Thursday 7 January 2016

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Director: Irvin Kershner
Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels

This is the fifth entry in my Star Wars I-VII Runthrough, which aims to look at the entire series of feature films with three things in mind: quality, progression and the fan theory of Jar Jar Binks as ultimate villain. Hello, Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back!

Brief Synopsis

Three years after scoring a major success with the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance has been forced into retreat. They’ve established a new base on the ice planet of Hoth but the Empire are actively searching for them and Darth Vader is especially keen on finding the man who blew up his space station. Probes discover the base and battle commences as the rebels attempt to evacuate and regroup.

Primary characters are Darth Vader, the Sith Lord who commands the Empire wherever we see it; Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia, three friends fighting for the Rebel Alliance; Chewbacca, Han's Wookiee co-pilot; C-3PO and R2-D2, the usual pair of droids; and Lando Calrissian, a friend and adversary of Han's who now runs Cloud City, a mining colony above Bespin, to which he takes the Millennium Falcon for repairs.


Even with another model Star Destroyer to kick things off, this film oozes quality immediately. Star Wars quickly became a fan favourite and an unprecedented success because of its energy, its imagination and its mythical grounding, but there are clear flaws that can't be ignored. While I still prefer A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back is clearly the better film.

For a start, it’s a slower and more thoughtful piece but with more invention. There's also actual science fiction in amongst the space opera and fantasy. There’s real depth to be found, both to the story and its characters. And yet, it's still almost as iconic as its predecessor with a whole slew of memorable lines, the double whammy of ‘I love you' and 'I know’ merely my favourite. There's also ‘Do or do not; there is no try’; ‘I have altered the deal; pray I do not alter it further’ and, of course, ‘I am your father.’
In fact, there’s better storytelling across the board. People outside on an ice planet get cold and, when they’re out too long, they get frostbitten; Luke gets to spend time inside a dead tauntaun to survive Hoth temperatures at night. Machinery doesn’t always work properly and the Millennium Falcon is given great character as an old bucket of bolts. Yoda’s house is Yoda’s size, which causes a little trouble for Luke. These all may seem obvious but this sort of thing kept tripping up the earlier films, even including A New Hope, because they either weren't thought out properly or Lucas had other priorities above logic.

What's more, things aren't necessarily what they seem. Escape plans actually seem clever and believable. Twists and revelations make sense. Characters may have more than one motivation and we might be able to believe them all. Even when something clich├ęd comes along, like the pursuit through an asteroid field, at least there's drama and further invention within those scenes rather than just a dumb chase. It's worth mentioning that the rocks are more widely spaced and not exploding, like the time Obi-Wan chased Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones. C-3PO even provides their odds of survival.
It isn't just the things that grow, but the people too. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher all do better work in this film than in the previous one. While they're given better scenes and dialogue, they also do more with them so the credit should be shared. Hamill avoids various pitfalls that Hayden Christensen fell into. He's the real lead this time instead of just assuming he was. It's worth mentioning Peter Mayhew here, as he manages to endow Chewbacca with some character too, even hindered by a Wookiee suit, though sadly he's given mild comic relief scenes rather than much of substance.

Ford gets his teeth into Solo more than Fisher gets hers into Leia, but then he does have opportunities that she doesn't. She does bring a number of angles to Leia but she's stuck tagging along with the others for much of the picture. At least, while this is going on, there's some actual sexual tension generated between the two of them, which highlights just how sexless the previous four films were. A mere couple of scenes between Han, Leia and the brief third wheel of Luke show up the romance of Anakin and Amidala as laughable hokum. They had two movies, a marriage and kids, but even Anakin's shift to the dark side to save his wife carries less romance than the bickering between Han and Leia.
For the first time, the rebels appear to be an actual team. I don't just mean the leads who we follow but also the wider Rebel Alliance troops. There’s real cameraderie in the early scenes that's infectious. Watching Luke in A New Hope, I wanted to go out and do something but, watching these rebels at work, I wanted to fight for their cause. The stirring score of John Williams helps, of course.

After the underwhelming battle between Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope, it's refreshing to see a much better one between Luke and Vader here. It uses multiple locations and actual moves but it's still a far cry from the spectacular choreography of the prequel trilogy. Some would call that a good thing, of course.
The effects improve too, most obviously in the animation of Yoda, who is more believable to my eyes as a physical creature than as a CGI creation. He was animated through puppetry, which apparently made Mark Hamill's job a lot harder but he did well regardless.
Also, while A New Hope took place mostly in deep space, after leaving Tatooine, The Empire Strikes Back moves around from location to location much as did The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, each of which gave their digital teams great opportunities to create varied worlds, creatures and machines. Here, Hoth is very different to Dagobah, which is very different again to Cloud City or the oddly populated asteroid. There are inventive creations on each.


There are less continuity errors here, partly because it's not Episode IV and partly because Lucas was creating a trilogy at this point and had continuity very much in mind. It was clear while watching A New Hope that he was making one movie and a number of things that are meaningful to us today were nothing but background or irrelevancies to him in 1977.

Most obviously, he built up a back story that has Darth Vader revealed as Luke's father, something clearly not intended in the previous film, and a more coherent explanation of the force. Beyond The Phantom Menace's midi-chlorian shenanigans, the force wasn't really a coherent concept even in A New Hope, but it's grown massively this time out. Luke receives a near death vision of Obi-Wan, who tells him to go to the Dagobah system and be trained by Yoda. He does so and the film gains a notably spiritual side to play along with the space battles. Star Wars always feels best when it has both sides in play.
It's good to see Yoda back in the saga after a movie out. I'd forgotten how wacky his antics are while testing Luke, before he gets all serious and settles down to the task at hand. It's all very eighties but it's also a lot of fun.

However, while there are less continuity errors than in A New Hope, there are still some, many of which involve the droids. Once again, R2-D2 is not recognised by a character who ought to know him; this time that's Yoda. C-3PO meets a droid who looks exactly like him; given that The Phantom Menace tells us that Anakin built him, did he do so from a Radioshack kit?
Those tie to the prequels though, which weren't even a glimmer at this point. One that's less understandable for 1980 is that, when Vader springs his trap and catches Luke, he doesn't just let Han go, he lets Leia go too, at least initially. Given that A New Hope told him that she's prominent in the rebellion, that seems rather an odd decision.

A number of characters show up for the first time here. One is the Emperor, looking haggard in a holographic transmission; he remains far away and mostly out of mind with Darth Vader front and centre for the Empire. Watching after the prequels, he also looks rather cheap.

We briefly meet Boba Fett too, who tracks down the Millennium Falcon for Vader and takes Han in carbonite to deliver to Jabba the Hutt; I don't believe he's actually named, though it is a speaking role, but people knew who he was at the time because he'd been introduced in cartoon form in The Star Wars Holiday Special.
The last thing that felt odd in the progression is the way the film ends, namely that it really doesn't. It feels more like a first half to a two parter and we're merely pausing the story for a commercial break that lasted three years. In comparison, each of the previous films had been separated by notable gaps: ten years between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, another three before Revenge of the Sith, an entire generation between that and A New Hope and three more before this one, a meaningful gap in terms of cameraderie and growth. Yet I left The Empire Strikes Back feeling like Return of the Jedi would pick up right as it left off, rather like it will for me in another 24 hours.

Jar Jar Binks

Still no Jar Jar. See yesterday’s notes.

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