With the glut of sequels in theaters, either making their way to theaters, or being planned, I thought about sequels as a whole; why they were good or bad, and my thought always came around to “The Empire Strikes Back”. Why did it work? In this space, I’ll list a few reasons.
1. “The future … the past. Old friends long gone.”
MJ Simpson, in his review of “Wamego Strikes Back”, had a point to make about the three act structure of “Empire”. He talked about a “back-to-front” narrative which detracted from the enjoyment of the film for him, and that “A New Hope” was the superior “Star Wars” movie (humble beginnings, character development, triumphant conclusion). “Empire’s” structure is classic three-act, but in reverse order with the great battle occuring at the beginning of the movie, character development filling the second act, and then a scattering of the characters as a lead-in for “Return of the Jedi”.
“A New Hope” completed a circle in the narrative. To perpetuate the saga, a new story was developed in “The Empire Strikes Back” that continued until the end of the first act of “Jedi”. “Empire” officially ends with Yoda’s death (or Han’s rescue depending on your point of view) in “Jedi”. The third movie begins with Endor and the attack on the new Death Star. [Note: It had taken 200-plus viewings of “Empire” and “Jedi” for me to come to this conclusion. I definitely did my homework.]
2. “Never tell me the odds!”
Early on in development, Lucas decided to finance the sequel himself, through his own resources and a bank loan, thus giving him control of the negative should he decide to seek the distribution participation of Fox. I wondered what notes or edicts Fox would have handed down had they financed the movie. “George-Baby, we looked at the script and uh … what do you think about not freezing one of our heroes, and not cutting off one of our hero’s hands?” At its core, “Empire” has an indie heart and sensibility. Lucas, as well as screenwriters Brackett and Kasdan are never afraid to deal the characters we’ve come to know and love a crappy hand: The pesky hyperdrive, Luke’s injuries, the failed battle of Hoth, the alarmingly high mortality rate among the Empire’s finest officers at the hands of a pissed-off Sith Lord, the Empire’s takeover of Cloud City, Lando’s betrayal of Han, Han’s torture, Han frozen in carbonite, the failed rescue attempt, and so on.
We can identify with characters that are brought to this level. In “Star Wars”, they are mythic super heroes, defeating their enemies against incredible odds. Here they are human beings up against insurmountable odds because the danger is real. They screw up miserably and their mistakes cause as much trouble for themselves as for the Empire.
3. “You could use a good kiss!”
Luke, Leia, and Han develop into multi-dimensional characters with bravura and feeling. Romantic interplay suggested so many possibilities for future storylines that we’re left completely heartbroken by a lack of emotion and passion in “Jedi” (of course with Lucas’ assertion of Luke and Leia as siblings effectively eliminates any dynamic of tension and ruined the relationship of Solo and Leia in “Jedi” as well). Never had their chemistry been so easy and palpable than the scenes of sexual tension on Hoth.
4. “I saw a city in the clouds.”
The colors in “Empire” are never simple primary, comic book shades, but elaborate mixes of blue and green. Blinding white for the Hoth sequences, blue hues for inside the Rebel base and the Super Star Destroyer interiors, Misty greenish-blue for Dagobah, and a scheme of white, hot orange, and blue for Bespin. Peter Suschitzky uses (or leads the viewer to believe he is using) ambient and practical lighting. A cursory glance at the trilogy’s technical specs reveals the use of 65mm for visual effect sequences. ILM had learned much from “Star Wars”, where antiquated VistaVision cameras were used for the visual effect sequences, so the object to image ratio was a little out of whack. Here the effects merge almost flawlessly (save for some of the awkward matte lines in the original film’s run) with the live action.
Suschitzky had previously shot the BBC production, “All Creatures Great and Small”, and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. After “Empire”, he would become David Cronenberg’s principal DP, again lighting his movies in a naturalistic way.
5. “That’s two you owe me, Junior.”
After “Star Wars”, Lucas swore he would never direct again. In interviews, he complained of the excess worries of serving as his own producer, and then having to direct all the actors, arrange his shots, and manage productions with somebody else’s financing only to realize he couldn’t quite accomplish what he wanted. With the endless compromise, he famously pursued other directors before decided on his old USC instructor, Irvin Kershner.
Kershner had a fairly unremarkable Hollywood career at that point, directing cult faves like “Eyes of Laura Mars” and “The Flim-Flam Man” with George C. Scott. Because of his past relationship with Lucas, like producer Gary Kurtz, he never found himself in the position of being a yes-man to his former padawan, and effortlessly directs “Empire” with zeal and enterprise. He was left alone to create some of the best scenes of drama and conflict in the entire franchise, extracting the best performances from all of these actors.
Unfortunately, “Jedi’s” director, Richard Marquand, was not in any such position, and quite possibly because “Empire” suffered budget overruns in excess of $10 million (of Lucas’ bank loan money), Lucas selected a more passive director for the second sequel.
6. “He’s all yours, bounty hunter.”
The hype preceding Boba Fett, the result of Kenner making limited edition Fett action figures during the initial run, and his first appearance in a cartoon short during the Holiday Special, swelled with his live action arrival in “Empire”. He was even given his own theme. After “Empire”, the kids went nuts snatching up the action figure, the Halloween costume, and Fett’s ship, Slave 1. My best friend, Matthew, had the Slave 1. I had the Falcon. We used to trade toys over long weekends, and I’d always hesitate giving him his ship back. He could keep my Falcon for weeks if he wanted to. I wanted the Slave 1 with the secret compartment and the Solo-in-carbonite figure that came special. Very cool.
