Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Heath Holland On...Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

by Heath Holland
Heath to The Empire Strikes Back: I love you.
The Empire Strikes Back: I know.

The Empire Strikes Back is the favorite of many Star Wars fans, and for good reason: it used the previous film as a jumping off point for a more mature, complex, and altogether darker story that expanded the mythology and--more importantly—the possibilities within this universe in ways no one could ever have predicted.

George Lucas has said in interviews over the years that working on A New Hope almost killed him, and that he was suffering from chest pains, hypertension, and extreme exhaustion. Feeling that he could accomplish more from the sidelines than as a hands-on director, he relinquished control of directorial duties to Irvin Kershner. He also isn’t credited with the screenplay this time, only the story. A lot of Star Wars enthusiasts (myself included) feel like Lucas is a fantastic idea man, but he needs actual writers and producers to help him craft his ideas into something mass-marketable, and I absolutely think ESB benefits from outside voices. This time, the screenplay was written by Leigh Brackett, responsible for penning some John Wayne’s more recognizable films between 1959 and 1970, and Lawrence Kasdan, who would soon become a screenwriting hero to a lot of us just learning to pay attention to the credits in movies.
The story that’s emerged over the years about the creation of the ESB screenplay tells us that George Lucas wasn’t happy with the screenplay that Leigh Brackett turned in, so Spielberg recommended Lawrence Kasdan to rewrite the script. In some versions of this story, Spielberg liked Kasdan’s script for the Belushi comedy Continental Divide so much that he had Kasdan immediately begin work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, but in other accounts it was Lucas who was so impressed with the screenplay that Kasdan brought back for ESB that prompted immediate work on Raiders. Either way, Spielberg and Lucas really loved what Kasdan was doing and it’s safe for us to assume that most of what we know and love about this movie (the characterization, heart, dialogue, etc) comes from Kasdan’s pen. The story for this film just crackles with electricity. A New Hope was space opera with classic archetypes, but this movie is filled with real people who exist in shades of gray and who have unique motivations. Kasdan’s involvement with the upcoming The Force Awakens has given a lot of anxious fans an added measure of relief, since he was so crucial in forming the latter two films from the Classic Trilogy.

Irvin Kershner seems like a really odd choice to director for the film. There is nothing on his resume before 1980 that makes you think of him as the perfect person for the job, but yet he is undoubtedly responsible for many of the things that people love about this movie. His film work up to this point had consisted of television work and a hodgepodge of screwball comedies, melodramas, and westerns with no singular breakout hit that makes him seem like a shoo-in for the position he was given on the film. Nor were there any huge hits to come after this great success, either; most notably, he helmed Sean Connery’s “unofficial” Bond film Never Say Never Again, and then later Robocop 2. And yet, ESB is filled with little touches that had to have come from moments on the set itself, rather than the screenplay. One of the touches to be cited a lot by fans is when Luke is inside Yoda’s hut on Dagobah, Artoo leans up on his tiptoes to peek into the window. It gives that little droid a humanity and believability that resonates either consciously or subconsciously with the viewer.
These people managed to create a film that isn’t just a good science fiction film or adventure film, but a good MOVIE. Like the best blockbusters were able to do back when studios still knew how to make them, ESB is filled with action and humor, romance and danger. You can be laughing one minute and then very worried or sad the next. A New Hope lit the fire in viewers everywhere, but Empire Strikes Back blew their minds all over the back of the theater. Everything is a step up from the previous film. You want cool ships and battles? How about the Battle of Hoth, which introduced us to snowspeeders and gigantic AT-AT Walkers? You want lightsaber fights? How about one between Luke and Darth Vader? You want more revelations of The Force? You get not just Obi-Wan and Luke, but also Yoda, as well as some incredible philosophy and a peek into the mystic spirituality of the Jedi themselves. You want character development? How about a peek into Darth Vader’s psyche and a peek beneath the mask? Plus we get not one scoundrel, but TWO with the addition of Lando Calrissian, a sweet smuggler turned administrator of Cloud City. Then there are the creatures, like tauntans, wampas, mynocks, space slugs. There are new alien races. There are bounty hunters. There’s BOBA FETT.

