Sunday, 20 September 2015

Classic Film: The Empire Strikes Back


Director: Irvin Kershner
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams
Runtime: 124 minutes

With just a couple of months until The Force Awakens arrives in cinemas, I've decided to revisit all six Star Wars films to date. On the slate this month is Irvin Kershner's exemplary The Empire Strikes Back...

Recently voted #1 in Empire Magazine's list of the Top 300 Films of All Time, The Empire Strikes Back arrived in cinemas three years after George Lucas' breakthrough masterpiece redefined cinema. Under the weight of expectation, this second film in the saga somehow emerges as the superior film, an improvement on the original that expands the lore, universe and characters into something greater still.

Just because the Rebels defeated Tarkin and his Death Star above the moon of Yavin, doesn't mean the war is over. Far from it, in fact. Huddled together in an isolated and icy base far from civilisation, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the rest of the Rebel Alliance are still greatly outgunned and outmanned in the war against Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) and the Emperor.

When their secluded enclave is discovered by the Imperial fleet and destroyed, the Rebels scatter across the galaxy; doggedly pursued at every turn, they fail to realise that Darth Vader and his agents are slowly leading them all into a trap designed to turn their best man against them.

Rather than follow a single storyline as in the first film, incoming director Irvin Kershner splits the narrative across two paths; the first follows Luke and Artoo as the journey to Dagobah in search of the mysterious Jedi Master Yoda, whilst the second sees Han, Leia, Chewie and Threepio pursued across the galaxy by Darth Vader and his mammoth Super Star Destroyer. Throughout the entire film, the tone is noticeably more sombre; the Rebels are on the back foot, against seemingly insurmountable odds. Han and Leia, no matter how hard they try, can escape the long shadow cast by Darth Vader, as they duck and weave through dangerous asteroid fields and swarms of Imperial TIE Fighters. The action and pacing is spot on - you truly get the sense that this time they might not escape unscathed (spoiler alert: they don't).

And yet, the film still finds time to pause for quieter, more reflective moments. Luke learning about the Force alongside Yoda is rich with key mythology and backstory, whilst a brief visit to a strange and mystic cave affords the film one of its creepier and more profound moments. You get a grander sense of scale as Lucas' galaxy opens up exciting new worlds (Hoth, Bespin, Dagobah) and interesting new characters (Lando, Yoda, Boba Fett).

When viewed alongside the prequels in quick succession, it's immediately clear how gorgeous and uncluttered this film looks. By filming on location (Norway doubles for Hoth, just as Tunisia doubled for Tatoonie in the original) and by using practical effects (the Yoda puppet remains the best Yoda, none of that twirling CGI crap thank you very much), the film feels tangible and authentic.

Those stark white Bespin corridors aren't green screen; the actors are really there. Those towering Imperial walkers stomping through the snow? A combination of arduous stop motion and miniature models set against landscape paintings. These techniques may seen crude by today's standard, but they (in my mind) look better than any of that blurry shaky cam stuff you'll see in Man of Steel or Transformers. As a result, the entire Battle of Hoth sequence that sees the Empire launch an attack on the isolated Rebel Base is possibly my favourite scene in any movie ever. I could watch it over and over again on repeat. Each shot is so wonderfully framed and each minute motion on the miniatures looks a million times more real than their CGI counterparts from Attack of the Clones.

The same can be said for the lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader at the end of the film. By this point in the film, the emotion and weightiness to their confrontation is tangible. It hangs heavy in the air as Vader ominously stands atop the stairway and tells Luke "you are not a Jedi yet". The fight scene has some of the best choreography in the series; rather than flinging their blades around like they're made of wrapping paper, Luke and Vader's duel feels tough and arduous. I especially love the moment that Vader has look pinned on the floor after hacking and slashing into the guardrail, and you can almost feel the heat radiating onto Luke's face as Vader's lightsaber dangles mere inches from his nose.

It's the little details like this that make this film worth revisiting time and again. I've rewatched the prequels, but never with the same anticipation as these original films. When I watch Empire Strikes Back, I'm excitedly waiting for my favourite moment, shot or frame. And each time, I discover something new.

John Williams is once again in strong form with the score; Han and Leia receive their own little theme which I didn't realise I loved as much until I rewatched the movie recently. It's very classic Hollywood romance yet somehow still feels at home within the Star Wars universe. And who can forget the iconic Imperial March theme? It's the perfect soundtrack for Vader's final bombshell to Luke that has gone on to be parodied a million times.

Plus, Empire Strikes Back is the original film that has been blighted the least by CGI tweaks and alterations on the DVD, and Blu-ray versions. There is the odd addition here and there (a random AT-ST during the Battle of Hoth, Bespin's Cloud City has undergone a facelift and had some depth added to those crisp clouds and corridors). For the most part, it remains the 'cleanest' of the remastered originals.

I could go on for a while with this one, but I'll leave it here. Simply put, The Empire Strikes Back holds a very special place in my heart and I make that I give it a spin in the DVD player at least once a year. Some fans prefer the original, but its the darker, gloomier sequel where shit gets real that always wins me over.

Check back during November for my retrospective review of Return of the Jedi, and then again in December for my new release review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Thanks for reading. 

6 comments:

  1. Great review! This one is simply the best, and one of the best sequels ever made.

    Sonia | A Film A Day

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    1. Thanks Sonia! :) I couldn't agree more.

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  2. I absolutely agree. This is the best the franchise has to offer. It's a magnificent film.

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    1. Absolutely. Thanks for commenting Wendell :)

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  3. Would you rather spend a night in a Whale's Anus or have a Mouse spend a night in yours? Real Talk.

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    1. Interesting question - as you can see, I've taken a few weeks to really consider what my answer would be. I think I'll have to go with the whale - plenty of room to move around and I'm sure I'd get used to the smell. Thanks for commenting Anon! I look forward to more important questions and queries in the future.

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