Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

On a wet September evening, or thereabouts (research reveals it to have been sometime after the first week in July) in 1980, my father and I - once again - headed out to see the much anticipated sequel to STAR WARS (see May 27th blog) at the Odeon Colchester. It was with a certain amount of excited anticipation, and also slightly idle curiosity - for I already knew most of the plot of this film: "Star Wars 2" as it became known in the media up until the Spring of 1979. Little did I realise at the time that what I was actually seeing was in effect "Star Wars 5", and the central story of a nine film saga.

Making our way with some difficulty through the wet weather, we also passed the ABC in St. John's Street (then still functioning as a cinema) and continued on eventually into Crouch Street to see the film, but had arrived rather later than planned, after the film had already started. This however, was in the dying days of roving performance times, when latecomers could enter the cinema and stay for the next screening. When Dad and I stumbled into the darkened Screen One therefore, it was to the sight of Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and See-Threepio crowded inside the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, nestled within a cave inside an asteroid which is "not entirely stable!"

In honour of that first occasion therefore, I will tell the story from that point onwards, then regress to the beginning.

Moments after settling down into our seats, we are taken from the mysterious asteroid cave to a semi-submerged X-wing fighter on the swamp planet of Dagobah, where Luke Skywalker emerges to begin his training as a Jedi knight, in the most seemingly unlikely of places, and the most seemingly unlikely of Jedi Masters: the initially comical and eccentric but quickly preachy and philosophical midget Yoda.
The original conception of Yoda (as seen in the original Marvel Comics adaptation), prior to eleventh hour amendment by George Lucas and Stuart Freeborn.

I will come to the defence of Yoda here, against my own later opinion of the character as much as anything. George Lucas was thrown into something of a dilemma during the making of Star Wars with the fate of Luke's previous mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. With the character due to train Luke in the ways of the Force (in the later sequels), Kenobi had barely anything to do after a certain point in the plot, so Lucas took the audacious move of killing the character off (at the hand of Darth Vader), a decision which understandably upset Sir Alec Guinness at the time, but with hindsight it actually helped to make his character all the more memorable.

However, come The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas needed to create a new Jedi Master to teach Luke, and thanks to the combined genius of Stuart Freeborn and Frank Oz, the character of Yoda (a genuine original that Lucas has since slightly disparagingly referred to as "just a puppet") was brought to life, and perfectly suited the ethereal nature of both the character and the world of Dagobah itself. In the hands of Buddhist-leaning Irvin Kershner, Dagobah could almost be taken for a state of mind rather than an actual place, such is the mysticism. Subsequent attempts (in the Star Wars prequels) to take Yoda out of his native habitat and to also "quantify" the Force have been, in my view, misguided, when the mysticism should remain intact. The very elusiveness of the Force is one of the secrets of the whole success of the Star Wars saga.

The Jedi training scenes on Yoda may appear sluggish (there were apparently many other scenes which were cut - see right), but they are usefully counterbalanced by the continuing chase of the Millennium Falcon by the Empire, having evaded their clutches by the most sneaky of methods. Just when he thinks he has led them off the trail, Han Solo takes his friends over to the sanctuary of Cloud City on Bespin, where an old friend is in charge. Unbeknownst to them however, a bounty hunter knows some of Solo's tricks, and pursues the Falcon on its journey to Bespin: Boba Fett.

Fett was a character introduced quite early in 1978 to Star Wars fans (first seen in the one-off "Star Wars Holiday Special"), and from initial appearances I perceived him to be one of the good guys. This soon becomes patently not the case, but for whatever reason, he has become quite a cult figure among fans, more so in some ways than Darth Vader.

The old friend of Solo's meanwhile, is the Cloud City administrator, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), more in truth a gambler and smuggler - and a bit of a charmer with the ladies - than a "responsible leader", and intended by George Lucas as an "earlier" version of Han. Indeed, Billy Dee Williams was one of those who originally tested for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars.

One element that Calrissian is also not beyond is deception, and before our heroes know it, C-3PO is dismantled into several pieces by stormtroopers, and our heroes are finally caught by Darth Vader, who has been led on to the trail by...Boba Fett.

Lando's reasons meanwhile for "betraying" Solo have been purely mercenary, of course, but it's a deal which he soon begins to regret, and not just because of the involvement of Boba Fett, or the added betrayal of some boy named Skywalker. The two disparate elements in the story therefore suddenly come together in exciting fashion, and despite the dissuasion of both Yoda and the "ghost" of Ben Kenobi (a fleetingly seen but always memorable Alec Guinness), Luke deserts his Jedi training on Dagobah to rescue his friends, whom he perceives to be in danger. But - ahah - this is all Vader's trick, to lure Luke towards him.

