Film Review: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

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After deciding directing really wasn’t his favorite thing to do, Star Wars creator George Lucas enticed Irvin Kershner to helm the dark second act of the famous trilogy.  With an emotionally-packed narrative by Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, Kershner created what many consider the best chapter of the series.  I believe it’s more than that.  While some may regard it as nothing more than a superficial space opera, I think there are many layers to Empire‘s storyline and thematics.  Part of my admiration comes from the complexity of its story and characters, most of which is never directly addressed on-screen, but is always bubbling under the surface.  These layers, along with Kershner’s rich visual style, set Empire apart from not just other Star Wars films, but from the entire science-fiction / fantasy genre.

Following the wildly successful Star Wars would be a rich but challenging assignment.  Since Empire is the notoriously difficult second act in a three-act story, it would have no ending, risking possible audience alienation.  It would also be far darker than its predecessor.  Following the mythological ‘Hero’s Journey’, Empire would find its characters entering the “belly of the whale” and reaching near defeat before barely escaping with their lives.  These narrative concerns, however, also provide the film with more dramatic potential than any other installment.  Lawrence Kasdan once said, “You know how most movies work, how the hero’s going to be all right. But with Empire, everything’s going to hell.”

 

Kasdan’s idea of hell includes the separation of characters, painful revelations, and the undetermined fate of Han Solo.  If Empire is the most emotionally moving episode of the series, it is in no small part due to Kasdan’s script, one that weaves an economy of character development through a fast-paced plot.  The time devoted to character development is no greater than in any other Star Wars film, but it’s less forced and more sincere (and it makes one wish Kasdan were involved in the emotionally bankrupt newer films).  Han and Leia’s bantering represents the most dynamic and engaging relationship in the entire saga.  Their actions are often contrapuntal to their words, as evident in the scene where they kiss aboard the Millenium Falcon.  Leia insists Han is a scoundrel, but does not resist his embrace.  The evolution of their relationship is largely off-screen, interpreted through subtext that is crystalized only as Han is lowered into the Carbon Freezing chamber at Cloud City.  From the screenplay, Leia says, “I love you.”  Han answers, “I know.”   The economy of the dialogue is serviced by emotional performances and the director’s mise-en-scene, which includes steam and high contrast red and blue lighting.

Stylistically, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back stand in stark contrast to one another.  The first film relies primarily on its brilliant editing to bring its narrative together.  The film often looks as though it was shot in a documentary style, with a hand-held camera that is more concerned with following action than framing it.  Look at the TIE Fighter Attack after the Millenium Falcon escapes the Death Star, and you’ll see it’s little more than quick shots of characters looking right and left and models moving across the frame.   It’s cut in such a way, however, that conveys far more than any shot could do on its own.

Kershner’s directing style relies more on the individual compositions of shots, creating an aesthetic that lends itself to a less “cutty” film where the shots contain more depth and interaction and remain on screen a bit longer.  Consider the beginning of the Carbon Freezing scene, where Kershner stages an angle looking down a flight of stairs to the pit.  Stormtroopers enter at the extreme right and extreme left, framing the entrance of the captured heroes around the pit below.  Then Darth Vader enters from behind the camera and descends the steps.   Similar depth between foreground and background is found in Han and Leia’s kiss aboard the Millenium Falcon.  Cogs are seen rotating back and forth in the extreme right of the frame, somewhat out of focus, while the lovers interact in the background.  Many shots in the Rebels’ headquarters on Hoth include transluscent maps and other hardware hugging the sides of the frame in the extreme foreground.  Darth Vader’s grand entrance into the facility is first revealed wide, with snow and wires falling in front of the lens as the dark figure slowly marching toward us, then past camera.  Such motion within a single shot creates a visual dynamic that is quite different from cutting among several tighter shots.

One could say Lucas’ style lends itself to a more realistic effect, as it certainly did for American Graffiti, but I would argue Kershner’s style is more purposeful and aesthetic.  It gives me a reason beyond that of mere narrative to give Empire repeat viewings.  Lawrence Kasdan agrees:  “It looked better than Star Wars.  It’s shot better, it’s lit better, the effects are better.  George can tell you.”

