The Empire Strikes Back

For the sake not only of the Star Wars saga but of large-scale fantasy filmmaking, we must breathe a word of thanks that George Lucas felt so ass-kicked after having gone through the wringer directing Star Wars. The best move he ever made was to leave The Empire Strikes Back in other, infinitely more capable hands.

To write the screenplay, Lucas selected veteran scribe Leigh Brackett (who worked on, among many others, The Big Sleep back in 1946) and, when Brackett died, fresh-faced Lawrence Kasdan (who’d later go on to direct The Big Chill — not to mention writing Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I just enjoy the Big Sleep/Big Chill thing). To direct, Lucas made an unusual choice — Irvin Kershner, whose biggest successes prior to Empire were the 1970 drama Loving and the 1978 thriller Eyes of Laura Mars. No particular experience or expertise with special effects or droids; no visible credentials to direct the first follow-up to the most wildly lucrative movie in history. Lucas must’ve seemed insane at the time. But, since he was bankrolling Empire out of his own pocket (as he has done with each subsequent Star Wars entry), who could argue with him? It’s pretty certain that 20th Century-Fox wouldn’t have signed off on Kershner if given its druthers; if Lucas wasn’t going to call the shots himself, let’s get a proven sci-fi guy in there, or at least a non-entity we can push around.

It would appear that Empire, of the three Holy Original Trinity, endured the least Special Edition tweaking. This only makes sense: it needed nothing. (I have agreed to accept the new footage of the Wampa on Hoth. Truth to tell, it always seemed a little odd that we never saw more of the thing in the original cut, given how unshy Lucas was about showing off various critters in Star Wars. I can live with the Wampa Version 2.0. As it happens, Lucas was unhappy with the way the original Wampa looked, and — like Steven Spielberg with Jaws when the shark turned out not to bear close scrutiny — elected to keep it as much offscreen as possible.) There are no major restored scenes, just polishing here and there. But Empire, even with its visible matte lines in the Hoth sequence and its mostly-invisible Wampa, was always magical. Story? There isn’t one, really, as always — the Star Wars films have a series of incidents, not plots. Still, the movie is carried along — as no Star Wars movie before or since has been — by the dual currents of emotion and climate.

Credit Brackett and Kasdan — the former a real veteran of film noir, the latter an acolyte of same — for the emotion, particularly the bad-boy-good-girl rapport between Han and Leia. While their dialogue doesn’t quite equal that spoken by Bogie and Bacall, in Star Wars context it’s urbane and (very rare in this saga) human. Credit, too, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, doing their best collaborative work here. Han acts irritable and macho-superior around Leia; she in turn acts disdainful and flustered; but the key lies in how they actually relax around each other. They are expending a lot of energy trying to deny their attraction (for Han, it must be in part because he doesn’t want to hurt Luke), but when the shields come down and they inch into a kiss, their passion has already been so successfully sublimated in their trading of insults that it’s as if kissing were just the next logical step.

There’s heat, too, in the duel between Luke and Vader, with its symbolic castration and Freudian bombshell. For once, a Star Wars confrontation has reams of subtext. “All too easy,” Vader growls when he thinks he’s manuevered Luke into the carbon-freezing chamber for good; he sounds almost disappointed — that the fight is over, and that his son wasn’t a worthy opponent. People like to make fun of Mark Hamill’s shrieking when he discovers his true lineage, but I find it a perfectly operatic response; the scene contains some of Hamill’s finest acting, particularly his expression right before he falls to what, for all he knows, is his sure doom. The look says, “You may kill me, you may kill my friends and control the galaxy — but you’re not going to control me, you bastard.”

Kershner was fortunate enough to work with a script boasting a wide variety of climes. From the skin-biting ice of Hoth, to the muggy swamps of Dagobah, to the cotton-candy warmth of Bespin, to the steam and menace of the interiors during the duel, the movie tries on atmospheres and moods as if going through a deep wardrobe. Each section of the film has a stand-out sequence that inspires hyperbole like “best ever”: the battle in the snow between the Rebel forces and the hulking AT-ATs is the best combat sequence ever in a Star Wars film and possibly among the best ever, period; the chase through the asteroid field gets my vote as the most exhilarating action sequence in the saga; the entire trilogy’s emotional high point is probably the moment when tiny Yoda concentrates and gently lifts the X-Wing out of the water. (John Williams is at his best there, too — the lilting refrain of “Yoda’s Theme” gaining in power until it does justice to Yoda’s own power.) Bespin, the Cloud City, seems like a soothing place until you realize the moments of greatest pain happen there — the dismantling of C-3PO, the torture and later freezing of Han (“They didn’t even ask any questions,” he moans post-torture, in the closest the saga comes to nihilism), the grief of Leia and Chewbacca, and of course the soul-shaking trials of Luke. Even R2-D2 gets a nasty shock from a power outlet.

Nobody gets out of Empire unscathed; everyone, by the time the end credits roll, is nursing a big personal loss. Luke gets a nice new (robotic) hand, a chilling premonition of what he might become if he’s not careful — a being “more machine than man,” as Obi-Wan says of Vader. Empire, alone among its Star Wars peers, is more human than machine. It has room for great pleasure as well as great pain — the elation of Luke coming into his powers in Dagobah; the blossoming of romance between Han and Leia; the bloodlust of victory on Hoth. All this has its dark side, too: Luke also faces himself on Dagobah (in that superb, Freudian-nightmare moment under the ground); Han and Leia are separated almost as soon as they acknowledge their love (that famous “I love you”/”I know” exchange is perfect succinct screenwriting courtesy of Ford himself, who came up with it on the set); the Rebels don’t have much time to enjoy their triumphs over individual AT-ATs before they’re forced to retreat. The title speaks truly: this was the one where the Empire played for keeps. So does the movie.

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