by Heath Holland
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.”