Harrison Ford Han Solo
Carrie Fisher Princess Leia
Billy Dee Williams Lando Calrissian
Anthony Daniels C-3PO
David Prowse Darth Vader
Peter Mayhew Chewbacca
Kenny Baker R2-D2
Frank Oz Yoda
Alec Guinness Ben Kenobi
Jeremy Bulloch Boba Fett

Directed by Irvin Kershner. Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan (based on a story by George Lucas). 1980. Running time: 124 minutes.

empire5.jpg (11915 bytes)"What critics have failed to realise from the beginning is that the Star Wars films are made for young people. These films were intended for 12- and 13-year-olds … My intention has always been to make a Saturday afternoon serial for children. People forget what the movies actually are," George Lucas said in an interview shortly after the first preview screenings of The Phantom Menace were held - and the first lukewarm responses by die-hard fans and professional critics filtered through. And he is right, of course.

The movie that made us temporarily forget this fact was what is called Episode Five by overly dedicated fans: The Empire Strikes Back. "Empire was the best," a character in Kevin Smith's brilliantly funny Clerks declared. "Luke had his hand chopped off, discovers Darth Vader is his father . . . one has days like that . . ." Despite this, there are several reasons why fans (like myself) maintain that Empire is the best entry in the series thus far. (Okay, so I haven't seen The Phantom Menace yet: it only starts in South Africa on 25 June. However, I suspect that the prognosis is in: The Phantom Menace is more like Return of the Jedi than any of the other movies in the Trilogy. Something tells me I should take the word of the various fans and critics who maintain this is the case. That's no problem really, Jedi was fun in its own way.)

For starters, Empire isn't really plagued that much by the "weaknesses" of the other Star Wars films. To be honest much of this has to do with George Lucas' own weaknesses as a film director.

The dialogue.
Empire benefits from a script by Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan, in case you didn't know it, also worked on other blockbuster movies directed by Spielberg and Lucas like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi. But his best work is the stuff he wrote and directed himself, like Body Heat, The Big Chill and Grand Canyon - movies more character and plot-driven than your average summer blockbuster. Lucas was never a whiz at dialogue and while some of the clunkier lines in Star Wars may have made their way into popular culture, I suspect that their sheer cheeziness has a lot to do it. ("You can write this stuff," Harrison Ford famously complained about the Star Wars script to Lucas during filming back then, "but you can't make me say it.") Lucas also admitted in interviews that he finds the writing part of moviemaking to be the most difficult and tiresome. In contrast, Kasdan's dialogue has a natural feel and rhythm to them. It may not be Shakespeare, but Kasdan no doubt helped flesh out the characters in the Star Wars universe a bit more and for once Han Solo, Leia and company didn't feel like cardboard cutouts anymore.

The plot.
The plot structure of Empire is all topsy-turvy. One immediately senses that there won't be any conventional happy ending. The movie kicks of with the type of scene that would have been the climax of any conventional summer blockbuster, namely the epic battle on the ice planet. This comes as a surprise. It ends with the lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker - in a sense, it is Star Wars inverted: lightsaber duel/climactic battle (in Star Wars) as opposed to climactic battle/lightsaber duel (Empire). Ending the movie like it did took guts and popping the surprise of Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker's father turned the saga into something more. With its revelations about the Good/Dark Side of the Force it added additional drama to what would otherwise have been a conventional good vs. bad guys scenario. It added shades of grey - Luke too can be turned to the Dark Side, etc.

The effects.
Some of the effects may have been cutting edge back then, but doesn't seem too good today - but the film (made with an enormous budget) to my mind has the best effects of the entire series. No obvious matte lines like those around Jabba's barge in return or the fake-looking rubber creatures in the Cantina in Star Wars here. When it came to sprucing up the films for the Special Editions, The Empire Strikes Back - Special Edition was the one that had the least "make-overs". In fact, the most altered scene is the one in which Luke is held captive by a creature in an icy cavern. By revealing the creature, the scene actually has less of an impact than in the original version. (Lucas maintained that they wanted to show the creature originally, but was limited by time and budgetary considerations.)

empire3.jpg (12502 bytes)No Ewoks.
Or any other cute comic relief creatures like the reportedly "cute" Jar Jar creature in Phantom Menace. Having a bunch of furry teddy bear creatures barge unto the scene halfway through Return of the Jedi makes one feels as if you're in the wrong movie. Lucas kept going on about the "fairy tale" aspect of the series - but those nasty little Ewoks made diabetics reach for their insulin shots. Okay, so Empire has Yoda, but Yoda doesn't really count, does he?

The humour.
Despite being thought of as the "darkest" film in the series, there is humour in Empire, but it is never obtrusive at the expense of the rest of the film. Unlike Jedi and some other bits inserted in the Special Editions. Instead of going for the annoying robot irritating the bigger one until the bigger one hits it on the head, Empire finds its humour in the dialogue and its characters.

The Pacing.
Empire director Irvin Kershner has more of a feel for pacing. The visual flow in it is smoother than in the other films. Lucas is too afraid that audiences will grow bored with what is happening about goes for what critic Pauline Kael calls "loudness and smash-and-grab editing", careening from one climax to the other. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the three plot lines towards the end of Jedi. Kershner instead lingers on both the characters and settings without audiences becoming restless. In fact, fleshing out the human element is what ultimately makes Empire stand out head and shoulders above the other films.


Copyright © June 1999 James O'Ehley/The Sci-Fi Movie Page



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