In Lucas’ revision of the original trilogy, the voice of Jason Wingreen is removed and replaced by Temuera Morrison, thus the Fett-Man has a bit of a Kiwi/New Zealand twang to it, less British nasty, and more Peter Jackson menacing. Cool frame grab for anybody who’s interested: that’s Jeremy Bulloch (original trilogy Boba Fett) in the flesh grabbing Leia when she screams a quick warning to Luke as he tries to intercede on their behalf.
7. “I’m looking for a great warrior.”
Luke’s first encounter with Yoda reveals a playful side to the lovable green muppet. Yoda plays games with Luke, mocking his sincerity, and dashing his hopes for a more amiable, camera-friendly mentor. Yoda throws all of Luke’s gear, vandalizes Artoo, and tries to make off with a lantern. In his hut, he cooks up some stew which grosses Luke out until he throws in some cilantro, then Luke is okay with it. Luke argues and stammers, and finally Yoda reveals his true nature and scares the bejesus out of Luke with that creepy “You will be … you will be.”
As with Fett, character erosion in “Jedi” wouldn’t be complete without Yoda. What was once a spritely, doddering, cranky Jedi Master became a complete failure of our Social Security system. It would have been more fitting for Luke to simply pull out the plug than listen to his coughing, sputtering pronouncements.
8. “It is the future you see.”
“Empire” plays recklessly with drama, being a logical progression from the events of the first movie. There’s an enormous sense of danger in the concept of space travel. One of my favorite, recurring bits in the movie is seeing the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon sway and rock dangerously as Han attempts to out-maneuver tie fighters through the asteroid field. It gives us more of a sense of doom from mismanaged technology. If “Star Wars” was the dream, then “Empire” was the nightmare.
Of course, “Return of the Jedi” brings all of these possibilities and progression to a grinding halt, stagnating this story’s universe and giving us lame retreads. The flow of logic dictated in “Empire” would have resulted in a complete change of the events in “Jedi”.
What we should have seen was Han’s rescue on Tattoine conducted solely by Leia and a tactical team that did not involve Lando (who would have been coordinating a serious counter-offensive against the Empire back home); Han, true to his nature, would have dropped Leia like a bad habit and gone back to his smuggling ways. Luke would have continued his training with Yoda and came to the disturbing realization that his nature does indeed lie with the Dark Side. In true samurai fashion, he would have killed his father and taken Vader’s place at the Emperor’s side (just as the Emperor kept suggesting). Lando would have been killed in combat. Leia would have to track Han down and together they would have to fight Luke and either side would lose. “The Empire Strikes Back” thrived on a deep sense of dramatic conflict and betrayal that should have continued in “Jedi”, but alas we get Ewoks taking down the Empire with sticks and stones.
9. “You have your moments.”
A music score that improves on the predecessor? John Williams does an amazing job updating the first movie’s themes, adding instruments with the use of then-unorthodox arrangements. Everything he composed before “Empire” led straight into a torrent of some of the most intense orchestrations ever heard in film at the time. The complete score from the original soundtrack record (a 2-volume set) could be played as a stand-alone composition not necessarily attached to a movie production.
Music editor Kenneth Wannberg did an admirable job cutting down the score to fit the movie, but so much is left out, as well as an unusual Dolby mix that leaves out key instruments, distilling the most dramatic, adventurous moments into the movie. To have the original score at home evoked so much of the movie. At the time, for most people, it was the only way to have a souvenir of the movie until it either played on TV, or you could afford a VCR, but even then, you had to wait a few years since the window for video distribution after theatrical release was much greater back then.
Highlights of Williams’ score include “The Imperial March”, “The Asteroid Field” (greatly truncated in the movie), “Yoda’s Theme”, “Han Solo and the Princess”, and “The Battle of Hoth”. These aren’t simple music cues, but full compositions that play like pop songs. A classically trained musician such as Williams would have composed for hours at a time, constructing the pieces with the fervor of any songwriter. This is why soundtrack records today are lame by comparison, they’re usually made up of an arbitrary listing of cues taken directly from a movie in release with no substance or soul.
10. “I have a bad feeling about this…”
I was dreading this last bit. The byline would be “ruminations”; I can ruminate all I want until the cows come home, but it doesn’t change what happened, or could have happened with the trilogy and the remaining franchise of prequels. Looking at “Attack of the Clones”, I could see that Lucas wanted a first sequel to “Phantom Menace” that had the dramatic one-two punch of “Empire”, the setbacks, the failures of the characters, and a story lead-in to “Revenge of the Sith”. In some ways, he succeeds. In other ways, he fails miserably; part of this is due to his refusal to build practical sets. His walls were only six feet high, blue screen dominates every shot, and his actors were tightly blocked, hindering many of the performances.
Though Lucas swore he’d never direct again, in the intervening years, he saw the technology of visual effects arrive through “Jurassic Park” and the “Terminator” sequel. He felt, as he grew older, he could handle the directorial chores and he changed his mind. While his skills as a world-class photographer remained, he lost the human touch. As a result, most of his characters come off as stiff or cartoonish depending on the situation. There’s no subtle balance here, and the best moments of the entire prequel trilogy don’t come until the last 20 minutes of “Sith”; unfortunate that it all led up to that with hardly anything worthwhile that occured before.
“Empire’s” legacy remains unsullied, even after countless revisionist touches. I find it telling that aside from the changes to dialogue, and the cloud city additions, embellishing the visuals for a movie that came out some twenty years before didn’t hurt the story, and “The Empire Strikes Back” remains as the best of the six movies. Not bad for a sequel.