Sunday, July 26, 2015

Review: The Empire Strikes Back

Directed by: Irvin Kershner
Produced by: Gary Kurtz
Screenplay by: Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan
Story by: George Lucas
Executive Producer: George Lucas
Cinematography by: Peter Suschitzky
Production Designed by: Norman Reynolds
Edited by: Paul Hirsch, George Lucas & Marcia Lucas
Costumes by: John Mollo
Music by: John Williams

Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness & James Earl Jones

1980 / 124min / Rated PG (for Sci-Fi Action Violence)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Empire has the Rebel Alliance on the run as Darth Vader hunts down young Luke Skywalker. Continuing the path set for him by Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke finds Jedi Master Yoda who begins instructing him in the ways of Force so that he can become a Jedi. Meanwhile, Han Solo and Princess Leia try to outwit the Empire as Darth Vader hopes to capture them in an attempt to lure Luke to him so that he can lure him to the Dark Side of the Force.

Following the incredible and unexpected success of Star Wars, George Lucas set out to continue his space saga. Having negotiated ownership of any sequels in his deal with 20th Century Fox, Lucas had full control of the series. As a result, Lucas did what most producers don't do; he personally funded the entire budget of The Empire Strikes Back.

Due to his role of having to juggle multiple production aspects, Lucas chose not to direct the Star Wars seque, approaching his former-college professor Irwin Kershner to direct instead. Kershner initially refused, feeling that no sequel could come close to being as good as the original. It was Kershner's agent who convinced him to accept.

Lucas met the screenwriter Leigh Brackett to turn his handwritten treatment into a screenplay. Lucas was unhappy with Brackett's first draft but she died from cancer before they could make revisions. Lucas reworked the script himself, adding the surprising revelation of Darth Vader's identity and deciding that it was "Episode V", not "Episode II" as he fleshed out the saga's backstory. Working with Kershner, writer Lawrence Kasdan wrote subsequent drafts and approached the sequel as a darker, more adult-theme story, stepping away from the light adventure of the original film.

The best decision that Lucas and company made while making The Empire Strikes Back was to not fall into the trap of many sequels which is to try to copy the original film. Instead, Empire charts it's own storytelling path with a darker, more engrossing story that steps out of its predecessor's shadow. On it's own Star Wars is a fun, light-hearted Science-Fiction adventure. But it's The Empire Strikes Back that transforms the series into a sprawling space opera packed with power and emotion.

Instead of attempting to duplicate Star WarsEmpire instead builds upon the story established by it's predecessor and goes deeper into both the mythology and the characters themselves. Each of the characters is pushed to grow and developer beyond where they are at the start of the movie, something that is essential when telling an ongoing saga. Here, it's done in a way that's both natural and quite engrossing.

The story splits into three parts, with none being given greater dominance over the others. It's difficult to say which plot is the A-story and which is the B-story, as Kershner's direction of Brackett and Kasdan's script finds excellent balance in the three stories, seamlessly interweaving them together until they all come together in The Empire Strikes Back's powerful finale. Such an approach risks each storyline starting and stopping and never gaining momentum, but that's not the case here thanks largely to Kershner's sure-handed direction.

Luke's storyline finds him delving not only into the powers of the Force and his own training to become a Jedi, but forces him to examine who he is and the way that he has lived his life. The introduction of Yoda is superbly handled. The detail of the character's appearance is so masterful and his characteristics so engaging (thanks largely to a vocal performance by Frank Oz) that it's easy to forget that the character is merely a puppet. Mark Hamill's performance is spot on as he not only conveys Luke's growth and inner-conflict but does so against a puppet. The exploration of the Force and it's powers is well-handled and adds to the mysticism that was only touched upon in Star Wars. Indeed, Luke's storyline forms the heart and soul of the picture.

The storyline following Han and Leia as they're pursued by the Empire is equally great, packed with action in addition to character depth. The interaction between Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher is natural, continuing on from the wonderful chemistry they displayed in Star Wars. The romance that gradually develops between them is quite believable, given a strong dose of tragedy and heartache in the film's ultimate climax. The bickering and exchanges between Han and Leia (and also Threepio) is witty and fun, especially as the Millennium Falcon rattles around them in action sequences that don't miss a beat, providing plenty of thrills and visual treats while always keeping the focus on the characters.

The introduction of Billy Dee Williams's Lando Calrissian comes late in the film but works very well, especially considering it's importance in the overall plot. Williams does a formidable job of conveying Lando's conflict as he tries to protect his friends while also having to work with Vader. Despite the character's decisions, Williams makes Lando a likable and welcome addition to the series.

The third storyline is that of Darth Vader as he pursues Han and Leia with the ultimate goal of capturing Luke. Vader is given a much larger and more menacing role than in the original film. James Earl Jones's voice work is superb while David Prowse always conveys the appropriate amount of intimidation in every scene. The Empire Strikes Back belongs to Darth Vader and it's due to this movie that he has become such an iconic villain.

The convergence of the three storylines is well done for a finale that is pulse-pounding and leaves you on the edge of your seat. The action is steps above that of Star Wars, likely because the emotional investment in this movie also takes a step up. The lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader is gripping and a pleasure to watch, culminating in one of the most iconic moments in movie history. Even after growing up with these movies, having seen them countless times, Vader's shocking revelation is just as powerful as it was the first time I saw this movie.

I've heard some say that they have issue with the lack of resolution at the end of Empire. I can understand that problem as it's one often faced by movies that fall in the middle of a trilogy. Yet, I find The Empire Strikes Back so fun and engrossing that I find the lack of resolution only adds to it. You're left wanting more and that's always a good feeling.

John Williams returns with the London Symphony Orchestra to deliver another powerhouse of a score that features larger-than-life themes that expand upon his work for Star Wars. His theme for Darth Vader is unforgettable, while his Yoda theme is touching and delicate. Meanwhile, the often-overlooked love theme for Han and Leia is sweeping and powerful and one of my favorite themes from the franchise. The score for Star Wars is a classic and sets a high standard for all movie scores to strive for, but I believe that Williams's score for The Empire Strikes Back is a superior work because he builds upon what he has done before.

It's a tribute to George Lucas and his team for The Empire Strikes Back that they put together such a timeless movie that managed the seemingly impossible; made a sequel that is superior to the original. Every aspect is greatly improved. The visual effects are excellent, with the chase through the asteroid field especially incredible to watch. The acting and the writing are also improved, something that's hard to do considering the quality of Star Wars. The dialogue is greatly improved upon, thanks largely to Lucas taking a step back on the later-script work and letting others hand that aspect of the writing. The performances grow yet are always packed with drive and energy, maintaining the same sense of adventure from the first film. Everyone here is at the top of their game.

It's been a long time since I first watched The Empire Strikes Back and to this day I can't get enough of it. It exceeds it's predecessor in every regard, no difficult feat considering how strong a movie the original Star Wars is. It's not only my favorite of the entire sage, but one of my all-time favorite movies.

Story: 5 / 5
Plot: 10 / 10
Dialogue: 5 / 5

Characterization: 10 / 10
Development: 10 / 10
Acting: 20 / 20

Pacing: 5 / 5
Tone: 5 / 5
Overall Enjoyment: 10 / 10

Music: 10 / 10
Visuals: 10 / 10

TOTAL: 100 / 100

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