30 years of The Empire Strikes Back
Yesterday, I pointed out it was 30 years since Ian Curtis’ suicide. But, as pointed out by Total Film, the same anniversary is shared by an altogether happier landmark, as The Empire Strikes Back premiered this week in 1980.
You don’t need me to tell you how spectacularly brilliant this film still is. For many of us, it’s a mainstay at the very peak of our favourite films. It easily makes my own top 20 (and one day, I’ll get around to listing them so you can tell if we’re going to get on or not).
One thing that is worth mentioning is that Empire is, hands down, the best of the six Star Wars films. [Yes, six: I can’t be doing with Clone Wars. I’d rather include Caravan of Courage.] Fortunately, way back in 2005 when the saga came full circle with the release of Revenge of the Sith, I watched the lot, in order, one side effect of which was to scientifically* prove Episode V‘s enduring greatness.
* Not scientific at all, but then neither are the films!
Here, then, is my loooong review of the whole damn thing, from The Phantom Menace (don’t worry, it gets better) to Return of the Jedi.
The Star Wars sextet
(George Lucas et al, 1977-2005)
The ultimate sci-fi epic is six films strong and chronologically complete. But should we trust George Lucas’ preferred order of viewing?
So now we know whether George Lucas’ sci-fi opus, a quarter of the century in the making, is worthy of all that time, money, effort and – most importantly – the comprehensive cultural colonialism of our lives. Back in 1983, when Star Wars existed merely as a sprightly three-film dash (albeit labelled Episodes IV – VI) through classic serial adventure and modern effects, we thought we knew where we stood. But Lucas’ decision to fill in the backstory and turn the adventures of Luke Skywalker into an operatic tragedy about his father is pop-culture’s most ambitious, hubristic piece of retconning. Star Wars as I grew up to know it no longer exists.
Future generations will have the unenviable task of deciding where to start the story. Start at Episode IV, and you get the thrill of seeing Lucas’s vision spread outward, building from the Boys’ Own adventure of A New Hope into the revelations and complexity of The Empire Strikes Back and the muddled heroics of Return of the Jedi. Start at Episode 1 and, assuming you can make it past The Phantom Menace, you watch the fall and redemption of Anakin – but arguably lose the wonder of A New Hope, which may look to fanboys weaned on the prequels as two hours of treading water before the psychological fireworks return.
Yet right now, with the release of Revenge of the Sith, it’s obvious which makes most sense – to watch the complete story chronologically and find out what Star Wars actually is in the 21st Century.
Episode I – The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, US, 1999)
It’s probable that, from now on, The Phantom Menace will be most newcomers’ introductions to the Star Wars universe. Sadly, it’s far from an auspicious start to the saga.
On its release, the film was one of a handful of high-profile projects – along with Eyes Wide Shut and The Thin Red Line – which marked the return to the fray of major filmmakers after a decade-plus in the wilderness. All three to some degree demonstrated how directorial muscle can atrophy without regular exercise, but Menace was the most off-beam, brutally exposing Lucas’ shortcomings as a director and – more galling – suggesting a man out of touch with his own offspring.
Where once the shock and awe of the effects was in the service of story, here the excitement has been smothered in Lucas’ rush to throw as much computer-generated ‘spectacle’ at the screen. He obviously loves the possibilities of the technology, but such undisciplined freedom comes at the expense of traditional virtues of composition or pacing: many shots are cluttered with superfluous detail, dwelt on at such length that interest soon palls. Only in the climatic face-off with Darth Maul does Lucas deliver the kind of grace or tension you’d expect from a director with his reputation.
Worse, for a man who prides him on his ability to forge grand, mythic narratives from pulp sci-fi, there are elements here that skew dangerously close to the anal insularity of fan-fiction. It’s hard for audiences to respond to the key figure of identification when he turns out to be a virgin birth composed of powerful micro-organisms. Although Lucas at least attempts to contextualise this decision in Revenge of the Sith, it’s a sloppy way to introduce a character, reducing the fable to the pedantry of so much bad sci-fi.
The fussy, overcomplicated narrative is certainly in stark contrast to the Everyman classicism of A New Hope. In its favour, the basic set-up (a chess game engineered to precipitate Palplatine’s rise to power) is admirably ambitious, and a foretaste of the overtly political stance Lucas would adopt in the following films. Yet the plot has no dramatic heft, with boring exposition about trade talks replacing action (and the big action set-piece, the pod race, having precisely fuck-all to do with the wider narrative). The worst offence is the pace-killing detour to Tatooine – it’s a sign of bad storytelling when the most important character can only be introduced by way of a coincidence. Then again, as with most of the plot contrivances found across the saga, you could always blame the Force.