But all that coolness would ultimately fail to stand the test of time without deep characterization and believable performances. Everyone is coming from a place of honesty with realistic motivations. Luke has been making slow gains with his understanding and usage of The Force, but needs (and seeks) deeper training. Han has been caught up in the Rebellion, but he’s ready to go his own way because he’s got unfinished business with Jabba; his time is running out. Leia’s history as a diplomat has earned her a role within the infrastructure of the Rebel Alliance, but she’s torn between that role and her loyalty to her friends. Darth Vader, the face that launched a thousand (space)ships, has found himself in a crisis of conscience and is willing to overthrow his Master if he can recruit Luke to the Dark Side. NO ONE in ESB is a static character. Everyone is moving in a state of flux, arriving or departing, growing and changing. Harrison Ford complained for years about Han Solo, saying that the character didn’t really have anywhere to go, but I think he was wrong. It’s no secret that he didn’t want the Solo to survive the carbon freezing chamber, and this may be why we are introduced to Lando in this movie. For the record, I think Ford was selling Solo short, and Han is one of the most interesting people in the whole trilogy because he’s just a regular guy caught up in circumstances beyond his control. That kind of predicament is always interesting. I also think it took a long time for Ford to come around, but judging by the way he got choked up at Comic-Con this year when talking about how great it is to be back for The Force Awakens, it looks like he finally has.
One of the things that I really love and appreciate about this film is that time has passed between when we left these characters at the end of ANH and when we rejoin them here. I know there was a Marvel comic book that purportedly continued the adventures and bridged the gap, though that was thrown out almost as soon as the movie hit the screen. Does anyone remember the big green space-rabbit named Jaxxon? Those adventures can never be a substitute for actual film stories, and as much as Marvel has pushed their original “canon” stories this year, I still feel exactly the same way. They’re fun, and they certainly have their place, but they can’t begin to compare to cinematic adventures. Moreover, I LIKE that there are unanswered questions. I LIKE ambiguity, and not knowing where Boba Fett came from or who he was. I like that there were three years between the last movie and this one in the mythology, and that there are countless battles and adventures of the Rebel Alliance against the evil Empire which I will never see and can only fantasize about. These are the possibilities that led kids into the back yard with nothing but sticks and their imaginations, or even to their Atari 2600 to fight battles without names in hopes of coming one step closer to overthrowing the Empire. There’s an obsession now to have every single thing explained to us or shown, and I think that almost always fails to live up to what we have in our own imaginations. Never underestimate the power of infinite possibility. JJ Abrams’ feelings about storytelling and the “mystery box” give me tremendous hope that he’s the right man to bring Star Wars back, because these old Star Wars films were absolutely brimming with mystery, hope, potential—all things Abrams values about the mystery box.

I also love the wisdom and morality on display in this movie. There’s an official Jedi Church, which started in the UK about 15 years ago (probably as a joke), but it’s picked up a ton of steam and a lot of people take it seriously. There are roughly as many members of the Jedi Church as there are Scientologists in the world (nearing half a million). They believe that all living things are connected and that we are all born with an inherent sense of morality, and that satisfaction is achieved when this morality is pursued. That’s basically the foundation that Yoda introduces to us in this movie, and it’s pretty good stuff, at that. I’m no member of any church, but I do believe that if you want to succeed, you must “Do or do not; there is no try.” And when you don’t believe something can be done, “That is why you fail.” As a matter of fact, the little green puppet is just full of applicable wisdom. This film is where many of us first learned that fear and anger led to the Dark Side, and that the Dark Side was quicker and easier, and therefore seductive, but true happiness lies in the Light Side. How about that cave scene on Dagobah, where Luke confronts the specter of Vader, only to discover that it’s himself? That’s heavy stuff for a movie about laser swords and ships that go “pew pew!”
The last thing I want to mention about this revolutionary film is the way that it ends not only on a cliffhanger, but a pretty bleak one, too. It’s no secret that George Lucas was a big fan of the serials of his childhood, where each week the hero would be in mortal danger and you’d have to come back in seven days to discover how they were going to escape. However, translating that concept to the screen meant a THREE YEAR WAIT before fans could get any sort of closure. Do we have anything to compare that to now? Did we ever? We only had to wait a year between installments for both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, and those were based on books where you could have found out at any time what was going to happen. The same goes for Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, all based on books, none of them three years between chapters. The “To Be Continued…” tease that appeared on home video versions of Back to the Future wasn’t a part of the theatrical run, and there was only a year between Back to the Future II and Back to the Future III. I can’t actually think of ANY cinematic franchise that ended a trilogy on such a steep cliffhanger, and for so long.

True, it’s always darkest before the dawn, but this was darker than anyone expected. The end of The Empire Strikes Back finds Luke dealing with the revelation dropped upon him by Darth Vader, the loss of his hand, and the knowledge that he is nowhere near ready to battle Vader. We’ve learned that the all-powerful Vader humbles himself before an even more powerful Emperor, who we only glimpse momentarily. Han Solo is frozen in carbonite and taken by Boba Fett for his bounty. The Rebels are scattered and defeated, and their only choice is to go deep into hiding. And one question would linger above all others: When Luke leaves Dagobah to save his friends, Obi-Wan tells Yoda “That boy is our last hope.” In the dying red light of Luke’s departing X-Wing, Yoda looks to the sky and says “No. There is another.”
See you back here in a few weeks as the Classic Trilogy comes to a close and sets the stage for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Until then, may The Force be with you!


  1. Great article, helped add fuel to my excitement for the Force Awakens adventure. I know a Jedi craves not these things… maybe I’m Sith? No scoundrel, I’m going with scoundrel. Unlike you I may require some additional insight and back story into Wampa’s. Why you so angry? Is hanging prey some Hoth butchering technique? How do you melt that ice for water? Sad to think we may never know.

    1. There was a nine novel series ("Caverns of Confusion"), a 12 issue limited comic book run ("Red Blood, White Planet"), and two video games that focused on the Wampa. They flesh out his difficult childhood, turbulent teen years, and finally his new lease on life with his family on Hoth before his encounter with Luke Skywalker left him armless and unable to provide for his own family. They also reveal that he was best friends with Chewbacca in high school.

