Stars: ***1/2 out Four
Summary: A darker mythic adventure that raised ‘Star Wars’ from pulp to legend, excellent writing and talent abounds as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.
Review: After the unexpected success of ‘Star Wars’, George Lucas immediately put into development his first sequel, which he had planned out before ‘Star Wars’ was released. Lucas again took a gamble with the audience, hoping they would stomach a darker sequel.
Rather than trying to create a story that replicated the successful elements of the first film, the filmmakers pushed the story forward into a dark middle chapter. The heroes weren’t going to triumph as absolutely as they had in ‘Star Wars’. Unlike most sequels, where the same premise returns with thinner characters, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, by necessity, focused on the inner struggles and philosophies of each principal character. Luke found out it wasn’t easy to defeat the Galactic Empire, and that the Dark Side of the Force was much closer to him than he realized. Han and Leia’s relationship began to thaw, and they realized they were improbably in love. Darth Vader would turn things personal, obsessed with finding Luke and turning him to evil. There wasn’t a single, clear obstacle to surmount, no Death Star to destroy.
While it is undeniable that the fun, Flash Gordon-esque elements of the previous film are still there, the ‘Star Wars’ franchise had suddenly taken a turn into serious myth. ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is not just a second act in a three-act narrative, it is a tragedy. It has a downbeat ending, though not devoid of triumph. Luke emerges from his battle with Darth Vader victorious in spite of seeming defeat, due to his refusal of Vader’s offer to rule the Empire. Though Han is frozen in carbonite and taken by a bounty hunter with the Empire’s blessing, Leia still has the assurance she can find him again, alive. Even for Darth Vader there is hope; famously, he reveals in his combat with Luke that he is the boy’s father, Anakin Skywalker. This is what established him as the most famous film villain of all time. He was now a tragic figure, and not just a dark sorcerer with no past and no future. The audience is left wondering, if Anakin was turned to evil, can he be turned back?
The nature of the Force is truly explored for the first time, on the planet Degobah with the help of an old Jedi named Yoda (Played by Frank Oz). Basically a glorified Muppet, with the limitations thereof. This little guy doesn’t just inherit the role of Ben Kenobi from the first film; he has a very different approach. Yoda helps Luke confront his own dark side, and even before we know that Darth Vader is Anakin, we know that Luke is in danger of becoming like him. The Force is a murky spirituality indeed, so it is hard to say much about it other than, well, negative emotions lead to negative results and positive emotions lead to positive results. In real life, though, it doesn’t take a genius to grasp that emotions are neither positive nor negative. Hate, said to be a negative emotion by Yoda, can be a good thing. Let’s say I hate slavery, or murder. Then my hate is supporting my love of humanity, and is obviously not negative. So even though it “works” in the ‘Star Wars’ films, the Force is far too simplistic. To me, this just reinforces the fantasy aspect; it’s like applying rules to King Arthur’s sword and scabbard. It works in the story as a spiritual thing, but it doesn’t have any bearing on real life. Also, considering Lucas’ other works, like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, it would seem he doesn’t believe every word of the Force dogma anyway.
Once again, the film was a technical triumph. The effects were slightly improved, as ILM figured out what the limitations were of their methods, and if their methods needed to be retooled all together. The lightsabers are a good example; in ‘Star Wars’, they tried blending luminescent sticks with animated beams, which made the effect inconsistent. Here, they ditched the luminescent rods and went the solely animated route. It worked much better, and let the choreography loosen up quite a bit during the fight scenes.
John Williams’ music took on a new flavor, becoming much more the ‘Star Wars’ sound we are familiar with, especially due to the Imperial March, which stole the show. There’s not a whole lot to say about it, really, only that it was excellent as always.
Overall, I like this film less than ‘Star Wars’. I do appreciate the direction Lucas took the series with ‘Empire’, but on its own merits ‘Star Wars’ is slightly better. But only slightly! This is widely considered the best of the series, though, and if you’ve only seen the others in the series, you have to give this one its time of day.