And we realise by the end of the film just why Vader is so interested in young Skywalker, in a plot twist that few if anyone could have guessed.

How I first learned of the surprising twist in the tale.

Before that however, Han Solo is "tested" for carbon freezing so that "the Emperor's prize" can also go through a similar fate. The scene in the carbon freezing chamber I find rather sluggish and melodramatic, but it brings out the best in Harrison Ford. Famous for being allowed to improvise much of his dialogue in the Star Wars (and subsequent) films, he is at his most inventive in The Empire Strikes Back, with he and director Kershner changing the emphasis from Leia being emotionally stronger than Solo, to the other way round. There were those - Lucas in particular - who were nervous about the use of Ford's "I know" ad lib, as it was perceived to be unintentionally comical, but on previews of the film the only laugh it received was a laugh of recognition. It is for me, one of Harrison Ford's best and most underrated performances - up there on a par with Mosquito Coast and his Oscar-nominated performance in Witness - where he makes the character of Han Solo his own - and receives a semi-martyr's death for good measure, before the film's main climax.

If Ford takes most of the acting honours - closely followed by the always excellent Mark Hamill and Frank Oz - then in terms of characters the film belongs to Darth Vader, turning a character from what in the first film was something of a hatchet man for both the Emperor and Grand Moff Tarkin, into a black avenging angel of doom - and much more than that, we later realise.

The scene where he chops Luke's hand off (quite carefully edited for a "U" certificate film) and then tries - and fails - to turn Luke to the dark side, watching his own son fall down a massive chasm on Cloud City, has some of the poignancy for me of the end scene of King Kong, where you felt sorry for the monster in spite of everything.

We are nonetheless still on Luke's side as he tumbles down to the bottom of Cloud City and hangs - on one hand - to a slender weather vane, and appeals to Ben Kenobi for help. But Ben "cannot interfere", especially where family matters are concerned, so Luke uses the Force to turn to someone closer to home - hinting at a plot twist later to be revealed in Return of the Jedi.

Thus a curious love triangle reaches its closure, as Luke, in love with Leia from the beginning, is rescued by her - reversing the pattern set in Star Wars - but her heart now belongs to Han Solo, whom they both resolve to rescue, as too does Lando Calrissian and, of course, Chewbacca. The film ends therefore, beautifully poised with our surviving heroes severely humbled but having reached the sanctuary of the Rebel fleet, and looking out from the edge of the galaxy, to an uncertain but hopeful future.

Roll credits. End of film.

We sit sheepishly in Screen One, hoping that the Odeon staff will let us stay in the cinema for the next screening that evening, and after one audience has rolled out and another rolled in, we sit through the familiar "Rank Screen Advertising", and the trailers for some other fantasy films (none which I remember now), before in due course, the second screening is under way.

And so it begins.

Opening in a very similar fashion to Star Wars, a single Imperial destroyer comes into view, but this time with several Imperial pods flying out of the cruiser like angry wasps, to the various planets littered all over the galaxy, in search of the elusive new rebel base. One such vessel flies fortuitously onto the sixth planet of the Hoth system, out of which pops a sinister looking probe droid which floats across the snow like a fly, in a skillful visual effect created by the newly named Industrial Light and Magic.

Before Luke Skywalker - the boy himself - can check the status of the "meteorite", an angry snow creature assaults both him and the "Tauntaun" he is riding. This scene was apparently filmed as a means to explain the reason for Luke's badly scarred face - as Mark Hamill himself suffered facial injuries in a car crash in 1978, after the making of Star Wars.

Han Solo meanwhile, unlike Luke, has successfully returned from snow patrol duty, and emerges through the main rebel hangar (filmed on the then huge new "Star Wars Stage" at Elstree) past his wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca who is trying to fix a flagging Millennium Falcon, to tell the base commander, General Rieekan (Bruce Boa) that he has to leave to pay off an old debt to Jabba the Hutt - still unpaid since the first film. Listening in on this conversation, none too pleased at Solo's decision, is Princess Leia Organa, for whom clearly something has sparked between her and Solo in the intervening time, no matter how prickly.

Who will she choose? Luke - in a forbidden (by George Lucas) romantic scene...

...or Han?

Before the romantic complications can be sorted out however, Luke is rescued out of the snow by Han, and once these slightly sluggish opening scenes on Hoth are done with, we get to the nitty-gritty of the story of the story, when the aforementioned probe droid is disintegrated (by self-destruction) to just a fragment, and the alerting signal to the Imperial fleet is all the proof that Darth Vader needs that the Rebel Alliance, and Luke Skywalker, is there.

