Brad’s April Escape (May Edition)
May 21 - The Empire Strikes Back
Throughout the month of April, I ran through 20 films of the Steven Spielberg-George Lucas-John Williams Cinematic Universe, listing random items from each film that stood out to me.
Rob and I decided to reserve my entry for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) for today, the 40th anniversary of the film's release here in the United States.
The Empire Strikes Back - An Introduction
There's no way I will do this film justice in one simple blog post. Its impact is well-established. It's the film that turned Star Wars from a blockbuster film into a franchise that is still going strong, 40 years later. Empire is firmly entrenched at the top of many people's favorite films list - beyond Star Wars film rankings. But why? What's the thing that has kept this film so fresh and resonating all these years later? I certainly don't have all the answers, but I will share some of my reasons why this has a life beyond the word "classic" below.
11 Things I Like - The Empire Strikes Back
1. New Force powers! One of the more puzzling criticisms of the Sequel Trilogy is the introduction of previously unseen Force powers. Force projection and healing were most prominent. But up until this point, we hadn't seen any character move objects with their mind until Luke calls his lightsaber to him while captive in the Wampa cave.
This scene is an example of a consistent theme in Empire, and that's gradual character growth. It's not an easy concept to execute, but Kershner handles it perfectly. Luke is clearly advancing in his skill, but not too quickly, and not flawlessly either. That makes him human and relatable. Of course later on in this film, we see Force powers further expanded, by Luke and Yoda, highlighted by one of the most unforgettable scenes in all of cinema. A scene that lasted for six seconds and required 10 hours to film.
2. The Battle of Hoth. Perhaps the most-recreated movie scene in video games in history. But it's also a remarkable achievement, given the technology of 1978-79. Everything about this scene speaks to how differently Empire plays than A New Hope. An epic battle between the Rebellion and the Empire. Only it's at the beginning, and the Empire wins in a rout. It upends our expectations, and sets the danger level to high for our heroes.
3. A source closely affiliated with the film - George Lucas - lists this scene as a favorite. The Asteroid Field. And what's not to like? Han and Leia bickering. C-3PO fretting. Rollicking action. A musical cue that matches the on-screen action. TIE Fighters blowing up. And the Millennium Falcon doing things that happen once every 3,720 times.
I don't know how you can watch this scene in the theater and not have your heart pounding by the time it's over. The sound assaults the ears. The visuals streak in all directions at a blinding speed. It does not let up, until the last two TIEs crash into one another. Then, the music brings us down as the Falcon exits the top of the screen, then descends through the bottom, finding refuge in a deep cavern within a large asteroid. We, the audience, get the breather we need as this insane scene ends. The Asteroid Field provides a pure "thrill" component to the film, one that rounds out its perfection.
4. Such a turning point scene. First of all, the music is perfect. Just perfect. It's the first portion of the "City in the Clouds." Read more about my analysis of that track here.
This is where we "officially" meet Yoda. Even 7-year-old me, on first viewing, suspected this funny little green gnome was in fact Yoda, before he identified himself. The dialogue between Luke and Yoda also tells us that Luke is in previously unexplored territory.
"I'm not afraid."
"You will be. You will be."
That small exchange also sets a new threat level for Luke, but it's the threat of the unknown. It also gives us our first clue into Yoda's past. What should Luke be afraid of? What did Yoda encounter that made him make that statement? The answer to that is one of the many gifts of the Prequel Trilogy. Now, we have a much clearer idea of what Yoda was referencing.
The audience, already fully invested in the character of Luke, was now bracing itself for what would be to come. Again, we were learning with and growing with Luke on his journey. This scene is another step in that journey. More, and steeper steps to come...
5. One common reaction fans got at the first screenings of Empire is that "it was like a dream." That's a wonderful description of the film, and few scenes symbolize that like the one in the cave, shown here.
A synthesizer is introduced as a musical instrument for the first time. Slow motion is utilized for the first time. Darth Vader simply emerges out of nowhere. Luke's face appears in the beheaded helmet of Vader at the end. And Yoda sits on a long, saying simply "Hm."
It's a masterful sequence, where so much is left open to the audience's interpretation while advancing the mythological narrative. You feel unsettled, out of sorts because of the music and the visuals. Nothing was "right" in this scene. And that's what made it so right.
6. Like pretty much the rest of the film, here's another example of music that tells the story of a scene as much as the visuals and the dialogue. It's also a time where we see Luke's gradual growth.
An hour earlier, it was a big deal to see Luke call a saber to his hand while hanging upside down, involuntarily. Now, he has progressed. He's upside down, except purposefully. And he levitates boxes and Artoo. And now, he has a Force vision.As we progress with Luke, we grow with him, at a pace that's acceptable and credible. His powers are expanding, and we now believe him to be capable of even greater feats.
The scene also smartly plays Luke's growing power against Yoda's established power. Luke has "seen" his friends, but we need verification from Yoda as to their fate, as yet unknown. It's a dynamic that also works in Return of the Jedi, where only a character we trust at the level of Yoda can confirm that Vader is Luke's father.
7. This is the film version of my favorite piece of Ralph McQuarrie concept artwork in the Star Wars saga. Escorted by two twin pod cloud cars, the Millennium Falcon approaches Cloud City, surrounded by the orange clouds and a distant sun. For the first time, we hear the chorus as part of the soundtrack.
