Thursday, 20 October 2011
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, David Prowse, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels
By Alan Bacchus
The celebrated second entry in the Star Wars saga indeed still packs an emotional punch more grand than the first and third films. After the campy but terrifically exciting first film, Lucas and his team expertly delve into the characters’ back stories revealing a bigger story at play – one of father and son, the corruption of the innocent by greed and anger, and the search for redemption across the generational gap.
Few, if any, franchise films can share the effect of this second chapter on the series. It’s not hard to remember my reaction upon hearing Darth Vader proclaim his true identity to Luke Skywalker high atop that precariously hanging structure in the bowels of Cloud City. I remember being shocked. But I was five years old. How would I have reacted as an adult? Would I have foreseen this reveal? It doesn’t matter because each and every time I watch this scene it still sends shivers down my spine – it’s a monumental shift in our perspective engineered so perfectly across two films.
In this entry in the series, Lucas and company split up their heroes after the initial Hoth battle. It’s a terrific opening taking us into a new environment we didn’t see in the first film. We’re introduced to burgeoning relationship between Han Solo’s charming ruggedness and Princess Leia’s hard-to-get aloofness. We’re also teased some more by Luke Skywalker’s abilities with the force. In battle, the rebels get a tough beat down at the hands of the Empire attacking in those intimidating Imperial snow walkers (though the practicality of such a piece of machinery I could never really figure out). It all looks very cool and kick-starts the film with the heroes on the run from the Empire, a chase that will encompass most of the film.
With Han/Leia/Chewy separated from Luke, Lucas is free to manipulate the suspense and tension of the film with ease. Every scene seems to end with a minor cliffhanger of intrigue as the film cuts between the Millennium Falcon on the run from the Imperial space destroyers, Luke on Tatooine learning the force from Zen-master Yoda, and Vader in space orchestrating the conflict with supreme malevolence. And John Williams’ magnificent music-stings provide delightfully teasing punctuation, thus keeping us all constantly on the edge of our seats.
This type of pacing is in keeping with Lucas’s original inspiration for the series, an homage to matinee serial films like Flash Gordon, which he used to watch as a kid. I’ve seen a few of these films, and indeed Lucas achieves the same rhythm and sense of impending jeopardy. And key to achieving this is the ability to cut from the film's hero at the point of maximum jeopardy.
I wouldn’t argue against The Empire Strikes Back being the best of the series, but we should acknowledge that it cheats a little. After all, the film doesn’t have an ending. Lucas and company are allowed to end the film on a giant emotional and narrative teaser – Luke discovering Darth Vader is his father, Han being frozen and taken away to Jabba the Hut, and Darth Vader still alive and searching for Luke. Providing adequate closure after building up such an action packed narrative is not easy. And so Empire’s benefit is Return of the Jedi’s loss, as the latter had the unfortunate expectation of wrapping up all angles of the story. There's more on that later when I look at Return of the Jedi.
All Star Wars films are now available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.