A week after sitting down with Mertmas to watch “Star Wars”, we’re settling in to watch “The Empire Strikes Back”. No agonising, impossibly long three year wait for him. A mere seven days (five of them at school, mind) and he’s here, innocently sitting on the brink of one of the best cinematic experiences of his life.
“Star Wars” may have started the whole thing but, for me, “The Empire Strikes Back” is where the “Star Wars” legend begins. It’s the film which really cements the mythology of the entire saga. Things which were merely hints and inferences in the first movie are enriched and explored in this peerless sequel. Often teased as offering a story structure of ‘a middle, a middle and a middle’, it’s also a film which boasts not one, not two but three brilliant twists and unlike its predecessor which takes a little while to really get going, “The Empire Strikes Back” comes out swinging.
The lights are dimmed, Mum and little sister have been banishes to another, smaller TV far, far away. It’s time to turn up the volume and savour that glorious fanfare…
When the rebel base on Hoth comes under Imperial attack, our heroes are forced to flee, becoming separated in the melee. Guided by a vision of Ben Kenobi, Luke Skywalker heads to Dagobah to seek out the mysterious Jedi Master Yoda while, pursued by the might of the Imperial fleet, the rest of the gang make a desperate escape through an asteroid field, hoping to find sanctuary on the planet Bespin.
Summarised like that, it sounds like such a small movie and it many ways it is. It’s also the best demonstration of why the original trilogy worked so well and the prequels fell so flat. At its best – and yes, “The Empire Strikes Back” is Star Wars at its very best – it is the story of a small band of plucky heroes told against the backdrop of a vast galactic conflict. The prequels tried to tell the story of an epic galactic coup d’état against the backdrop of a small group of wooden characters.
From the very beginning, “Empire” makes brave and interesting story choices. Picking up three years after the triumphant destruction of the Death Star at Yavin IV, we immediately learn that it hasn’t all been medals, smiles and rockin’ droids since their famous victory. Instead, the rebels have been on the run, nomadically planet hopping time and again to avoid the Empire’s forces. The stinger in the opening crawl is that evil lord Darth Vader (not Sith lord – the Sith weren’t mentioned on screen at all until “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”) has become obsessed with finding young Skywalker. I’ve never really thought about it before but that’s quite a leap from the first film (not as much of a leap as the Rebellion being under the leadership of Luke Skywalker which the opening crawl states only for the film to abjectly fail to back it up). It makes sense with the benefit of hindsight (or the detriment of prequel knowledge) but I suppose at this point we’re meant to assume Vader’s just super-pissed off about the whole trench battle/ spinning off into space thing? That was kind of more Han Solo’s fault though – and he ends up inviting him to dinner!
For years, my VHS copy of “Empire Strikes Back” was my go-to option whenever I was setting up a new sound system for myself or family or friends, precisely for this opening scene. The sound mix of the probes going in all directions was the perfect way to test out all the speakers plus there was the not-insignificant bonus of once you’d started watching it, who in their right mind would switch it off?
The film opens on Hoth, a snow and ice world that couldn’t be more different from Tatooine if it tried. Mertmas is immediately entranced. Maybe it’s a UK thing – in a temperate country where snow isn’t exactly unknown but nowhere near as common as the dominant Dickensian picture postcard perception of winter would have you believe – but snow is exciting and the younger you are the more exciting it is. Bringing with it the promise of unexpected days off, snowmen, snowball fights and – of course – Christmas (no, I will not check my Northern Hemisphere privilege), it magnifies the innate appeal of Star Wars and takes it to a new level.
The script, by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, is fantastic. Peppered with quotable moments and snappy dialogue even more than the first film and I’d bet most fans could recite the film from memory. It’s hard to think of a moment in “The Empire Strikes Back” which isn’t iconic. From the AT-AT assault on the rebel base to Han Solo slicing open the Tauntaun and kickstarting a million spring roll dinner time games. Like the footsteps in the Death Star, some of the most evocative memories of “Empire Strikes Back” are sound related, from the sing-song beeping of the Imperial Probe Droid to the dubstep musicality of Vader and Luke’s lightsaber duel proving once again Ben Burtt is one of the saga’s most valuable and oft-overlooked heroes.
Luckily, Mertmas has zero questions about the inexplicable brother/ sister kiss between Luke and Leia but then again, that only really becomes weird in “Return Of The Jedi”, especially when Leia claims to have ‘always known’ Luke was her brother. I mean, she initiated the kiss, so…? It’s symptomatic of the fact that although Lucas may have had the broad strokes of the story mapped out in advance; much of the detail was made up on the fly, especially the Skywalker family. While it’s a possibility, there’s zero indication that Darth Vader ever had a previous identity and no amount of convoluted guff about ‘points of view’ can ever comfortably retcon much of what Obi-Wan says in “Star Wars” with what is revealed in the later films. Even the prequels struggle to reconcile the contradictions and non sequiturs.