No such excuse exists for Lucas’ clunky handling of character. As a writer, he has always sketched his creations broadly, but here the anthropomorphic renditions of various alien races sails into racial stereotyping, most notably in the case of assigning a cod-Caribbean patois to servile, imbecilic Jar Jar Binks. But then Jar Jar is an all-round bad idea, the emblem of how skewed Lucas’ priorities had become. A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away) he would happily allow gravitas and wit to co-exist in a single character. Here – with a remarkably humourless formality – behaviour is prescribed to specific characters to achieve specific functions so that, whilst Jar Jar (regrettably) gets the bulk of the comedy, the main characters remain staunchly po-faced. Poor Ewan McGregor has seemingly been banned from adding any sparkle to his stiff-backed imitation of Alec Guiness, whilst it’s here that Liam Neeson began his descent into typecasting as the mentor/martyr later to return in Gangs of New York and Kingdom of Heaven.
Episode II – Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, US, 2002)
Fortunately, the follow-up – although by no means perfect – is a far better film than Menace, with a plot that advances the overall arc of Palpatine’s machinations and Anakin’s corruption without skimping on the Star Wars virtue of sweeping action. For anyone fresh to the saga, this is most likely where they’ll begin to actually enjoy it.
If there’s a caveat, it’s that Lucas sometimes goes too far in his attempts to atone for the earlier film. Where that was dull and listless, at its worst this lurches hyperactively from set-piece to set-piece without any patience or subtlety. The visual style – filmed digitally, with digital aliens, digital props and digital backgrounds – only reinforces the feeling that Lucas has borrowed his action template from a computer game. Compare the imposition of Lucas’ technological fetish against the organic integration of effects achieved in The Lord of the Rings, and the lack of warmth and charm is cloying.
More galling is Lucas’ pandering to the fanboys, through the crowd-pleasing sequences involving a flying R2-D2 and kick-ass fighting Yoda. Once the initial rush of excitement has passed, these scenes highlight a dilettantism on Lucas’ part, as if he no longer cares about the internal logic and suspension of disbelief of a universe he once lovingly created. The glaring plot hole of the young Uncle Owen living with C-3PO years before their supposed ‘meeting’ in A New Hope says it all.
That said, it’s certainly exciting, benefiting hugely from the best premise of the prequels – part political thriller, part doomladen romance. The former element, detailing the trail of corruption and cover-up emanating from an attempted assassination, is an admirable throwback to 1970s films such as All the President’s Men (a sub-genre that Star Wars, ironically, helped to kill off). The slippery plotting reveals a hithero unrevealed grasp of dramatic irony on Lucas’ part, notably in the double-edged revelation that the eponymous clones, although clearly devised by the bad guy, are actually the good guys here. The subplot, meanwhile, cleverly allows Anakin to be drawn into the main action through his flawed, impetuous character, as emotion causes him first to compromise his mission through lovey-dovey picnics, then to abandon it altogether in an act of vengeance.
If it ultimately fails to attain the artistic heights of The Empire Strikes Back, that’s due to Lucas’ limitations as a writer and director preventing these disparate elements from gelling. The thriller is terse, dark and moody, complete with a terrific, claustrophobic fight in the rain (the film’s standout sequence) and the long-awaited injection of some Renton-esque cheekiness into Ewan MacGregor’s performance. The love story is glossy and saccharine, with Anakin and Padme’s courtship composed of Hallmark platitudes that have none of the bite of Han and Leia’s backtalk in the equivalent scenes of Empire. Worse, Anakin’s confession of his slaughter of the Tuskan raiders – in theory, the emotional fulcrum of the film, equal parts moving and distriburing – is severely fluffed by Lucas, who allows Hayden Christiansen to overplay the petulance, coming across as a spoilt brat having a hissy fit.
Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, US, 2005)
Amazingly, Lucas managed to sort things out with his last (for now) throw of the dice. Technically, it’s a far more accomplished picture, easily the most proficient of the four he’s directed, with a deliberate but urgent pacing that gives weight to the scenes of powerplay. Best of all, with the climatic duel on a volcanic planet, Lucas has finally delivered a set-piece with the visionary brilliance of master Kurosawa or Paduan Jackson.
Admittedly, the film starts as Attack of the Clones finished, with an overcrowded, rowdy opening act that piles on the fanboy thrills to the detriment of rhyme or reason. R2-D2 is now almost superhuman in his powers, and the action probably only carries any dramatic weight if you know the ins and outs of the Clone Wars (a fairly damning indictment of Lucas’ merchandising empire. How many regular cinemagoers have seen or are even aware of the cartoon spin-off in which the necessary backstory is contained?).