All the Star Wars films have their action set pieces, and Empire is no exception.  Nearly fifteen minutes of the film are devoted to the Battle of Hoth, featuring the amazing stop-motion animation AT-ATs and the Imperial breach of the Rebel Base.  The other major set piece is the escape from Cloud City, including Luke’s first duel with Darth Vader, Han’s capture, and Lando’s switching sides to aid his friends.  These set pieces are given dramatic fuel by the their high stakes, whether it’s the will to survive on Hoth, or the determination to rescue dear friends at Cloud City.  Many films polarize “action” from “character development”, as though the two can’t work in conjunction.  Empire features a brilliant marriage of the two, especially in the Cloud City sequence.   Luke and Vader’s duel is punctuated with the stunning revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, as well as Luke’s decision to fall (seemingly to his death) rather than join the Empire.  Leia and Chewie’s escape is driven by their desire to save Han from the bounty hunter Boba Fett – a plight complicated very dramatically when Leia sees Fett’s ship leave the landing bay.

The dramatic potential of the storyline certainly isn’t lost on John Williams, who serves up his finest score ever – and that’s saying a lot about the multiple-Academy Award-winning composer.  His music for The Empire Strikes Back includes the famous “Imperial March”, which moves steadily and rhythmically, gaining a momentum reflective of the Imperial government’s machinations.  By contrast, “Yoda’s Theme” is a beautiful, encouraging melody that perfectly encapsulates the concept of a great spirit in a tiny body.  Other highlights include the percussive AT-AT attack and the grand rendition of Han and Leia’s love theme during the escape from Cloud City.  Reliant on leitmotifs that reperesent various characters and feelings, the score acts like a Wagnerian opera – it tells its own story.  It’s a score like very few that is entirely listenable on its own, without any visual accompaniment.

Like any good genre picture, The Empire Strikes Back creates a cogent fantasy world that draws strength from its details.   And not just the visual details that litter the saga, but character details as well.  Chewbacca, for instance, is given more emotional range than in any other chapter of the series.  He laughs when Leia calls Han names.  He howls when the Hoth base’s doors are closed, barring any possible last minute return of his friend Han.  He reacts similarly when Han is lowered into the Carbonite.   There’s a whole scene between supporting characters in Cloud City, where Chewie tries to put the disassembled See-Threepio back together, only to become frustrated with the droid’s insults after Threepio realizes his head is on backwards.  Threepio holds a grudge for the remainder of the film.

These supporting characters also benefit from Kershner’s frequent use of wide shots.  When Leia surprises Han by kissing Luke on the lips, Chewie and Threepio are also in the frame, reacting to the moment in humorous ways.  By treating these “costumed characters” with the same respect and concern as the leading actors, Empire adds to its complexity and avoids the accusation that has befallen other Star Wars films – that exotic characters exist only to sell toys.

When people summarize the Star Wars saga, many are quick to boil it down to a tale of “good versus evil”.  This hardly does The Empire Strikes Back credit.  Inside the general storyline is the struggle for political freedom, a quest for faith, a love triangle, the age-old conflict between father and son, and much more.  It’s the story of a lonely farm boy destined for greatness, a determined princess who risks everything to form a galaxy-wide rebellion, and a lone smuggler who cares more than he’ll ever let known.

Irvin Kershner has said, “Perhaps some of the power of the Star Wars trilogy lies in its ambiguity.  This offers a gateway to interpretation, an open-ended journey that is unique for each one of us.  Empire on first viewing is like visiting a foreign world.  We see and hear what moves the story forward.  The peripheral world, the story in depth, the psychological overtones of this foreign culture still lies partially submerged.  On second and third viewing the story is more familiar and that which was ambiguous now begins to surface and reveal hitherto hidden levels of meaning as they bypass the conscious mind and we are thrust deeper into our own reservoir of experience and emotions, our subconscious.”

I was only six years old when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back in May of 1980.  While many films struck my fancy as a child, none have had such a lasting effect and continued influence on me than this one.   It inspired me to become a filmmaker, a path I began all those years ago and from which I’ve never strayed.  Each time I’ve seen the film I’ve discovered something new and found greater appreciation for it’s artistry and craftsmanship.  It represents an ideal for me.  A synthesis of art and entertainment, an accessible but richly layered story, character-driven, thematically potent, beautifully executed.

Rating: 5/5 ★★★★★ 

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About Scott_S

Scott studied film and sociology at Indiana University and is currently the video producer for a large publishing company. He is the director of several independent films, including "House of Hope," "Off the Beaten Path," "The Day Joe Left," and "Found." For more about Scott, visit www.scottschirmer.com. Scott is also one of the principal organizers of the Dark Carnival Film Festival. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)

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