Retro Film Review: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

in film •  last month  (edited)

When people discuss the slow yet unstoppable decline of quality film-making within commercial Hollywood cinema, they like to point out the sequels as one of the symptoms. Sequels might also be taken as a symbol of those trends, because they illustrate the lack of creativity within big budget cinematography; instead of innovation, resources are poured into well-established and repetitive formulas. Naturally, the movie often blamed for inspiring such bad trends, Star Wars, had the sequel of its own. But, luckily, it was one of those precious few exception to the rule - The Empire Strikes Back was the sequel that rose above the high standards set by its glorious predecessor.

Unfortunately, the quality and real importance of this movie is often ignored due to the simple fact that it is often referred as "the second in Star Wars trilogy". Unlike the original, who could be seen by as standalone adventure, The Empire Strikes Back required built-in audience, and those audience, as well as the critics had some difficulties in appraising the movie as a single artistic achievement. Those who did mostly consider the second movie to be the best in trilogy. The author of this review shares that sentiment, same as the heroes of Kevin Smith's Clerks. I might also add that I consider one of the best in many splendid science fiction movies made in that golden age between 1977 and 1982.

The same era was perhaps splendid for the fans of science fiction cinema, but the content of those films, like Mad Max, Alien or Blade Runner, was mostly pessimistic. The feeling of gloom influenced even such light-hearted and fairy-tale saga like the Star Wars. Dark atmosphere is evident from the beginning; the previous chapter ended with Rebels celebrating the destruction of Death Star, powerful weapon of evil Empire. Yet, despite their triumph, they are far from decisive victory in the war. The Empire still has the upper hand, and that is clearly demonstrated when Imperial forces destroy the main Rebel base on the ice planet Hoth. In order to save itself from total annihilation, main Rebel force is dispersed all over Galaxy. Heroes from the previous film are separated into two groups; first group is Rebel commander Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) who, together with his faithful robot R2D2 (played by Kenny Baker) flies to swap planet Dagobah. His goal is to fulfil his personal vision and find Yoda (voice by Frank Oz), 900 years old Jedi master, that would complete his training in the ways of mystic Force. Another group of our heroes – rogue pilot Han Solo (played by Harrison Ford), his co-pilot Chewbacca (played by Peter Mayhew), Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher) and robot C3PO (played by Anthony Daniels) - are on the spaceship Millennium Falcon, being mercilessly pursued by Imperial fleet, whose leader, evil lord and former Jedi knight Darth Vader (played by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), wants to capture Luke Skywalker.

The sequel to the megapopular Star Wars defied many unofficial Hollywood rules about sequels. Instead of simply enhancing well-established, attractive and obviously successful elements of the previous film, this sequel used it a foundation for its own, original narrative structure. Instead of relying on bigger special effects, bigger explosions or more spectacular sights and sounds, like many sequel makers do these days, creators of The Empire Strikes Back actually worked very hard to remedy those few flaws the original had. Most notable of all was in cardboard characterisation. That task was given to the talented creative team of Leigh Brackett, respected Fantasy/SF author, and Lawrence Kasdan, whose directorial star would shine in the next decade. They managed to develop their characters, breath some life and new dimension in their appearance, and also forced them to make some difficult moral dilemmas. The clear boundary between Good and Evil was slightly blurred in this movie, when even the some members of Imperial military were given opportunity to express their human emotions. But, most of all, difference between Star Wars and The Empire is in plot and sinister overtones; the heroes of the movie aren't superhumans immune from misery anymore. They get maimed, hurt, tortured, both physically and emotionally, and this time the viewers, even those who consider the whole trilogy to be escapist fantasy, are really compelled to care what would happen to them in the end. The aliens, who used to be one of the more entertaining attractions of the previous movie, are mostly left out of the picture; there aren't nice fuzzy creatures here – apart from Yoda, all the aliens are hostile or, either, prosaic domesticated animals that "smell bad". That wasanother element of gritty realism, that distinguishes this film from the rest of trilogy. The movie is also full of surprise twists, and the final one is probably the best known in the entire history of cinema.

Even the acting, often regarded as the weakest segment in whole Star Wars saga, is here at its prime. Mark Hamill is very convincing as the suffering hero, probably because bad things that happen to his characters corresponded with some bad things that happened to him in real life. Carrie Fisher was also brilliant, especially in her scenes that witness the unresolved sexual tension between Princess Leia and Han Solo. Even Billy Dee Williams is good in his limited role of Lando Karlisian, one of the rare new characters of the saga. However, the most impressive character addition is Yoda, small and frail, yet spiritually strong figure. The magic of the Muppet creators, suggestive voice of Frank Oz, combined with Yoda's sharp lines (one of them would become the nemesis for Beverly Hills plastic surgeons) left the strong imprint on many generations of Star Wars fans.

Apart from the a screenplay and well-defined characters, The Empire Strikes Back also benefited from the superb direction by Irvin Kershner, whose career reached its peak here. The look of the film corresponds with the changes of the atmosphere; the blue colour dominates Peter Suschitzky's photography throughout the whole picture. Special effects are improved over Star Wars, and still impressive after eighteen years (one of the proofs is 1997 special edition, that, unlike other two parts of Star Wars trilogy, leaves most of them untouched and brings only small improvements). Even the musical score by John Williams, with his immortal Imperial March theme, sounds like the best in the trilogy, with its dark overtones brilliantly corresponding with the general feel of the film.

Grim atmosphere of the movie, however, can't prevent the many generations of viewers to experience the very same "sense of wonder" that overwhelmed them in the previous picture. The Empire Strikes Back is the original, very special segment of Star Wars saga, but also the element of Star Wars saga nevertheless. But even those who somehow managed to escape the magic charms of George Lucas' universe and failed to become hard core fans, could enjoy in the magnificent quality of this masterpiece.

RATING: 10/10 (+++++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on October 29th 1998)

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