Speaking of the prequels, one of the characters who suffered the most from their ham-fisted storytelling was Yoda. It’s only when rewatching “Empire” that you remember how awesome he truly was. The initial introduction as an eccentric swamp dweller is note-perfect, cleverly humbling Luke Skywalker and chastising his anger and arrogance, providing the first of the film’s marvellous twists as Yoda schools Luke repeatedly in both the Force and his attitude. The pain of the CGI’d ineffectual prequel Yoda is washed away by the expert puppetry and performance of Frank Oz. Mark Hamill is also brilliant in these scenes and you completely buy his relationship with Yoda because everything physically exists in that set. More than any other sequence, the Dagobah scenes with Yoda demonstrate the superiority of practical sets and in-camera effects over CGI. You can never not tell that prequel Yoda is a CGI creation (although the puppet originally used in the theatrical “The Phantom Menace” didn’t even look like it was Yoda – a member of the same species maybe but not Yoda). The puppet in “Empire” on the other hand is exquisite. Vital, alive and wholly, physically real; it has a soul in the way the CGI one can never replicate.
New characters are introduced thick and fast, and with such lavish detail despite appearing on screen for mere seconds. Of course, they would have epic and extended lives as action figures outside the scope of the films in the only expanded universe that ever really mattered: your own imagination. Boba Fett may get all the headlines, but no Star Wars fan hasn’t imagined the further misadventures of IG-88, Bossk, 4-LOM, Zuckuss or Star Wars’ own Mr Bump, Dengar. On the Rebel side, the smoothest man in the galaxy, Lando Calrissian, is the most notable addition – teasing audiences that he was intended to replace Han Solo in the group dynamic.
Vader is arguably at his most bad-ass here. Promoted from the role of henchman in the first film, Lucas’ decision to place him firmly at the heart of the trilogy’s crystallising story arc (which only really happened during the writing process of “Empire”) pushes him front and centre as the focal villain of the piece. It’s his time to shine and shine he does. His no-nonsense management style certainly means there are plentiful promotion opportunities in the Imperial Space Navy and his negotiation tactics are undeniably effective. He looms large over everything that happens, whether he is on screen or not and only his brief holo-Skype with the Emperor hints that there are worse things in the galaxy than him.
There’s such momentum to the whole film that sitting back to reflect on it, it seems impossible that it’s not four hours long. There’s so much great stuff and never a dull moment. Even during the quieter scenes, there’s so much to enjoy. The Millennium Falcon’s attempted escape through the asteroids is astonishingly exhilarating by today’s effects standards and downright miraculous in the 1980s. It could write and write and write about the bits of this film that are great and why they’re great but this article would end up being as long as the film itself and given a choice between reading this and watching the movie again, I would unreservedly tell you to shut down your computer and go watch the film. Once you do, though, come back and let me know your favourite scenes in the comments below!
“Empire” is also the film which was meddled with the least during the Special Editions and mostly the additions and tweaks are unobtrusive and beneficial to the story. Even George knew better than to interfere with the best film, ironically the one which he had the least hands-on creative involvement with. Lucas may have altered the film a little but let’s pray he does not alter it any further. John Williams’ already amazing score unbelievably manages to add more iconic themes to its already ample armoury. The Imperial March is a thing of bombastic beauty and I can’t be the only one who can instantly hear the score the moment I think of the Falcon’s flight through the asteroid field.
The lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke is the crowning summit of a film which is basically an uninterrupted climb to greatness. There are no dips or pauses as the film powers to its incredibly downbeat finale. Han being encased in carbonite and taken by Boba Fett is bleak enough but the devastating reveal of Luke’s parentage is entirely unexpected and transforms everything that has come before it and everything to follow. Unless you’ve watched the prequels, of course.
For Mertmas, who’s seen “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” years ago in the cinema when it was re-released in 3D, it still comes as something of a surprise. Not an OMG moment or a shock, but certainly enough to provoke an ‘Oooooh!’ of intrigue at this sudden revelation. Remember, at this point you don’t know that Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker are one and the same, only that Vader has dropped a Maury Povich-style drama bomb on the suddenly southpaw Skywalker.
Something strange has happened during this rewatching of the film. I’ve not only been watching it myself but I’ve been watching Mertmas watching it, and reliving the fresh excitement and amazement through his eyes. I can feel the hurt and injuries of the prequels becoming fainter. The faint new hope watching “Star Wars” rekindled grows stronger and the way I used to feel about “Star Wars” is returning. You might say there’s been an awakening.
The film’s over and Mertmas is agape. It may never have occurred to him that the bad guys sometimes win and that all the good guys can hope for is to escape.
‘Is that the end?’ he asks. ‘No,’ I reply. ‘There is another…’