Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" (1980)

"Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" (1980)
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher
Written by Leigh Bracket, Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas
Directed by Irvin Kershner

What does it mean that the best movie in a series is the one where the series creator had the least hands-on involvement?  Providing only the original story and overseeing technical production and the business side of things, George Lucas stepped aside somewhat for this second (or fifth, depending on how you look at it) "Star Wars" film, and the results are tremendous.

Set some time after the events of the first/fourth film, "The Empire Strikes Back" opens with evil Sith Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) searching the galaxy, obsessed with finding young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  Skywalker, along with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and a number of other rebels have set up a base on the ice planet Hoth.  When one of Vader's probe droids discovers their base, plans are made to evacuate and search for a new home.

After a massive battle between rebel and Imperial forces, Skywalker heads to the planet Dagobah to find Jedi Master Yoda, after the spectre of Obi-Wan Kenobi appears to him on Hoth.  There, Luke continues his training in the ways of the Jedi, and learns of the Dark Side of the Force.  Meanwhile, with the Millenium Falcon damaged, Han Solo, Chewbacca and the Princess are relentlessly pursued by Imperial forces.  They find themselves on the cloud city of Bespin, a mining colony run by Solo's old gambling buddy, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).  There, they quickly realize they've become the bait in an Imperial trap to ensnare Skywalker that could destroy them all.

"The Empire Strikes Back" is one of those all-too-rare sequels.  Everyone here brings their A-game.  The cast is at their absolute best, playing off a tight, breathlessly-paced script.  The direction is spot-on, cinematography more mature, sets are larger and more detailed, visual effects are huge and epic, and John Williams' score is one of the highlights of his already incredible career.  The world of "Star Wars" feels much bigger and much more real in this film than it did in the original.

"Empire" expands the roles and relationships of its core cast, and adds two new characters.  The bigger of the two is Jedi Master Yoda (Frank Oz), the diminutive green muppet who teaches Luke about the Force.  Oz's performance has become just as much a part of the cultural identity of "Star Wars" as Vader or Luke, with his wisdom delivered through odd speech patterns.  Williams' performance as Lando would become more of a cult favorite, but he's no less important to the narrative and gives a fine turn as a scoundrel-turned-politician.

The interplay between Han Solo and Princess Leia is at its absolute best in "Empire Strikes Back."  The back and forth banter between Ford and Fisher is gold, and would never be repeated at quite this level in a "Star Wars" feature.  In fact, watching the cringe-worthy, awkward and creepy "romance" between Anakin and Padme in the "Star Wars" prequels just serves to highlight how excellent the screenplay is for this film.  The teasing insults masking attraction in this film are natural, and plain fun to watch. But Harrison Ford once again steals the show as Han Solo.  There's such a mischievous life in his performances back in the day that is missing now.  Their final scene, in which Leia, as Han is lowered into carbon freeze, professes her love and he replies simply, "I know"... Plain excellent, all around.  It's the perfect climax for the subplot of these two characters in this film. 

Darth Vader gets a greatly expanded role, becoming less of an antagonistic force and more of a real character.  He's still evil and terrifying as shit, perhaps even more so than his handful of scenes in the first one, but the greater presence and interaction allows us to really love to hate him.  James Earl Jones' performance as Vader's voice is much more nuanced, with some spot-on delivery for great lines. 

When it comes to big action, "Empire" delivers in spades.  Instead of repeating the formula from the first film, "Empire" tips it in reverse, delivering its massive battle sequence at the opening of the film instead of the end, leaving the climax to a tense, close-quarters lightsaber battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  The Hoth battle sequence is the kind of set piece you'd find at the end of a movie, not the beginning.  It's 30 years old, and it still looks pretty friggin' awesome.  The asteroid chase, Vader and Luke's climactic duel in the under-levels of Bespin... this is a gorgeous sci-fi film. 

Of course, "The Empire Strikes Back" ends with what used to be one of the most talked about (and lampooned) plot twists of all time: Darth Vader reveals himself as Luke Skywalker's father.  It's hard not to feel like this huge revelation isn't deflated by having watched three shitty prequels about him.  Still, it's all exceedingly well-done, well-acted on the part of the cast, and an iconic moment.

With an intense, emotional story, great dialogue and performances and excellent special effects, "The Empire Strikes Back" takes its place not just at the top of the "Star Wars" heap, but also rightly as one of the best films out there, sequel or no.