THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES…
I went back to this old favorite certain that I would be less impressed this time and give it a lower rating. But I’m surprised to say that the sequel to Star Wars is still a masterpiece as far as popcorn blockbusters go – and it’s quite different from its predecessor. The first film’s visual effects were groundbreaking, but the second movie revealed George Lucas’s true ambitions. Wisely enough, he handed screenwriting duties over to a real pro who knew science fiction and could turn Lucas’s ideas into magic. The film was Leigh Brackett’s last, but another promising writer finished her work. It became Lawrence Kasdan’s first screenplay. Two generations came together and the results were intelligent and awe-inspiring.
The film begins some time after the last one ends. The part of the Rebel Alliance that is led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has established a secret base on the ice planet Hoth, but the Empire (led by Darth Vader) frantically searches for them, dispatching drones to all parts of the galaxy. One of them lands on Hoth and it doesn’t take long for it to detect life on the planet. Vader senses that this is the place where the Rebels are hiding and sends his forces there. The base is destroyed in a full-scale attack, but Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) escapes together with R2D2 in his fighter and heads to another planet, Dagobah, where he’s been told that he shall receive training to be a Jedi fighter. There he encounters a green, curious-looking, diminutive creature… who turns out to be Yoda, the Jedi Master. Meanwhile, Leia, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), C-3PO and Chewbacca have also fled from Hoth in the Millennium Falcon, but the ship is badly damaged and they go to Cloud City to get help from an old friend of Han’s, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). But tremendous challenges, betrayals and surprises await all our heroes.
A little bigger, a little heavier
Everything is darker in this chapter, not just the themes. Director Irvin Kershner (making the best film of his career, by far) and his team have taken the look from the first film and made a few changes; everything seems a little bigger, a little heavier, a little more despairing. Production designer Norman Reynolds’s sets are overwhelming; the beautiful sights of the light and airy Cloud City and the empty, cold and gray innards of it where the final showdown between Luke and Vader takes place. John Williams’s score is once again the perfect accompaniment; this was the chapter where he introduced the now classic Imperial march theme, the ultimate evil cue. The visual effects look amazing; those Imperial walkers in the Hoth battle are gloriously terrifying (and hopelessly impractical) and the efforts to bring them down keeps you on the edge of your seat. The writers have also tried to make real people out of the first film’s cartoon characters; the emotions between our heroes are getting clearer and they forebode the revelations of the film’s final act. Even Darth Vader is made into more than just the bogeyman; we understand how destructive the Force can be if you lose control over it and exactly what dangers Yoda and (a now ghostly) Obi-Wan feared in the training of Luke.
I previously described the look of the film as despairing in a sense. The Empire does strike back in full force, makes friends betray each other and plays its best card to lead the last hope, Luke, astray. In the end, when the battle looks almost lost, our heroes are nevertheless determined to fight on. The film ends on that note. Bruised but not beaten – and the next chapter will set everything right.
The Empire Strikes Back 1980-U.S. 124 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Gary Kurtz. Directed by Irvin Kershner. Screenplay: Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan. Story: George Lucas. Music: John Williams. Production Design: Norman Reynolds. Visual Effects: Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, and others. Cast: Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse… Alec Guinness, Julian Glover. Voices of Frank Oz, James Earl Jones.
Trivia: Alternative title: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Followed by Return of the Jedi (1983).
Oscar: Best Sound (also received a Special Achievement Award for the visual effects). BAFTA: Best Film Music.
Quote: “I am your father.” (Darth Vader)
Last word: “I have not given much credence to reviews of my films. Sometimes they’re wrong, but it didn’t matter to me. I have not been a follower of how many millions my films made or did not make. In this case, I wanted very much for the film to succeed because I knew that George was spending his own money on it. I think the critics felt that they were going to see an extension of ‘Star Wars’. In other words, they wanted another ‘Star Wars’. I decided that the potential was much greater than a rerun of ‘Star Wars’. When I finally accepted the assignment, I knew that it was going to be a dark film, with more depth to the characters than in the first film. It took a few years for the critics to catch up with the film and to see it as a fairy tale rather than a comic book.” (Kershner, Vanity Fair)