Film discussion

Looking Back at… Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

The greatest sequel ever made? It’s in the ballpark, that’s for sure. The one thing that is not up for debate is that The Empire Strikes Back is probably the greatest Star Wars movie of them all, and equal to The Godfather Part II, The Dark Knight and Terminator 2: Judgment Day when it comes to determining the greatest sequel ever produced.

Released in 1980, three years after A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back does everything one would want from a follow-up; it develops the characters further, expands the world and the cast without ignoring or overlooking the ones we already love, deepens the narrative, and makes things more complex without being overbearing. It also leaves the audience clamouring for more.

On top of being in the arena of “greatest sequel ever made”, it is also a contender for one of the greatest films ever made. Shameless hyperbole? Probably, but also true.

Amazingly, reviews in 1980 were mixed, with many bemoaning the film’s grandiose nature, as well as its lack of beginning or end, an aspect that was deliberate since it was the middle of a trilogy. Coming as it does as the follow-up to the biggest movie ever made at the time, it stands to reason that everyone would expect the audience to be clued in from the opening scene. What was a real risk was its open ending that expected you to come back.

Deciding not to return to the director’s chair, Lucas handed the reins to his former USC professor Irvin Kershner, whilst the screenplay was worked on by Leigh Brackett and later Laurence Kasdan, the latter making the first of several amazing contributions to a Lucasfilm production, and arguably one of the best screenwriters/directors to emerge in Hollywood during the 1980’s, going on to also direct The Big Chill, Silverado  and Body Heat, the latter almost practically inventing the erotic thriller genre pretty much single-handedly, but doing so by modernising the classic film noir genre.

Despite having aspects to its production that were every bit as troublesome as on the original film, many decisions behind the camera allowed it to flourish into the masterpiece it is now regarded as; Kershner was a director who loved to engage in discussion with his actors and actresses on character development and motivation, the opposite to the more technically minded Lucas, and it’s discussions like these that allowed many aspects of the film’s story and its characters to feel somewhat more three-dimensional than the first movie, not least in the film’s single most brilliant moment when Princess Leia confesses her love to Han before he is frozen in carbonite. Harrison Ford’s response was a Ford suggestion and probably one of the single greatest ever movie moments.

If A New Hope was Lucas’ love letter to the serials that he loved as child, The Empire Strikes Back thrives because of its further story and character development, as well as a  darkening of tone. It’s almost become a cliché for filmmakers and producers to proclaim their sequels as “darker”, but The Empire Strikes Back feels like the first time such a philosophy was applied . Like the best sequels, it doesn’t simply retread on things from the first film, repackage them, release it and make a quick buck at the box office. It never feels formulaic or a carbon copy, it legitimately feels like the next installment of a serialised saga and isn’t afraid to push the characters and the story into new and exciting directions.

The characters that we love the most are still here, but they hardly ever spend as much time together as they did last time; Luke is off The Dagobah System to train with Yoda, accompanied by R2-D2, whilst Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3P0 are caught up in an epic chase through as asteroid field, before finding their way to Cloud City to meet up with Han’s old friend Lando where betrayal and tragedy awaits.

By the time Luke catches up, the most shocking revelation of all is waiting for him and the audience.

If A New Hope was a fairy tale, The Empire Strikes Back is more of a Shakespearian drama, complete with tragedy, downfall, familial maiming and ghostly visitations. Whilst Leigh Brackett is credited with working on the screenplay, she died before revising it, and the majority of the work was done by Kasdan. Having just completed the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film feels fast, furious and funny in the way that peak-Lucasfilm always felt, but it brings the dark and the serious to the fore. Where A New Hope killed Obi Wan but still kept the sense of adventure alive after it, here there is a sense of defeat and just a touch of despair in the air. The rebellion is basically running away during the immensely epic opening action sequence, the complete opposite to the joy of the first movie’s sense of victory at the end.

It builds up to one of the most shocking plot twists to ever occur in a Hollywood blockbuster, one that rattles the mind and challenges the perception of multiple generations watching it for the first time; that is if they watch the movies in production order as opposed to episodic, the latter a stupid idea that ruins the jaw dropping intensity when that line is delivered to an unbelieving, now handless Luke. It makes one rethink everything they know and have seen before, dangling a million questions before the audience. Like Luke, we feel duped, lied to and manipulated. Not for nothing did James Earl Jones shout “he’s lying” when recording the line for the first time.

There is little hope in comparison to Episode IV’s final moments, and it’s the darkest revelation imaginable that comes after Luke gets beaten by Vader in a sequence that sees the series firing on all cylinders of movie production; the dialogue, the choreography, Peter Suschitzky’s lighting that brings so many darkened reds and blue to the fore.

By the time the end credits roll, so many balls are up in the air that one can only imagine what it must have been like in 1980 to have been left waiting three years to find out what happens next.

Whilst the prospect of leaving a film in mid-air back then was unthinkable, nowadays it’s part of the course what with Hollywood practically in the business of multiple franchises and cinematic universes. Not only did it invent the “darker, bigger” school of movie sequels, but made it okay to leave the story in the middle of the action for the sequel to pick up the threads later, and yet the idea was a grander, bigger version of what the serials of Lucas’ childhood had done, and amazingly the reverberations of such storytelling is still felt today, what with Marvel leaving threads in certain movies to be picked up later on, and ditto with DC’s recent branch of films, and any franchise that tends to split their final movies into two parts, like Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows.

Best of all, it has one of the greatest romances in movie history going on in the middle of it. Han Solo and Princess Leia’s romance feels like a great screwball comedy, only this time in space; the sparks fly as they spar and be spiteful to each other, but really madly in love with each other. The chemistry between Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford was the greatest of any movies in the 80’s, from their line delivery, to their first kiss, to the “I love you”, “I know” moment. It’s the light in the dark for most of the running time, and yet it falls into the dark too, just like Luke escaping from his now-revealed father.

The final shot is beautiful, hopeful and just a little sad and closes the curtain on one of the movie’s all time great sequels, and greatest movies.

I love it, but I think it knows.

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