I have written in the past that the appearance of a chorus in the soundtrack is representative of the Force at work, in some fashion. I think it is here, but in a more subtle way than we see in the Prequel Trilogy. The Force is calling Luke to Cloud City, but it's in the form of a trap set by Darth Vader. And Luke isn't in this scene, but Leia is....Hmmmmm.....
8. The second half of the track "Lando's Palace" from the Empire soundtrack. The music here sets such a somber tone for the story of Luke leaving Dagobah before his training is finished. Yoda and Obi-Wan caution Luke as to the dangers of the decision he's making, but the music speaks to this more than the venerable Jedi Masters.
It's still an emotional scene for me to process, because we respect Yoda and Obi-Wan so much, yet we root for Luke, and believe he's doing the right thing, as we all want our heroes to do. George Lucas put it perfectly - Luke is doing the right thing but his methodology is all wrong.
Most of the major musical themes are represented, but in that quiet, somber way that illustrates Williams's genius. We hear Luke's theme, the Force theme, Vader's theme, the Force theme again and Luke's theme again. Compare how Luke's theme sounds here with the Sail Barge sequence in Return of the Jedi. Without innate knowledge of music, could one tell they were the same theme at all?
9. Let's talk about Boba Fett. He's back! Or maybe he isn't. Either way, he's emerged as many people's favorite "minor" character. He says very little. Has a cool costume. Has a threatening presence. And he captured Han Solo. So he's credible, in the audience's eye. What little dialogue he has, is quite direct. "He's no good to me dead." A nice added touch is the sound effect of cowboy boot spurs when he walks, adding that Western flair to the film and his character. And a big shout out to Joe Johnston, who designed Fett's costume, one of hundreds of contributions he made to the look and feel of the Original Trilogy.
Boba Fett is very representative of Empire, visually, in consumer products and the "cool" status the film maintains today. Fett, Lando and Yoda are the three main new characters we meet in this film, and all three are wonderfully, designed, acted and executed.
10. This brief scene in the hallway mirrors a similar shot in Revenge of the Sith, where Anakin is advancing on Obi-Wan leading into the Mustafar control room. In that scene, the camera is behind Anakin as he slashes away at his friend. Here, the camera is in front of Anakin/Vader as he slashes away at his son. They're both claustrophobic scenes and display Vader's raw power. I always liked this small but, but in 2005, I immediately understood the visual connection between the duels in ROTS and Empire, through this shot.
11. Man, was there a lot going on here. Luke is defeated. Battered. Helpless. We as an audience are exhausted with him. He's literally barely hanging on. He calls out for Obi-Wan, who did show up to help guide him earlier in the film. But even that reliable person is nowhere to be seen here. Luke has no one, has lost it all, the drama building up past its limit. Then, seemingly out of the blue sky, calls for Leia. And she...hears him? At the time, I don't think people made the connection between Luke and Leia vis-à-vis the Force and being siblings. I think the assumption in 1980 was that they were close friends, and Leia knew they had to go back one last time to look for Luke.
Only with the benefit of Return of the Jedi is the full context of this scene revealed to us. Another reason I need to remind you that this is The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Brad’s Escapism Moment in The Empire Strikes Back
Could it be anything other than The Duel? A clash between Luke and Vader, something we hadn't seen for nearly two full films yet, was inevitable.
Part of the appeal of these films, and of Luke Skywalker in particular, was that we as children of that era grew with the characters. As we had aged from 1977-1980, so had they. They looked older. Acted older. Had a wardrobe that was just different enough to reflect that newfound maturity.
This was THE saber battle all of us had been imagining in our bedrooms for the previous three years. Vader and Obi-Wan had their duel in A New Hope, but Empire took it to a completely new level in terms of physicality and psychology, at least as it involved the audience.
So when Luke boldly walked into the Carbon Freezing Chamber, we were ready as he was ready. Neither of us realized how "not-ready" we were, but we went into it anyway. We suffered with Luke as he clearly was giving up the upper hand throughout the battle. But he hung in, was tough and resilient. He was battered and bruised, but the film, as dark as it was, ended on a very hopeful note.
Empire Strikes Back not only gave us a deeper look into the Star Wars universe, it promised more adventures to come. I see the Empire era as a high point during those years. Return of the Jedi was amazing, but it was the end of the era. With Empire, we had a combination of the past, present and future that we could roll around in.
Empire is the movie you watch when you're sick. Empire is the warm blanket that covers you from your toes to under your chin. Empire is hot chocolate that isn't so hot it burns your mouth.
Empire is also the film that looks the least like it was filmed on Earth than any other film I've ever seen. That's a testament to the superb work of production designer Normal Reynolds and his team. Hoth, Dagobah, Cloud City. These places can't exist anywhere, except within the imagination of a visionary storyteller of all time, joined by the absolute best of the British film technicians.
In closing, this is a perfect film, and I don't say that lightly. The characters, the environments, the music, the drama, the action, the editing, the direction, the pace, the production design, the depth - everyone involved in this film turned in an A+ performance. Star Wars has provided me some emotional and fulfilling experiences in the 40 years since Empire Strikes Back came out. And they're all great. But there can only be one Empire Strikes Back.
I live in Michigan and worked in higher education. Been an unconditional fan of Star Wars and Indiana Jones for decades. Follow me on twitter @bmonastiere
The Bearded Trio - The Site For Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams and a whole lot more.