Tuesday, 4 August 2015

BlogalongaStarWars: Episode 2: Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

The battle is over, but the Wars have just begun. As amazing, exciting and innovative as A New Hope was, it was an introduction, a mere prologue to the expansion of its own universe which is executed on such an epic scale in its sequel. This is the birth of the space opera; the moment where the fun kids' film matures, bringing all the agony and adventure of adolescence to the movies in wave after wave of thunderously enjoyable exploits. This... is The Empire Strikes Back.

If that comes across as a little pompous, then apologies. But also, fuck you. The Empire Strikes Back deserves every ounce of pomp heaped on it over the last 35 years, and I'm not about to change that. It's not alone in being a truly perfect sequel, but it is one of a mere handful: how so few franchises have failed to grasp its aims, its achievements and the efficiency of its setup is a complete mystery. Every character and their connections to each other are deepened, the significance of every action is weightier and everything is accomplished with cast iron confidence, despite the inherent risks: front-loading a massive sci-fi sequel with what should be its climactic battle so that the final act's focus can fall on the relationship between a father and a son is so ballsy that over three decades later, most blockbusters still daren't try anything similar. You can blame Star Wars for the dumbing down of populist cinema if you like, but The Empire Strikes Back showed the world a smarter alternative which seems to have been largely ignored. Even George Lucas can't be held responsible for that.

Lucas' story reveals the true scope of his little space project, but Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan's script remembers that it's characters and friendships which are the hyperdrive that powers these films. Luke and Han's relationship is enviably solid, as evinced even in their first exchange of the film, and Han and Leia enjoy the most enjoyable unresolved sexual tension in cinema. It's a testament to the writing and acting that even when that sexual tension is resolved, we still can't take our eyes off them. Han is such a dick when he's trying to get in Leia's royal knickers that it's a painful reminder of how irrationally badly many of us behave while trying to impress a member of the opposite sex; as with most things, life would have been so much easier if only we were Harrison Ford.

Even Darth Vader is briefly humanised, that awkward shot of his boiled-egg bonce revealing him to be some kind of person after all, and it's the first step into the wider world of Vader's character that ends with his heroism at Return Of The Jedi's climax. Or maybe he's just trying to have a shit in peace for once without some underling reporting their latest failure, I dunno. Second-tierers Chewie, R2-D2 and C-3PO don't get much chance to evolve - in fact 3PO is so extraneous to the plot that Brackett and Kasdan have to blow him up to get him out of the way - but in their place comes Yoda, a miracle of puppeteering that could have derailed the film entirely had it been any less perfectly accomplished.
Iconic production design is still on-point too: the AT-ATs are unforgettable despite their colossal impracticality (don't the Empire have a TIE fighter equivalent of snowspeeders?), while Cloud City and Dagobah are beautifully realised, diametrically opposed settings. One of the saga's greatest assets is its uniquely distinct locations, never letting you forget where you are - geographically and emotionally - at any given point in the story, while emphasising the sweep of the narrative's universe. In an attempt to up the ante set by A New Hope's Star Destroyer, we get the Super Star Destroyer Executor, which appears to be powered by the very infernos of Hell, and Boba Fett takes over from Vader and the Stormtroopers as the galaxy's sharpest-dressed motherfucker.

As with the self-reflexive nature of A New Hope's David vs Goliath / Rebellion vs Empire / George Lucas vs Hollywood plot, here we see a young man learning the extent of his powers and working out how best to employ them. It's hard not to see Luke's failure at the cave as an ironic signposting of ill-advised decisions Lucas would make himself in the years to come, but for now the bearded genius is still just that. His decision to send his principal characters their separate ways at the climax is as audacious and inspired as all the others he's made up to this point, ensuring that a) the final act of his trilogy is primed and ready to unfold, and b) the green light for another film would be guaranteed by fan pressure, if nothing else. You might say, haha, that the force, right, is strong with thi- (*record scratch*)

"This is no cave"
The Falcon's escape from the jaws of the giant space worm thing - sorry, the Exogorth - is a perfect example of the trilogy's sense of humour and mischief; it's the epitome of the excitement of Han and Leia's adventures as counterpoint to the somewhat less thrilling goings-on on Dagobah. And the great thing about Star Wars is that any questions you might have about how such a beast might evolve or survive have been answered in intricate detail by people with exactly the right amount of time on their hands.

Lando's betrayal
It's semi-expected thanks to Han's casting doubt on Lando's character when he first mentions him, but the events leading to that particular dinner party on Bespin are no less traumatic. It seems like a missed opportunity for more Vader / Leia banter, but the focus on Solo - who at this point knows he's putting his life on the line for a fight he never intended to get into - makes him all the more the hero. What does Vader plan to eat, though? And more importantly, how?

"I love you" / "I know"
This line never made it into The Telegraph's recent 100 Greatest Movie Quotes Of All Time listicle, yet "I love lamp" did. Work that one out if you can.

The carbon freeze
Speaking of iconic production design, as I was, er, several paragraphs ago, is there any cooler representation of the vulnerability of the rugged action hero than this? I bawled my eyes out at this scene when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back, not because I thought Han was dead but because I suddenly realised he wasn't immortal and was overwhelmed by his sacrifice. Why yes, I did get picked on at school, why do you ask?

The Imperial March
Oh hi I'm John Williams and I've just tossed off the best piece of music in the entire history and future of cinema. Care for a mint?

What is the point of all this? I'll tell you. (short answer: no point)
Header pic by dark lord of the Sith Olly Moss

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