Friday, March 9, 2012

Star Wars—Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Midway through The Empire Strikes Back is a moment that affixes the Star Wars series as part of the great modern mythologies. It channels a past that we had never seen and a future yet unrealized. The scene starts in a small, fire-lit hut as rain beats down on the swampy terrain outside. After a fit of impatience by Luke Skywalker, the little green creature Yoda—who had until that point had been playfully chirpy—changes in an instant. With a forlorn look on his face, he shakes his head, looks up to the ceiling, and solemnly remarks, “I cannot train him. The boy has no patience.” There is pain and wisdom in his voice, as if he had just seen right through youth and inexperience and saw hope’s flickering light fade away. The moment has weight that resounds beyond the truth of its words. It recalls the vast history of the larger universe of the story while conveying a sense of a gravitas that the series previously lacked. And it is one of several moments in The Empire Strikes Back that strikes a deeper chord.

The Empire Strikes Back is frequently cited as one of the greatest movie sequels. That’s because it expands the first film’s world while offering more a layered story and fuller characterization. It also provides a different kind of experience than Star Wars. Lacking the simple structure and steady build-up that marked George Lucas’ original film, The Empire Strikes Back is a busier film. It is essentially one long chase peppered by endless visual delights and colorful characters. When it cuts away from one place and group of characters and takes to us to another, we want to go and see what’s happening elsewhere in the story. We become submissive to the rhythms of the narrative, simply wishing to keep up with its many moving parts. Watching the film again, I was struck by the apparent ease with which director Irvin Kershner orchestrates such a rich calamity of detail. Sometimes it manifests in big set pieces, such as a brilliant asteroid chase (which also boasts some of John Williams’ most stirring music). But there are also smaller moments that seem so right, as in one sequence in which a ship is pelted by an asteroid, which then cuts inside a different ship where the hologram of the officer on the hit ship cowers and disappears. Then there’s also the swamp planet of Dagobah, with its abundance of fog, vines, and creatures that together create a brooding atmosphere.

To be sure, The Empire Strikes Back is a film of many wondrous sights and sounds. But underneath it all is a story of despair and longing through the course of which we realize that we care deeply for these characters. This crystallizes in moments such as the one I described at the start of this review, or when Han Solo is frozen in carbonite. I noted in my piece on Star Wars last week that its showcase was the movement of its storytelling, whilst failing to mention much in the way of characters. Nearly all of the characters in Star Wars are proxies to broader symbolic ideas, but it’s worth noting that amid its lucid storytelling are a handful of memorable if not terribly complex characters. The Empire Strikes Back expands on what made these individuals so fun initially but also makes them full-bodied through subtle observation in quieter moments. For example, there is an almost sad plea for acceptance in C-3PO’s non-stop commentary, a raging insecurity underneath Han Solo’s confident veneer, and a deep frustration motivating Darth Vader’s obsessive search for Luke Skywalker. These characters and a host of others all become palpable inhabitants of this world and embedded into our imaginations in the process. By extension, the story takes on a greater significance and embodies universal struggles that most everyone can relate to.
Watching The Empire Strikes Back again confirmed and re-invigorated every joyous memory I had of it. It is a fluid piece of moviemaking that rings true on every level. Perhaps why The Empire Strikes Back is so revered is that it takes everything that was great about the first film—its penchant for detail coupled with grand, purposeful storytelling—and channels it into a rousing, but also intimate drama that operates so smoothly that you may easily fail to notice its mastery. It is not only one of the finest of sequels, but indeed one of the great movie entertainments to grace the screen. (Irvin Kirshner, 1980/1997/2004) ****

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