From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.
This one is from May 4th, 2015, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker…
Nobody anticipated the success of the first Star Wars movie. George Lucas’ paean to the adventure serials he grew up loving as a boy, daring tales of dashing heroes fighting evil empires in fantastical worlds, was to a cynical, gloomy late 1970’s anathema, certainly to studio heads reared by Godfather’s & French Connection’s, and indeed to many of Lucas’ illustrious luminaries, the American ‘New Wave’, making such legendary pictures. The people thought otherwise.
A New Hope was an instant success, and triggered a new age not just of science-fiction filmmaking but helped shape the modern blockbuster. A sequel was inevitable and by this point, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, was being considered as the middle point of an epic trilogy telling the story not just of Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi Knight, but his connection to Darth Vader.
Such a decision helped shape the key iconic moment everyone remembers from Empire, helped fashion the second film into, many have come to agree, not just the best Star Wars film to date but one of the finest pieces of science-fiction, adventure cinema of all time.
It would be easy to suggest a major factor why Empire works so well is Lucas was much less involved both from a directorial and screenwriting perspective, but that’s a tad unfair; A New Hope was perfectly strong and that was all Lucas.
He chose here, while establishing ILM as a new visual effects powerhouse in the wake of the first film’s success, to hand direction duties over to Irvin Kershner, one of his old film school mentors and a seasoned veteran. While this proved to be a shrewd choice, with Kershner’s solid hand teasing out deeper and more nuanced performances from the leads than any other film in the saga, the real credit should be saved for both Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan. Brackett turned in the first draft before her untimely death to cancer and is oft-credited with laying down the sparky interplay between Han & Leia which works so well, but Kasdan really punches the piece to another level – in tandem with the direction, their combined—and Lucas’ in fairness—serve to expand Luke’s personal journey and put lots of flesh onto Vader’s bones, developing the hero & villain into less archetypes, much more characters with shades of grey.
What they do have to sacrifice is the sense of a narrative which fully has a sense of conclusion, but if anything that turns out to be a strength of Empire’s; not only can it build to a genuinely open ended climax in which our heroes have been given something of a kicking, but it equally gives the whole picture and edge, a darkness, which the first and third films lack. Empire feels more rounded, more grounded, and deeper.
Luke’s Jedi training on Dagobah both allows at first for an eccentric introduction to Frank Oz’s wonderful Yoda (arguably one of Star Wars’ most iconic figures, brilliantly animatronically portrayed), and later lots of foreshadowing of Luke’s journey, personal revelation, and quasi-spiritual exploration of the Force; you have maturer writing of both Han & Leia, with Harrison Ford & Carrie Fisher brimming with chemistry between one another that spills off the page (allowing for Ford’s wonderful “I love you!” “I know…” improvisation that has gone down in movie legend); and Vader goes from simply being a manifestation of fascist evil to a personalised father gone wrong, a tainted soul, with the revelation of being Luke’s father easily the first true *wow* twist in blockbuster cinema. Imagine a reveal like that not being spoiled today. The Internet would shatter, let alone break.
Of course while it doesn’t build to a traditional climax, nor does it skimp on the action or the production values. The budget went up 50% after A New Hope’s success and it’s all on screen – right from the huge opening battle sequence on the ice world of Hoth, with giant dinosaur-esque AT-AT’s storming across the snowy landscape, to the Millennium Falcon flying through asteroid fields, all the way to the inventive location of the Cloud City of Bespin, allowing for doubtless the strongest lightsaber duel to date – Luke vs Vader in the gloomy city bowels, riven with tension and mythological scope. Kershner retains that sense of production scale, alongside superb performances from the cast, plus despite the darker texture yet again points of comedy – usually from Threepio & Artoo once again, but which Kasdan’s script gels neatly with moments such as Lando Calrissian’s betrayal or Luke’s hand being severed.
Several years ago, the aptly named Empire Magazine had a reader poll and they voted The Empire Strikes Back as the greatest film ever made. That does prove how the people shouldn’t be trusted with these kind of things, because of course it isn’t, but there’s certainly a case for this making the top 100. Empire grows deeper, increasingly masterful and indeed beautiful as the years roll by, especially in the right format, and nothing will take away the wonderful symbiosis of script, direction, performance and production magnitude to continue making something mythic but yet beyond mere archetype.
At the very least, Empire is a rare example, maybe the finest example, of a sequel greater than its predecessor. The Force is the strongest here.