It gets better, as Ian McDiarmid finally takes centre stage to prove that all good genre sagas need a theatrical Ian at their core. The unhurried dissection of Palpatine’s rise to power in the film’s central sequences – an all-too-plausible allegory of totalitarianism – demonstrates a political nous lacking in the ‘original’ trilogy. Too late Lucas has discovered Realpolitik, and the biggest casualty is the Jedi, whose cold, ascetic theocracy gets a philosophical kicking from Palpatine. The idea that the Force is divided into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ subsets has always looked naïve, and the concept is finally prised open by Lucas’ sudden insight into moral relativism.
It’s probably just as well that Lucas lifts the veil on the Jedi’s previously unimpeachable reputation, as the resulting disillusionment is the only factor in Anakin’s fall from grace that rings true. The stated motive – a mixture of spousal concern and career envy – is bathetic in the extreme (although Hayden Christiansen’s still-too-pouty performance doesn’t help). Yet, even if this crucial scene misfires, it’s propped up by the utter conviction of everything surrounding it. The doom-laden atmosphere is compelling, with rarely a glimmer of the puerile humour of Menace, and Lucas’ perennial fault – namely, the dialogue – is disguised by the momentum of the plot.
All the (justifiable) complaints about returning to the Star Wars universe raised since 1999 are brought into sharp relief by Sith’s final twenty minutes, in which the prequels finally come into contact with the original trilogy. The axis of the whole saga, these scenes need to work as both a completion for the post-’77 fanbase and as a tantalising glimpse into the future for the prequelisers, and they do. For my generation, there’s something akin to a collective orgasmic release as Vader breathes his first artificial breath, and baby Luke is transported to Tatooine to await his destiny. For those approaching Star Wars from the chronological beginning, there’s a definite sense that, whilst evil has prevailed, the war isn’t over yet.
Episode IV – A New Hope (George Lucas, US, 1977)
Whatever Lucas says now, the original Star Wars (as it is no longer known) is so clearly intended as the introductory chapter that it sits very oddly in the middle of the saga. The slow, gradual storytelling used to introduce characters, situations and settings is going to drive anyone who knows the salient details from Episodes I-III mad with impatience, whilst its simplistic colour-coded moral framework is, frankly, nonsensical after Sith. And even the retrospective CGI tinkering of the 1997 can’t stop it looking dated visually; the once iconic lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi, watched after the athletic, gym-trained sparring of McGregor and Christiansen, looks particularly clumsy and amateurish.
It’d be a shame if this was to become the future reputation of A New Hope, as – shorn of the pernickety arcana of the later/earlier films – it remains one of the purest adventure stories in cinema. It might be a magpie compendium of escapist fantasy but its constituent elements (Westerns, Samurai films, swashbucklers, WW2 dogfight actioners and Saturday matinee sci-fi) are adapted and fitted together with such enthusiasm and panache that even the hoariest of clichés are made fresh and vital.
Certainly, its reputation as the film that killed intelligent cinema is grossly unfair for, the crass colour-coding of goodies and baddies aside, this is far from stupid. Given the paucity of the dialogue in the prequels, it’s shocking to come back to this and realise how funny this is. Great lines abound (personal favourite is a Stormtrooper’s weary, “Maybe it’s another drill”) but even more exhilarating is the wit and gravitas given to them by, respectively, Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness.
Best of all, there’s genuine awe in the realisation of its world. By the late 90s (or, arguably, as early as the mid 80s) overkill and the allure of merchandising had make the creatures cynical, but here the ‘anything goes’ creativity – for instance, the Cantina sequence – is still hugely entertaining. [Interestingly, the most laboured attempts at slapstick humour are those moments tacked on in ’97.] And the spaceships are, frankly, astonishing. That opening shot of the Imperial Destroyer has never been equalled, whilst the Millennium Falcon (its shape, its grubbiness) is a design classic and a labour of love.
Episode IV – The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, US, 1980)
There has always been the feel about George Lucas of being more of a producer than a director, which explains both his long absence from begins the camera during the 80s and 90s, and his hesitant return to the fold with the prequels. One of the many ironies served up by placing the movies in chronological order is that The Empire Strikes Back reinforces the sense of a limited filmmaker cutting his losses after four attempts behind the camera to become the Selznick-esque showman whilst letting other talents complete the nuts and bolts of making the damn thing.