So the resulting impressive battle in the snow with giant evil Trojan Horse-style Imperial Walkers, was actually at the end for me, rather than the beginning - which probably helped - followed soon afterwards by a thrilling asteroid field chase, after the crew of the Millennium Falcon discover to their shock that the ship's trademark lightspeed is faulty! Using his wits and his cunning, Han Solo navigates the Falcon through a Grand Canyon-like gorge to evade the dogged Imperial TIE fighters, and finds temporary refuge in a mysterious "cave"...

... which as they say, is where we came in.

Mischievously, I watched a few minutes extra, and really wanted to see the rest of the film over again, but Dad eventually persuaded me out of the cinema.

On the way back home (by which time the rain had eased off) that night, I told my father of the various imaginative ideas I'd had for sequels ever since Star Wars first set me buzzing in 1978 - including one where I imagined a 9-year old (modelled on myself of course) befriending Princess Leia and helping the heroes to defeat Darth Vader. In later years I thought this to be just childish whimsy - or was it? Little did I expect that 27 years later, another Star Wars film would indeed feature a 9-year old as its pivotal hero.

So after all the anticipation, and indeed all the euphoria after the first film, the new follow-up in the "continuing" saga was enthralling, quite dark, and with some unexpected plot developments. But is also, on reflection, a very sluggish film, deliberately so at times, trying to focus on characters and philosophy rather than plot, and characters bicker with each other - C-3PO is reduced to a figure of ridicule, and Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia is still spiky and feisty but also petulant, rarely feminine or princess-like, and even reduced on a couple of occasions to a screaming heroine. Above all, the Empire strikes back indeed, with a vengeance, but it is not as much FUN as Star Wars.

So at the time for me, the excitement of the Star Wars whirlwind had blown its full course. Perhaps on reflection I wasn't entirely happy with the way things were mapping out for the characters; I certainly had always envisaged Luke Skywalker as Princess Leia's true love rather than Han Solo, and to see the way things were going was secretly disappointing - although that particular romantic triangle was later resolved in rather ingenious fashion.

Come 1980 however, my childhood days in Aylesbury were over, and rehabilitated in Essex, there came a new distraction just round the corner: football. Colchester United and in particular, Ipswich Town's successful UEFA Cup winning season in 1980/81, gave me another popular culture hook to latch on to, away from the cinema, and galaxies, far, far away.

It was a fashion which, by and large, did not swing back the other way until seven years later, when I got round to seeing Return of the Jedi.

With the director of the excellent first Star Wars sequel, the venerable Irvin Kershner.


Mark said...

Another excellent post Joe and a wonderfully insightful and interesting commentry on The Empire Strikes Back. This was the last of the Star Wars films that I saw from the original trilogy having seen Star Wars on TV first then Return of the Jedi at the cinema, so I guess it never had quite the impact it should have, especially Vader's reveal to Luke of his true heritage. But despite that, I largely agree with your praise for 'Empire' and while it doesn't for me quite pip Return of the Jedi to the post as my favourite of the original trilogy, I can certainly understand why for many this was their favourite of the three.

Derek said...

Thanks for another great post!

I first got to see "Empire" on a Saturday in October 1982 at the ABC cinema Great Yarmouth - my father took me. It was on re-issue for school half-term holidays. Funnily enough, "Star Wars" was on TV that week for the first time! I remember this being quite a magical day for me - "Empire" was an incredible experience on that huge screen in that cavernous ABC auditorium. I suppose I caught it at the right time, being a 10 1/2 year old sci-fi/fantasy fan. The film remains my favourite of all of the SW films, and after "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", my second favourite film ever. Talking excitedly about it on the bus home to my dad sticks in my mind as well! Heck, I even have fond memories of the video rental release in December of 1984...getting a copy booked for rental from Norfolk video in Gorleston-On-Sea High Street, and rushing down to get it from the shop! :)

Carla said...

This is also my favourite of the three. I remember going to see this on opening weekend in 1980. I went with a friend of mine and we stood in a line that stretched from the Malco Cinema door all the way across the vast carpark out to the street. I remember we were wearing matching tops and the odd-looking new fashion of 'baggy jeans'--complete with very high waist, pleats in the front, and extremely tight hems at the ankles. :) I also recall being shocked that DV was Luke's father. I was convinced it was trick of the Dark side and a big fat lie! And when I told my then brother-in-law that big secret, he was both incredulous at the news and very pissed off at me for the spoiler! Mmwa haha!

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films