Monday 4 May 2020

Never Tell Me the Odds: The Empire Strikes Back at 40

The Empire Strikes Back first hit cinemas forty years ago this month, so I wanted to take a look back at the film that redefined what was possible in a sequel, and proved that Star Wars wasn't a mere fluke.

The Empire Strikes Back opened forty years ago this month.
In the autumn of 1977, the odds of success were stacking up against Star Wars creator George Lucas; far worse odds than successfully navigating an asteroid field I daresay (3,720 to one, for reference).

A few months prior, Lucas' Star Wars rewrote the rulebook. Box office records broken, queues around the block, action figures sold out in advance – you've probably read or heard about it all that before.

There have been umpteen internet thinkpieces that deconstruct exactly how the original Star Wars changed the game, from visual effects and sound design to marketing, merchandising and more. Like it or loathe it (and there's plenty that fall into the latter category), Star Wars was one of – if not the most – influential films of the 20th century.

I don't envy Lucas, not in the slightest. Faced with the task of conjuring up a sequel to Star Wars, it would be hard to blame Lucas for baulking at the immensity of the challenge laid out in front of him. Instead, however, he doubled down – he's already made a masterpiece, but overcoming complications and cul-de-sacs on the eventual sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, which hit cinemas three years later would see it far surpass what had already been achieved with Star Wars.

After cutting a deal with 20th Century Fox that saw Lucas go against the grain and invest much of his own money for the sequel (say what you like about Lucas as a filmmaker, but he sure is a canny businessman – Fox would later rue this decision), the enormity of the stakes started to hove into view; success would see Lucas hit the jackpot, while failure would result in scorned fans, critical damnation and most likely, bankruptcy. 

Mark Hamill, George Lucas, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford
on set of The Empire Strikes Back.
From shooting in snowy Norway – which, at the time, was suffering some of the worst winter storms in decades, and left much of the crew marooned in a ski lodge – to a fire at Elstree Studios in England that caused the budget to balloon, it's safe to safe filming Empire was not a cakewalk.

After leaving Norway with a mere fraction of the film in the can, sequences that were going to be shot in the snow had to retrofitted and shot on costly sets at Elstree. By the time the film had wrapped, Empire was costing Lucas upward of $33 million, significantly more than the initial allocation of $18 million. It was, at the time, one of the most expensive movies ever made, but it would go on to make its budget back tenfold.

Given his hefty financial and professional stake in the film's success, it's incredible that Lucas took the risks he did on Empire; revealing all-powerful Jedi master Yoda to be a tiny green muppet critter who speaks in riddles and lives in a dank and foul swamp could have seen the film's tone teeter into parody or farce. An ending where Luke and his friends get seven shades of shit kicked out of them is equally as ambitious too.

Consequently, the initial reception was unsurprisingly lukewarm, with the film's philosophy of being 'leaner, meaner and darker' at odds with the expectations of critics and audiences alike, who I expect were hoping for another 'merry lark' where Luke Skywalker and his band of friends once again vanquish the nefarious Empire in rousing and bombastic fashion (like Return of the Jedi, I suppose). Instead, they were faced with this – an awkward middle chapter with no start or end, filled with dramatic gambits that see the swashbuckling Solo sealed in carbonite and shipped off to who knows where, or leave the fair Princess Leia bruised and heartbroken. 

File this one under 'images I can hear'.
However, later misfires would bring everything into focus, and the subsequent critical reappraisal has seen the mood on Empire shift. Unlike the long and winding prequels that would come later, not a moment is wasted in Empire, a film where the plot can be summarised on the back of a napkin. There are no arbitrary Sith wayfinders or Nubian hyperdrives to chase – the film simply follows the heroes as they are mercilessly pursued by the villains across the galaxy.

This simplicity ensures the action is instead driven by the motivations, emotions, actions and decisions of the characters, rather than a rigid 'object A leads to set piece B' structure. Han and Leia find love whilst evading the Empire; Luke is made to choose between competing his training and saving his friends; Lando gets tangled up in Vader's web, but his good-natured side shines through come the end. And Luke finally learns the truth about his parentage, transforming the whole affair into a sweeping family saga, in an unforgettable moment that would pass into film legend.

The visual effects are marvellous, particularly those employed during the opening battle on the ice planet of Hoth. With landscape paintings providing a detailed backdrop to shoot against, miniatures of the Imperial AT-AT walkers and Rebel snowspeeders were shot using stop motion, rather than the blue screen used for space battles on the first film. In comparison to the cluttered green screen and complete lack of physical sets employed by Lucas on the prequels, Empire is as good as flawless in terms of visuals and special effects. 

The film expands the universe in new and interesting ways; Yoda and Luke explore the mysteries of the Force, Han and Leia encounter strange space worms and visit majestic cities that sit amidst the clouds on Bespin, which offers stark contrast to snowy Hoth an swampy Dagobah, as well as arid Tatoonie from the first film. 

Maximum firepower: The Empire's imposing AT-AT walkers were created using stop-motion.

Similarly, the masterful puppetry used to bring Yoda to life still holds up to this day. This was another element beset by complications on set; not only was Frank Oz, who portrayed Yoda, unable to hear Lucas or the crew when stood underneath the raised set, but Mark Hamill struggled with and sulked at the prospect of acting opposite nothing but a wrinkly puppet for months on end. But the puppet is real and tangible, and remains untroubled to this day – unlike the whizzbang CGI Yoda first used in Attack of the Clones, which has aged as poorly as a block of gouda left on a roof in Nairobi.

Small and unassuming, kind and gentle, wise yet playful – Yoda is much more than just a mere puppet to many, and those quiet and intimate scenes where he teaches Luke to use the Force on Dagobah is quite possibly my favourite part of any Star Wars film.

Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, meanwhile, were famously wasted or hungover for most of the shoot. Fair play, as they still give great performances, along with Hamill and Oz. But at the time, I don't imagine director Irvin Kershner was too impressed while trying to extract said performances.

'Who's scruffy-looking?': Harrison Ford on set of
The Empire Strikes Back.
The cherry on this already impressive cake is without a doubt John Williams' score, which is without question his best work across the nine-film Skywalker saga. From the imposing 'Imperial March' and the enchanting 'Yoda's Theme' to the rousing brass and flutes on 'The Asteroid Field' and 'Hyperspace', it's a soaring journey.

Last year, I got the chance to see The Empire Strikes Back on the big screen for the first time, with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra performing the score live alongside. Safe to say, you haven't seen Star Wars until you've seen it with a live orchestra.

Plus, The Empire Strikes Back is the original Star Wars 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 – some of the changes even improve the show, which can't be said of the first film.

The Empire Strikes Back overcame the weight of expectation and set the standard for all sequels, by matching and then surpassing the original and establishing Star Wars as a sprawling saga that had legs. Forty years have passed, and nothing Lucas or other filmmakers playing in his sandbox, has improved on this perfect film. Talk about defying the odds.

Happy May the Fourth. I hope you enjoyed reading about The Empire Strikes Back. It's clear that it's my favourite Star Wars film, and I'm curious to hear what your favourite is. Let me know in the comments below.

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