Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back Thirty Years Later

I originally saw The Empire Strikes Back (1980, directed by Irvin Kershner) on the day it opened. I saw it again three days later. It was the first film I ever saw more than once in the theater and it was the first film I ever went to by myself. Over the course of that summer, I watched it again several times. I was already a movie addict by 1980, but 1980 was really the first year that I went overboard with my addiction and Empire is partly to blame for this. Oddly enough, I can only remember going to see four movies in the theater in 1980. The other three were Superman II, Oh God! Book 2, and My Bodyguard. In scanning through all the movies released in 1980 on the IMDB, I note that I've seen most of the ones that are still in print, and a goodly number of others to boot, but I saw them all on cable or video. For what it's worth, 1980 was a pretty crummy year for movies.

They say that the golden age of science fiction is 12. I was 13 when Empire came out, so I was right in the sweet spot for it, but watching it again as an adult on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of its release was instructive. Virtually alone of the Star Wars movies, Empire takes a huge detour into the realm of high drama and high tragedy. Oh, the whiz-bang element is still there, especially in the film's first act, but at about the one hour mark, it transforms itself. It is no longer about boys playing with toys. It's about love, betrayal, guilt, generational conflict, epistemology, and spiritual transformation. It's heady stuff. That it does all of this without sacrificing the high adventure narrative is one of the better juggling acts in movies.There are two things that really drive home the difference between this film and its predecessor. The first is the introduction of John Williams's "Imperial March", which probably gets more airplay to this very day than any other piece of music in the Star Wars series. It sets the tone early. The other is the way cinematographer Peter Suschitzky films Darth Vader. In the first film, Vader never really got any special treatment beyond the sinister design of his costume. In this film, he becomes a terrifying apparition.

Vader as a demonic figure.

It's set up beautifully: we see Vader going through subordinates like they're popcorn, followed by a brief glimpse of what he looks like underneath the mask. Vader figures prominently in the turning point of the film, when Luke is tested by the Dark Side. Here, Vader is milked for all that he's worth: lit from behind, he's a shape punctuated by sinister lights, when Luke "defeats" this vision, he sees his own face beneath Vader's mask. This prefigures his appearance when Luke arrives at the carbonite chamber on Bespin. Vader is again a backlit shape looming against the background of smoke. This encounter, of course, ends with the revelation that Vader is Luke's father. This kind of cinematic doubling is something the other films in the series never come near.

This is the first time I've seen Empire since the 1997 re-release. In the interim, I've heard countless complaints about how horrible the performances are in the prequels, but to my eye, they aren't any worse than the performances in the original films. The second half of Empire is an exception, and it, too, has a cinematic function. During the first half of the film, Han Solo and Leia bicker like schoolyard children. Their by-play isn't the banter of adults. Seriously, it's not. And you get the feeling that the actors know it, because they overplay it. Again, at roughly the halfway point, when Han and Leia start to develop a more adult relationship, the performances suddenly change tenor. The broad nature of the first part of the film causes this shift to jump out in stark contrast. Suddenly, you're watching adults with adult problems and the actors seem to recognize this and dial it down accordingly. This is most evident in Mark Hamill's performance, which takes him from brash young man into the depths of despair. The terror manifested on the actor's face in his final confrontation with Vader is a tour de force.

Skywalker in the underworld.

The two new most important characters introduced in this film are Lando Calrissian, the morally compromised administrator of Cloud City, and Yoda, the ancient Jedi master. Neither of these characters would have fit in the universe of the first film. Lando, in particular, is weak-willed and unprincipled in a way that Han Solo never was, while Yoda is a deep mystic who has no patience for young Skywalker and his schoolboy image of what a Jedi Knight actually is. He gets my favorite line in the series, too, when he notes that "luminous beings are we, not this crude matter." I don't actually believe this (the atheist in me rebels), but it's the ONLY time that this series ever comes near actual poetry and transcendence.

Also new to the series is the feeling that there's an actual war going on. The first film's battle against the Death Star is all well and good, but it's mostly models and it's mostly ships flown by characters to whom we haven't been introduced. The battle of Hoth, on the other hand, is a ground battle, where you see human beings rather than model ships: it's a slog of infantry against tanks in a shitty environment. It feels more like a war film than a swashbuckler, which makes the swashbuckling later in the movie take on greater dramatic weight. Even the space battles in this film are better, in part because they're choreographed with a greater sense of three dimensions. The dimensional aspect of the scenes where the Millennium Falcon tries to evade the Empire and then navigate an asteroid field have a giddy rush of speed that is largely absent in the other films.

It's common wisdom these days among people that claim that Empire is the best of the Star Wars movies--and I'm certainly among them--that this is so because it's the one that George Lucas had the least involvement. I don't know if that's true or not, but it certainly feels different than the others. Certainly, director Irvin Kershner's pronouncements on the matter suggest that the look and feel of the movie is more his doing than Lucas's. I think you can find supporting evidence in the special edition enhancements that came along for the 1997 re-release and afterward. This is the edition that I watched this time out. First: the alteration of Vader's dialogue with the Emperor harms the movie a little bit by telegraphing the film's shocking revelation at the end. Second: the visual design of Cloud City is marginally harmed by taking out the walls and putting in windows. The original interior design of Cloud City was an excellent art-deco space, and changing the lighting throughout hides a little bit of its beauty. On the flipside of this, though is the addition of the Wampa, which was only half-seen in the original. The new scene (which is significantly NOT CGI) is pretty good. In any event, this film is probably the one that is least harmed by Lucas's after-the-fact noodling, perhaps a testament to the fundamental soundness of the original item. It's a pretty great film.

The things you notice when you scan for screen caps. The flaming black blob on the left side of this explosion looks to be the unfortunate pilot of the first TIE fighter destroyed by the asteroids. This is kind of a neat touch that went by too fast while watching the film.


Unknown said...

I loved your take on this. It was also nice to read fellow blogger Mr. Peel's blog on the right, also featuring SW stuff.

Chris Stopper said...

You really hit the nail on the head when you point out how seemingly little things like how Vader as an image is handled separate this film from the pack. As you say it's hard to know exactly how much freedom Kershner had but it seems like it was pretty extensive. Kasdan's part in shaping the script was also crucial. There are echos of Indiana Jones' relationship with Marion from his "Raiders" script in Han and Lea's sparring. All around a fine piece of work (good enough to withstand Lucas' constant meddling) and the one SW film I continue to watch once or twice a year.