    2. Epic fail on my part. I think I may have even played the games. Their names were something like "The Wampa Unleased" which did a respectable dive into the backstory. Next was a shooter "Rogue Wampa" however not much new info was presented due to the games nature. Chewy did show up in the Falcon but the reference was lost on me. Guess I know how I'll be prepping for TFA.

  2. I love this movie, and I loved this article. I think this movie is interesting in the light of the philosophy in Episode VI, but that's for next month.

    The only cliffhanger I can think of that almost matches this one is the ending of Evil Dead 2, and even that could just be considered more a farce than a genuine cliffhanger.

  3. Great article, Heath - I continue to be impressed by your ability to find new things to say about movies most of us have had volumes' worth of discussions about. The timing is both appropriate and frustrating - last night I embarked on my Journey to The Force Awakens in which I plan to watch Eps I and II, all of The Clone Wars series, Ep III, Rebels and Eps IV, V and VI in order and I really just want to watch the OT right now cuz it's been a few years. Your article has made that itch even more festering.

    You are so right about the story-time gap between episodes adding to the mystique. It sounds like you've read the latest comics, "Star Wars" and "Darth Vader" in particular? In TESB I LIKED how Darth Vader had heard of Skywalker, but we had no idea really why - it was just kinda cool that Luke's own myth had spread enough for Vader to know who he was, presumably as the kid who blew up the Death Star. I liked the idea that they were meeting for the first time in Cloud City. The comics are fun, but the idea of them having other confrontations in other situations just makes the story feel smaller somehow. That's a problem with the PT in general, of course - it occurred to me last night that wouldn't it have been so much cooler if Episode I had started, much like ANH, with C3PO and R2D2 already friends and in the middle of shit? Who knows how they got together? Who needs to?

    Anyway, I digress - great piece about the greatest Star Wars movie!

    1. I'm familiar with the comics, but I haven't read all of them. I've picked and chosen what really caught my eye. There are A LOT of comic four or five series going on at the same time. They're FINE. They're even kind of fun sometimes, but it really does make for an awfully cluttered universe. The thing that burned me most was the novels. I started reading those when they really got going in 1991 with a book called Heir to the Empire, and I read every single SW book that came out until around 2008, at which point I literally could not keep up with them anymore. It started as a trickle, but eventually became a flood, and floods aren't fun. They DO shrink the universe, as you say. It's one thing to get a fix when there is a dearth of something, and those books were reminders of something we loved that the culture at large had put on a shelf. Since Dark Horse lost the license to Marvel, I can't believe how much they've published.

      Also, if you're really jonesing for the OT, I say you just watch the OT! Then you can always go back and start at the PT afterward.

    2. Heheh - I tried telling myself that, Heath - I even considered trying the 4,5,1,2,3,6 sequence - but I'm a sick person and I can't resist my compulsion to watch everything and in chronological order. Delayed gratification can be a good thing - it's like I'm doing cinematic kegel exercises.

      I got into the books but only for a few years, though I just checked a chronological list and apparently read about 20 of them books in that short time and then yeah, god, they really kept going, eh?

      How do you feel about them throwing that whole EU away? Personally I'm glad - even though The Thrawn Trilogy always felt like a good sequel, I have no desire to see that story or any of the others regurgitated on the big screen.

    3. I think they HAD to throw the old EU away. It had become a gigantic mess, and it kept getting worse and worse because there didn't seem to be much quality control in the latter days. About a third of those books are absolutely great, a third were fair, and a third were really boring and didn't keep the spirit of the movies they came from. I suppose this new rebooted EU will also eventually have to be swept clean, but for now there seems to be some real thought (on the book side, not the comics) about keeping things under control and making sure everything fits. I should also say that for all my complaining, I'm totally a Star Wars novels and comics fan. Criticizing this stuff is like talking about a family member who does things you don't agree with. You can be disappointed in some of their decisions, but you still love them and have their back at the end of the day.

  4. I'm going to really "nerd out" here, but...

    For the most part, I think the "special edition" of Empire is the most successful of the three. The changes are mostly cosmetic, and I really like how they open up Cloud City in certain shots. There is one change, however, that I absolutely hate. In the original edition, after Luke chooses to drop into the chasm rather than join Vader, we see Vader walking with his entourage. He rasps, "Bring my shuttle." James Earl Jones packs so much frustration, anger, and sadness into those 3 words that they perfectly convey Vader's disappointment in his failure to lure Luke to the dark side.

    So what does the special edition do? It eliminates this beautiful little moment and now Vader says some crap like "Alert my Star Destroyer to expect my arrival" in a completely flat voice. AAAAAAAAARRRGH! I don't know about you, but when I saw Empire for the first time, I wasn't thinking, "Hmm. Good flick. But they never actually SHOW Vader travelling from Bespin to his ship! Wouldn't the movie be better if they did?"


    1. I thought I was the only one who hated that dialogue alteration that much. Ugh is right.