By Marc S. Sanders
My absolute favorite film of all time is the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back.
It is a film that brilliantly reinvents the outstanding product that George Lucas introduced to the world three years prior. The dialogue is sharper for every single character from Han Solo (Harrison Ford giving a breakneck, adventurous performance) to C3PO (Anthony Daniels, masterfully giving the perfect and necessary inflections to a golden droid with a sole expression of worry, but still quite intelligent) to the man in black, Darth Vader (with David Prowse’s hulking physicality playing much more aggressively, and James Earl Jones’ voice giving a more sophisticated nuance to the character’s coldness). Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter, uncovered new ways to apply story to these characters above the incredible special effects of miniature models and matte paintings, as well as set design. Just look at the underground tunnels of the Hoth rebel base for convincing set pieces. Director Irvin Kershner knew how to apply the beats. A director and screenwriter make a perfect duet of cinematic filmmaking.
For one thing, settings were unlimited. While the first film showed a great contrast of sandy, sun-drenched desert and lack of development against the industrialized steel of a massive space station, Empire opts to introduce new, previously unseen environments for the characters to play in. A planet made of snow? Yup! There’s that. A planet mired in mud and swamps? Yup there’s that as well. A planet with a city in the clouds? Yup, got that too!
As the film opens, the Rebellion, heroically led by Jedi in Training Luke Skywalker (a terrifically believable Mark Hamill) is in hiding from the evil Empire on the desolate snow planet Hoth (filmed in Norway, accompanied by realistic matte paints in post production). The first battle sequence moves with a kinetic pace as the band of heroes are defeated and forced to retreat when the Empire’s giant four legged walkers (inspired by the monster films of King Kong and Godzilla) locates them.
From there, the film really lives up to its title as the heroes never win the advantage over the domineering bad guys. Han Solo with Chewbacca desperately escorts Princess Leia (a fiercely sarcastic Carrie Fisher to play against Harrison Ford) out of danger, only to find worse encounters to come as Vader remains hot on their trail. There’s a spectacular sequence that includes John Williams beloved score involving the Millennium Falcon in a crowded asteroid field. Meanwhile, at the request of Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness, in spirit), Luke visits the swampy planet of Dagobah to be trained by a mysterious Jedi Master named Yoda.
Assuming you can avoid focusing on all that you may already know of the film, including events that lead to discoveries in Empire, you have a film that never stops surprising you. Sure, by now we all know who Yoda is and what he looks like. What I remain curious about is Luke’s own image of what Yoda could be before it’s revealed midway through the film. Isn’t it a brilliant surprise and sleight of hand that Lucas, Kasdan and puppet master Jim Henson, with the voice of Frank Oz, to offer up the most unlikely person to be this great warrior or Jedi Master? It’s refreshing and it remains that way to me, no matter how many times I’ve seen the film. No matter how small or odd looking any of us could be in the eyes of someone else, our true strength and wisdom and bravery will show itself in unexpected ways. Yoda must be the most unlikely hero ever to grace a film. It’s smart storytelling when two entire scenes in Luke’s story arc come before the curtain is lifted on who Yoda actually is. Later, we are treated to a demonstration of the small creature’s strength and skills. It’s done beautifully with the absence of a lightsaber or any kind of attention-grabbing fight scene. The moment Yoda lifts Luke’s ship out of a swamp still raises the hair on the back of my neck. This scene shows that the mysterious “force” is more than simply sword fighting. There’s something more intrinsic in the willingness to believe in this element of fantasy. For us, I think it reminds us to believe in unlimited possibilities. I’m comfortable with that philosophy.