Make no mistake, this is still Lucas’ vision…but there’s an undeniable upsurge in quality that comes from hiring talent specifically for their writing and directing skills. There’s a greater maturity to the storytelling: wittier, more thoughtful, and – perhaps uniquely for a Star Wars film – it’s actually about something. Empire concerns the difference between the Rebellion, where people look out for each other and fall in love, and the Empire itself, where the smallest of mistakes is met with execution (a brilliantly dark running gag). Unlike Lucas’ faith in Joseph Campbell’s hero-quest narrative, here those familiar mythic archetypes aren’t reason enough why we should care for the characters. Instead, it is valour, and passion, and humanity, that maketh the man…and woman, droid or Wookie, for that matter.
Empire exists in a very different world to the others, simply by virtue of the fact that it revolves around real, recognisable people. Technobabble to a minimum (even Yoda’s gushing praise for the Force is poetic after three prequels of midiclorians), this is a story of resistance and flight, of love affairs forged under pressure, and heroes rallying to friends’ needs. Revealingly, the first draft was composed (before she died) by Howard Hawks’ old writer Leigh Brackett and, while her old-school craft got a punchy blockbuster makeover courtesy of whizz-kid Laurence Kasdan (about to work similar miracles in revamping classic genres in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Body Heat), those Hawksian comparisons are not idle. The gallantry and romanticism of this film sit comfortably alongside To Have and Have Not, whilst Han and Leia’s banter, Nerferters and all, is nothing less than a sci-fi rewrite of His Girl Friday.
Irvin Kershner picks up on the cues, filming without any fuss and allowing performances to breathe. There is marvellous comedy here, not least in Harrison Ford’s performance (truly the moment where he became star: Indiana Jones is merely a perfection of the template here) and even Mark Hamill, entrusted with huge swathes of the film with only a robot and a Muppet for company, gets to show a dramatic weight that the wet youth of A New Hope never possessed. With the help of Cronenberg’s regular cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, Kershner also makes this the most handsome of the movies, shot with a genuine eye for visual texture that’s far more appealing than Lucas’ habit of over-filling the screen with business.
Not that the film lacks spectacle. The attack by the AT-AT Walkers is a stunning, iconic translation of war movie logic into something vivid and refreshingly sci-fi, whilst the climactic lightsaber duel, although not as balletic as those in the prequels, has a churning psychological power that makes it riveting. More than any of the other films, it’s the simplest and most economic in terms of plot, with the feel of being three stitched-together episodes (Hoth, Dagobah, Bespin) of the kind of Flash Gordon-esque adventure serial that Lucas had in mind when he created the Star Wars universe. And yet overall this is a different beast, confident enough to let the storytelling develop without lurching from set-piece to set-piece with the ADD hyperactivity of, say, Attack of the Clones. Stripped down to essentials, this is a two-hour jump from frying pan to fire, but given the space to move by Luke’s training and the gloriously witty expedient of having the Millennium Falcon choose the worst possible time to go belly-up. It’s difficult to see Lucas bringing it to screen today without being tempted to add one or two more trailer-friendly bust-ups for the kids.
And as so often happens with apparently simple stories, the uncluttered structure teases out all kinds of ambiguities. Reversing the black/white simplicity of A New Hope, here bad things happen when the screen is brightest (the ice planet of Hoth, the cloud city on Bespin) whilst the dank, fetid swamp of Dagobah houses hope and salvation. This is a film designed to thwart expectation, and all certainties are off from the moment we realise the good guys are on the run and where one of the heroes can apparently be killed off. Obviously, two of the major twists are spoilt if you’ve arrived here via the prequels, meaning that the revelations about the true identities of the impish alien leprechaun and the tall dude in the black survive only on dramatic irony… although, incidentally, this renders one scene with the Emperor very odd indeed: it’s as if everybody is going out of their way to avoid admitting that Vader is Anakin, suggesting that the truth represents something of an elephant in the room for the bad guys. But simply by allowing such provocative undercurrents and subtexts within the context of making a romantic comedy cum chase thriller, Empire’s influence on blockbuster franchises is incalculable. Dark but funny, bleak yet properly heroic, this remains the touchstone for anybody who wants to add complexity to a mainstream series without losing that essential sense of exhilaration.
Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, US, 1983)
By rights, Return of the Jedi should be the definitive end to a cinematic saga…and certainly, my inner child is reminding me that back in 1983 I thought this was the absolute nuts. Yet, as an adult, trying to view it in context, it doesn’t quite cut it. The fundamental problem is not one of content – the film delivers everything it should do – but of structure. There are an awful lot of loose ends to be tied up here, but Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan get the emphasis all wrong, so that while we’re all waiting for the grand kick-ass finale, our heroes are AWOL.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong about the opening detour to rescue Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. It’s been clearly foreshadowed during the previous two films, and to wrap things up with Harrison Ford’s presence would be unforgiveable. But does it really need a whole thirty-five minutes to execute Luke’s plan? Jabba himself is a wonderfully monstrous creation, and his gangster’s paradise rich with memorably weird creatures (none more so than the Freudian nightmare of the Sarlaac), but Lucas dwells too long on the menagerie. It’s a whole fifteen minutes in before Han and Leia are seen, and another five before Luke arrives for real.
It’s all the more bizarre in that hovering over the entire section is the threat of the new, improved Death Star, which makes the rescue mission look like a wild indulgence. After the urgency of previous films, it feels like the rebels’ best fighters are all off on a bender. Weirder still, Luke has clearly spent ages honing his Jedi skills but then reveals he still owes Yoda a return to Dagobah: so where’s he been all this time? Yet the biggest insult to the Rebel Alliance comes when Luke, Han and Co finally get back to base were, despite bunking off, they suddenly get all the plum roles in an operation they’ve had no role in the planning of!
With some judicious reorganisation, this opening hour might have been exceptional. By all means start with the Jabba escapade, but deal with it in a brisk, witty Indiana Jones-style opener. Ten, fifteen minutes max, and now we’re off for real: Luke goes off to complete his training, while Han and Leia, back on the frontline, discover the imminent threat of the Death Star and work out how to destroy it. That’s surely a better use of screen-time than having the plan of attack explained by bit-part characters in an interminably sluggish lecture.
See, there’s nothing intrinsically bad about Jedi, it’s just grossly unbalanced in its weird shifts between dull exposition and frantic monster-mash. There’s the sense that, while Lucas knows there’s plenty of serious stuff to deal with, he’s also keen to his authority as the king of popcorn after giving too much freedom away during Empire. Surely there’s no other excuse for the emphasis on creatures? (I’ll charitably refrain from mentioning their merchandising potential). The Ewoks, in theory, are quite an admirable metaphor for arrogant totalitarianism brought to its needs by the little people it doesn’t consider a threat. Viewed through the prism of Lucas’ vision, however, what we see is a horde of cute teddy bears prancing about for laughs.
The film rallies in the final half hour, where Lucas finally twigs that this needs to be fucking excellent if it’s to be a worthy culmination of so many hours of movie: true enough of the originals only, and doubly so if you’re doing the six-film shift. So it’s a synthesis of everything that’s great about the earlier/later films: the heartpounding confluence of space battle, land battle and lightsaber battle that ends The Phantom Menace, a repeat of the Death Star attack from A New Hope, the role-reversal of Empire’s psychological battle with Luke now getting the upper (ahem) hand. And there’s the small matter of rhyming Vader’s end with his creation in Revenge of the Sith. It’s a shame that Anakin’s redemption is just as implausible as his fall (a few meek appeals from Luke and suddenly he’s a pussycat), although it has to be said Vader is a shadow of his former villainy throughout, largely eclipsed by the more expressive nastiness of Palpatine. Then again, given Vader’s visual appearance, David Prowse and Richard Marquand pull off a minor miracle by showing us the process of Epiphany via a close-up of Vader’s mask.
In other words, then, it’s a worthy but flawed end to a saga that has danced merrily back and forth across the line between those qualities since Episode I. It’s hopelessly complicated yet instantly graspable as a timeless fable. It’s frequently trite and mawkish yet stuffed with shafts of humour and insight. It’s somehow both lumbering and sprightly in construction, like a drunken dancer. All of these factors make Jedi an appropriate candidate for the finale, but personally I’m going to recommend to my children that they stick with the original order of release. A New Hope remains a far better introduction to the Star Wars world than The Phantom Menace, whilst its simplicity sits better upfront than being lost between the fireworks of Episodes III and V. Similarly, although Return of the Jedi works OK as an ending, its vague sense of anti-climax sits better halfway through, at which point you can pull the rabbit of the prequels out of your hat. OK, so the kids going to hate me for Menace, but it’s important that future converts suffer that same sense of disappointment that my generation did, so they can better appreciate the gradual rediscovery of Lucas’ mojo building up to the shattering finale of Revenge of the Sith. And then they’ll have been brought neatly back to where they started, and can rejoin the intergalactic merry-go-round once more.
Original review May 2005 @ Simon Kinnear