Saturday, December 5, 2015

"Star Wars Saga" Retrospective - #5: The Empire Strikes Back.

After the release of Star Wars, it seemed like George Lucas was on top of the world, with his dream project having finally been brought to life, and to the surprise of everyone across the world, became the most successful film of all time up to that point. It was a pop cultural phenomenon unlike anything before or since, with showings selling out daily, merchandizing flying off the shelves, and earning a tally of ten Academy Award nominations, as well as six wins and a Special Achievement Award.

The fandom of Star Wars was growing day by day, and soon the wait began for the eventual follow up. Deciding not to direct the film this time, and hang back as a producer and story consultant, directing duties were handed to Irvin Kirschner, while Lawrence Kasdan would serve as screenwriter and flesh out Lucas’ original treatment. Titled The Empire Strikes Back, and picking up where the original had left off, this second installment of Lucas’ original trilogy was primed to take the characters down darker and more expansive routes. Anticipation was through the roof, with dedicated fan sites everywhere scrounging for every detail they could find about the film’s secrets before its release.

And the end result, while rocky at first, was nothing short of spectacular, arguably becoming the film that defined the universe of Star Wars, and in this reviewer’s personal opinion, ranks among my all time favorite films.

Three years after the Rebel Alliance’s assault on the Death Star, the Galactic Empire has pursued them across the galaxy, with the Rebels taking refuge on the remote planet of Hoth. When visited by a vision of his old mentor Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) soon sets off to find an ancient Jedi master residing on the Dagobah system named Yoda (Frank Oz), seeking more training in the ways of the Force. On top of that, after being assaulted by the Empire on Hoth, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) flee from the Empire in any way that they can, with Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) pursuing their every move, and actively seeking out the young Luke for nefarious reasons, all leading up to the two facing off against each other in a fate-changing duel.

While The Empire Strikes Back is commonly considered the best Star Wars film, many people forget that its reception wasn’t always so kind. In the film’s initial release, many critics were put off by its darker tone, as well as its middle-chapter syndrome. It’s only in retrospect and reevaluation that reception to the film greatly improved, with many declaring it to be among the greatest films of all time. It was a bold step in a new direction for the series to take, becoming the gold standard for what every franchise sequel should strive to be, and has only gotten better as the years go on.

One of the main reasons for this is actually what many actively criticized the film for in the first place, that being the film’s “middle-chappter” structure, a template that this film executed spectacularly, and that so many films ever since have tried to copy with poor results. A common vice for sequels at the time was their inherent sequelitis, in which films took much of what made the original films the classics that they are, but inflated them with bigger budgets and carbon copy sequences that didn’t possess the same magic the second time. The Empire Strikes Back effectively breaks free of that mold with a greater focus on progressing its characters forward rather than regressing them, but especially for its continual escalation to its final installment still due to release.

The characters in particular have been given greater, more mature development, digging to deeper and more meaningful emotional cores and expanding on relationships with greater results. Luke has learned much in the ways of the Force thanks to his time with Obi-Wan, and has even started to become more of a great and knowledgeable leader, but is still not without the same deep-rooted character flaws of his interpretation in the first film. He’s become much more of a wise and compassionate fighter, but still lacks true patience in the ways of the Force, still showing signs of his arrogance and whiny attitude, making his continued coming of age further engrossing as the film moves along.

Then along comes the relationship between Han and Leia. With Han looking to leave the Rebels to pay off his debt to Jabba the Hutt, and Leia visibly afraid to admit her feelings about Han, as well as being irritated by his rogue attitude and condescension, there’s a lot of tension consistently bubbling up between the two throughout the film, leading to a lot of the film’s most entertaining and endearing banter. The two initially appeared to be such polar opposites of each other in the original film, except when it came to their own egos and sarcastic attitudes, and it was those things that made the blooming romance so engaging. It was very satisfying to see these two work past such differences to fall in love with each other, without using all the grand scenery and tacky back story of Anakin and Padme in the prequels. Intimate moments of tense chatter with sparks flying between the two on the Millennium Falcon become much more meaningful than any grand, operatic settings, and made us root for these two the whole way through.

It’s here where Darth Vader truly came into his own as well, expanding more on his aggressive and malicious military command, but proving especially frightening by his more fully-dimensional focus. It’s here where you felt the full scale and force of Vader’s ruthless grasp and command, evidenced by sequences where he viciously kills his army commanders for the slightest hint of failure, and making it even scarier is how calm and nonchalantly he does so. In another instance of the film building up to its finale, we even see a sequence introducing us to the behind the scenes villain The Emperor. What was even more frightening than before was to see Darth Vader, a ruthless and untamable general, bowing before another human being, with the Emperor’s manipulation and shadowy presence establishing an incredible creep factor, making you further fear for Luke’s life in Return of the Jedi.