Masks are a theme I’ve always embraced in the Star Wars films. It’s not discussed enough actually. It’s ironic to me. Characters like C3PO or Darth Vader or Chewbacca and Boba Fett have these blank facial images to them. However, with the economics of Kasdan’s dialogue they say so much with brief statements of anger, despair (including a howl from Chewbacca) or worry. The expression physically never changes on C3PO’s face and yet I see different moods in the character thanks to the miming techniques of Anthony Daniels, the actor. A nod of the head will say something. With the practically silent Boba Fett agreeing to a contract with Vader, you see how methodical this bounty hunter dressed in dented armor really is. The character hardly gets any action scenes, yet you know how threatening he is. Every dent and scratch of his green armor tells a story. An aggressive walk shows a fear inducing Vader, one who is intolerant of any shortcomings. Sometimes Vader is simply matter of fact. If a minion fails in their assignment, he’ll force choke them and just walk away. As he duels with Luke, he simply puts his saber down when Luke is struggling with a massive wind current. We know that Darth Vader is cunning. So he hardly ever pushes himself further than necessary. We understand all of these characters’ emotions and motivations, and yet they are covered by masks.
The big surprise at the end of the film is the main crux that’s sustained the success of this sequel. It’s an absolute surprise out of nowhere but it seems to belong, as it is consistent with my belief in the mask motif throughout the whole film. There’s a veil draped over many developments of the film.
Allow me to digress. I’ve already discussed Yoda. Also consider other elements of the film though. Han decides to hide his ship from the Empire in the deep cavern of a large asteroid. Later, we learn it’s no cave. We also meet a charming new character named Lando Calrissean (Billy Dee Williams, who’s also great). He might not be what he seems as well. Since the first film came out, we’ve never had a full grasp of what or who Darth Vader is. He murdered Luke’s father and he’s someone or something in black. So, he must be the villain. That’s all we know, however. Yet, we eventually discover there’s something more. Because this is fantasy and science fiction with no roots in Earth based science, Lucas and Kasdan are well aware that they can color outside the lines and make up their own rules to this unfamiliar galaxy we are immersed in. Why not, actually? There are simply no boundaries.
A favorite scene of mine is when the Millennium Falcon makes a daring escape from that cave. It turns out to be the stomach of a giant slug…living in a rock…that floats in space! That’s the beauty of the original trilogy of Star Wars films, nearly anything could be put on the table, and it would be easy to accept and believe. In The Empire Strikes Back, almost every scene is layered and then further layered in imagination. Other storytellers would stop at just making this setting a cave and nothing else. It just might be shocking though. Put it this way, I’ll never forget taking my dad to see the special edition of this film in 1997. When the space slug revealed itself, dad burst out laughing. He didn’t see it coming. Kasdan hooks his audience with the furthest thing from your mind. When we got to the surprise ending, dad turned to me and actually asked me if he heard what he actually heard. When I showed the film to my daughter at age 6, her jaw dropped. How could a being dressed in complete black have any more depth to himself when I can’t even see what he looks like? The storyline of this film in particular is not aimed at any one demographic. Anyone could absorb the merits of surprise stuffed into this piece.
Empire is also admired for its firm stance to wrap up the film with an unhappy ending and cliffhanger. No other film has ever accomplished that so well. Much uncertainty is left to our imaginations. Will a character turn out to be dead? Is Vader’s revelation true, and if so then how does that explain the exposition delivered from Obi Wan? What does this “Jabba The Hutt” I keep hearing about actually look like? Was I looking at Vader’s brain or a human head underneath his helmet? What is Luke’s destiny? He didn’t do so well here. Could that lead to a worse fate? That scene for Luke in the Dagobah cave seemed quite foreboding, after all. Yoda implies “there is another.” Who could he be talking about, and what does that even mean? What about the conflict between the Rebellion and the Empire?
In the year 1980, the internet was not available as a means to spoil certain surprises and dismiss our own theories. We simply had the storytelling to work with. We had to wait three long years, speculating and discussing among our friends and family. It’s what maintained the strength of George Lucas’ space saga. The idea that we could play in the sandbox over a six-year period made these films more than just movies. They were events and they symbolized turning points in our lives. Personally, I discovered the magic of imagination. When I’m the writer the only rules I need to abide by are my own. That is most especially true with The Empire Strikes Back.