. The introduction of Lando, whose charm offensive is such a sight to behold – even for Han. Darth Vader showing up for dinner with a special guest, and the ensuing sequence of heartbreak and horror as Han is put on ice in front of his best friend and his woman. Faced with impending doom, Han maintains his cool perfectly. 

What a third act this movie has! Lando’s arc alone is a roller coaster: from shady old chum to betrayer to unlikely ally, all in the span of minutes. Everything considered, Lando doesn’t even have all that much screen time in “Empire,” and yet in the end he’s an integral part of this saga.

And then there’s the scene. The moment that we all now know is coming and, thanks to the brilliance of the filmmaking, has lost none of its power. Where were you when you found out Darth Vader is Luke’s wayward dad? It’s one of those things we’ve just always known, yet the devastation on Luke’s face is still so powerful, and the moment when he decides he’d rather trust a bottomless oblivion over his own father is an exhilarating crusher. Even that brief flash of humanity we see in Darth, as his arm drops in disappointment as he watches his son fall, has a touch of sadness in it. This iconic scene is what so many movies and TV shows have been attempting to replicate in various shapes and forms in the decades since. It’s one helluva set-piece.

But Luke lives, of course, saved by Leia and Lando, a new chapter of his story opened by the biggest shock yet of his life. The farm boy is definitely now a man, and more than that, he’s a Jedi. The weight of the galaxy is on his shoulders – now he must defeat the Empire AND his father. What an unexpected coming of age this has been…

If the first film was a marvel of ingenuity in front of and behind the camera, the sequel raises its game considerably. The late great Roger Ebert called Empire upon its 1997 re-release a “visual extravaganza from beginning to end, one of the most visionary and inventive of all films.”

He’s not wrong. So technically assured and visually engaging is the movie that not even 1997 the special edition had much to improve upon. It can be argued Cloud City is a bit spiffier and the added CGI is mostly inoffensive, and a little more Wampa goes a long way. But if we’re talking perfect movies that need no alterations, Empire is one of them.

And to be sure, the movie’s greatest special effect needed no updates. Yoda, Luke’s new mentor and perhaps the most crucial figure to enter his life thus far, is a remarkable achievement, a flesh and blood character who brings just as much charisma to the screen as any of his human counterparts. A minute or two with Yoda and you’re convinced he’s alive. The fact that he takes the opportunity to mess with Luke during their initial meeting, leading the kid on with a bit of a ruse, makes him instantly relatable, which is necessary before we find out just how powerful and omniscient he is. Empire’s Dagobah sequences immerses us in the sorcery of this story, as well as the darkness. It’s very fitting that Luke must learn about the Force, and himself, in such a grimy and miserable setting – the truth is not pretty in this scenario. Luke has seen darkness before, he’s lost people before, and he thinks that might prepare him for what’s ahead. He’s “not afraid…” You know what? He will be.

As he must, Luke chooses to save his surrogate family in lieu of finishing his training, still the impulsive kid in many ways. That’s the way it has to be, he still has some mistakes to make. This is Mark Hamill’s best performance in all of the “Star Wars” films, as we see the innocence of Luke slowly but surely fade out, the severity of the hard choices the character must make are noticeable on Hamill’s face at all times. I’d go out on a limb to say Hamill’s performances in all three of the original “Star Wars” movies are seriously underrated.

It must sound like the movie is pure intensity and drama throughout, but it’s not. There has to be humor in the Star Wars universe, and Empire finds humor in some odd places. Darth Vader, it turns out, has a flair for the theatrical, killing subordinates when they displease him with very little effort

in front of disbelieving onlookers. The dynamic between C-3PO and Han is really set in stone here, and though we love C-3PO and R2’s forever- friendship, the bronze protocol droid’s greatest foil is that surly space pirate. And does Harrison Ford ever further establish Han as one of the great characters in the movies… No notes, no commentary. Just a continuation of one of the most perfect marriages of actor and character in cinema.

But Han wouldn’t be Han without Leia. Han and Leia are meant to be together – are, in fact, perfect for each other. The princess’ stubborn refusal to let the scoundrel woo her even as her affection is as plain as day, royalty and reprobate linked together forever? Who can resist? Leia is the pragmatic heroine Han – and the movie – needs, her determination to fightfor the cause always evident. These two, with their “will they or won’t they” back-and-forth, are the true heart of the original trilogy, a match made in a galaxy far, far away. Let’s take a moment to appreciate Carrie Fisher’s energetic performance, because she really is an undeniable pleasure to watch in scene after scene.

The film ends on a cliffhanger, one of the great cliffhangers in the movies. Unlike the first one, Empire gives us the absolute promise of another chapter, and how could it not? Far from the victorious celebration in the Throne Room, our heroes are bruised and battered, slightly adrift, but surely not out of the fight. We know Chewie and Lando will track down Boba Fett and Han, though what that will look like we cannot yet guess. We also know Luke must fully confront his father, as well as the formidable, barely-seen enigma known as The Emperor, who might end up being the most daunting challenge yet. What other eye-popping surprises and delights exist out there will be eagerly awaited. As John Williams’ “Rebel Fleet” music swells, so does your heart, because you’ve just been privy to a genuinely monumental work; every cylinder in this engine has been in lockstep, resulting in a masterpiece.

Is it the best of the original three? This writer thinks so, though cases can be made for the other two, and sometimes it depends on the day. But “Empire” is just about as flawless an example of Hollywood myth-making as there can be. Star Wars: A New Hope was itself a miracle; following it up with an even better movie? Odds were against it, but then again…

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