The film also introduced us to a slew of other new characters, from Billy Dee Williams (the coolest voice in Hollywood) appearing as the suave and morally conflicted Lando Calrissian, and fan favorite, the icy bounty hunter Boba Fett. The most fascinating of them all came in the most unlikely of places, that being Frank Oz’s enigmatic Yoda. Despite an initially comical personality, being a front to test Luke’s patience, Yoda’s true strengths as a character are revealed lying in his overall mystical qualities. It’s with this character that we feel the full extent of what the force can do and how it communicates with us, showing much wisdom and severity despite his small stature, and his almost effortless abilities with the force, as well as his fascinating philosophical contemplations and endlessly quotable dialogue, have made him stand the test of time alongside the greatest Star Wars characters, highlighting the ethereal and limitless potential of what the Force can do, as something greater than anyone can understand or describe. Of course, much of this is also due to the physicality of the character, with the puppetry of the character having not aged a day since the film’s original release, and Frank Oz’s powerful vocal performance selling much of Yoda’s restrained and otherworldly dialogue.

Outside of its stronger characters and relationships, the thing that further made Empire a superior follow up to its predecessor was the boundary pushing craftsmanship of its many various technicians. The original Star Wars was one of the greatest showcases in practical effects artistry the world had ever seen up to that point, and with the crew members having learned more about their craft and matured themselves, their practicality was even more fine tuned than ever. Whereas the original film did have very few notable blue screen moments, not a single image of Empire looks like it has aged a day. The camera work during the dogfights in particular were swift and gargantuan in scope, and the merging of scale models and stop motion animation looks completely seamless, further aided by the beautiful expansion to the production design of the universe. With the characters firmly established, once audiences are caught up with what they’ve been doing in the years since, we’re then treated to the magnificent battle of Hoth sequence, perhaps the greatest action sequence in the Star Wars saga, and a masterstroke of high stakes invention that sets the Empire’s act of vengeance on the right foot. Yet despite that being the peak of the action, at no point does the film ever run out of steam afterwards, with appropriately smaller scale segments leading up to its epic finale on Cloud City.

The sound was just as incredible the second time around, with more of Ben Burtt’s iconic and larger than life sound design making for grand spectacle, and John Williams continuing to develop the sound of the Star Wars universe. Rather than rehash many of the original moments of the first film, like any of the best sequel scores should, he gave most of the original themes appropriate callbacks laced in, but complemented them with numerous new themes to interact with them, including the now famous Imperial March accompanying Darth Vader, which I dare say is the best composition in all of Star Wars.

And for this last stretch of the review, I will be talking in depth about spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, read at your own discretion.

One element about The Empire Strikes Back that has helped it retain so much of its staying power and fond appreciation is the level of emotion that continuously gets built up as all storylines converge at Cloud City. With Han and Leia having been betrayed briefly, a bittersweet goodbye between the two takes place before Han is frozen in carbonite, which is made all the more heartbreaking by the futile rescue of Han from Boba Fett. In just one image, when the camera cuts to Leia’s shocked expression after the team just narrowly misses Boba Fett, all of those haunting emotions are hammered home with unforgettable poignancy.

Even darker still is the eventual duel between Skywalker and Vader. For the entirety of two films, this showdown had been continually built up, with the filmmakers playing every right card at the right time, and a lot of the ultimate impact of the film was riding on the execution of this sequence. So much is going on that needs to be addressed as the sequence moves along, such as Luke’s protectiveness of his friends, his secret desire for vengeance, his arrogance of his own abilities, his terror as he faces off against his greater, and Vader’s twisted manipulation of the boy, toying with him and tormenting him psychologically as well as physically. It’s a heated battle that stretches on for a lengthy period of time, and it just keeps building in suspense and fear for our hero’s life as it goes on.

Then along comes the film’s famous bombshell, the reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. I can only imagine the gasps from audiences back in the original theatrical release as they learned the truth of Vader’s history with Luke, yet even after having the twist spoiled so many years later, to the point that it’s common knowledge even to those who haven’t seen the film, it still hasn’t lost any of its shock and horror. It raises so much doubt and questions in both Luke’s and the viewer’s mind, to the point that we begin to assume that Vader must be lying to persuade Luke. Or is that just what we want to believe? If he is his father, does this mean he’s destined to follow down the same road? Are the sins of the past doomed to repeat themselves in an endless circle? In one powerful moment of realization, Luke willingly sacrifices himself rather than succumb to Vader’s manipulation, signifying the moment that Luke has finally completed his development into a great hero. No longer is he a whiny brat interested in power converters, but now a noble warrior refusing to give in to temptation as his father once did. It’s these complicated, but potent feelings that have made the film stand the test of time, and brilliantly sets the stage for the epic conclusion in Return of the Jedi.

The Empire Strikes Back is everything that a Star Wars fan would desire in a movie, and more. Its continued improvement of its overall craft and action staging are dazzling, and set the suspenseful stage as it winds to its heart-stopping final moments. It further expands on the worlds with greater scope and philosophy, but more importantly is how it continues to develop its characters into their own with some of the most meaningful and intimate relationships in all of cinema, and challenges its viewers with appropriately bleak outlooks and high, personal stakes.

While the original Star Wars would have been just as incredible on its own, I think that this successor is what really helped define everything that made the universe so satisfying and fascinating in the first place, to the point that Lucas’ passion project was moving on from perfecting the innovations of its influence, to creating its own innovations that would be studied and adored for generations to come.

With the film having pumped us up for the finale, three years later, we would finally get to see the grand culmination to the Star Wars saga. Would it live up to our expectations?

For that answer, join me next week…

***** / *****

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