By David Beilstein
THIS is a love letter of sorts.
My first memories of George Lucas’ continuation of his magnum opus, Star Wars, 1977, began with the second instalment, the character-centric Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back.
When I go back into the sea of my memory, I seem to recall my first viewing of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, at the drive-in with my parents ensconced in a red station wagon. I believe this was somewhere north of 1980, but I cannot be sure. I was young. A pinch past toddler-hood. What I do remember: The movie touched me deeply; in the present of course, but for decades after. In essence, the flick held up – still does – and it is perhaps the best realisation thus far of a popcorn movie doing the dramatic work all serious film must do.
The story of Luke Skywalker’s personal journey and failure at the hands of his father! became for me, hauntingly personal. There was something immensely human for a movie couched in fantasy; something eerily interlaced into the human foibles apart of our galaxy in the here and now.
In early 1997, when LucasFilm LTD released the first trilogy again, I jetted off to theatres in Lynchburg, Virginia, and South Burlington, Vermont, and saw Empire a handful of times at the age of 21. Now at 36, obviously, I have seen the flick a couple more times. And I still find it to be the ultimate popcorn movie; maybe the best popcorn movie ever made.
From the icy battle of planet Hoth against giant Imperil Walkers — to the romantic give and take between the swashbuckling, ego-driven Han Solo and witty Princess Leia; to Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training at the feet of a mercurial creature named Yoda — there is no end to the sense of adventure and drama in The Empire Strikes Back.
All one has to do is sightsee through the dozens of adventure movies made before and since Empire, to see the heft and weight of Chapter five in the Star Wars Trilogy. Empire becomes… it became something more… above and beyond escapist moviemaking, reaching, going, into the luminous arena of filmic excellence.
What we are getting down to is character. The Empire Strikes Back is concerned with character.
The past of each character prescribes the future; the actions and behaviours of the main characters and the forces opposing them unfold during Empire’s running time. It requires the highest sense of drama to locate the hero, propel him into a journey of unknown destination; reveal the main villain, a Dark Lord of the Sith, and create a climax so beguiling, one questions what one has just witnessed onscreen.
The best part about Empire; the dots are connected. But such connections, such character collages of action form a labyrinthine dramatic context, illuminating the immaterial motivations and needs of each participant in the narrative. Such dramatic storytelling moves to the centre of individual natures forming actions in the present that help unfold Empire’s tale. Things happen in Empire because of people’s individual choices. Those once and galaxy choices collide into a primordial farrago of a father and son — Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader — pitted against one another for the [eventual] restoration of Vader’s soul.
The power of Empire has always been the sense that what happens throughout the film must happen. It must happen because of who the characters really are, apart from posture and idealism. This was no more than superficially recognised in the original Star Wars, but Empire director Irvin Kershner, along with scribe Lawrence Kasdan, focused on Lucas’ original insight informing the characters even more.
And then there is action… Action is character and character is action goes the famous screenwriting adage.
Luke Skywalker wants to help his friends even if his choice to leave Yoda’s tutelage is unwise. Up until then – Empire has concerned its narrative with three major stories. Darth Vader’s ultimate search for Luke Skywalker, enforced by the mysterious demands of the Emperor, Han and Leia’s escape from Plant Hoth, and Luke Skywalker’s training to be a Jedi knight in the jungle infested swamp of planet Dagobah.
Han and Leia are betrayed and captured on Cloud City, thanks to the coquetry of Lando Calrissian… Luke Skywalker, the pangs of an unrealised future, albeit the infusion of the force, terrifies him. Set against the wishes of both Yoda and the flickering ghost of Ben Kenobi, Luke flees his training for Cloud City, the prison of Han and Leia, fearful and undertrained.
It’s a trap of course. But when Luke arrives on Cloud City, the conventional turns unconventional in a hurry.
When Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader meet Empire turns cold; colder than the opening scenes on Hoth; for Darth Vader is far more than the typical comic book villain. As Luke learned in the cave on Dagobah, Vader is Luke himself, gone astray. Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker. A man? A machine — or both? Vader has experienced the benison of The Force, but has become twisted and evil. And once Vader and Skywalker’s light sabers ignite, it becomes clear Luke is doomed.
Yes, the hero doomed. Not a conventional choice, but the most dramatic one.
Vader toys with Luke; the Dark Lord shows young Skywalker the ways of the dark side. And here, the action reverberates out of who these two characters have been since Star Wars. A journey of light years; of toil. Unlike the second Star Wars trilogy, the light saber fight between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker is not one of effect, but of consequence.
A dramatic consequence of character, informed by narrative necessity.
And then the films climax; in the guts of a reactor chamber; Vader creates a funnel of force wind, blasting young Skywalker through an oval portal in an ebullition of glass. Vader accosts Skywalker violently; on the walkway bridge high above an electrical crevasse. Where, as with the cave, Luke Skywalker — now wounded — perceives the denizen of the road ahead. In some sense, he is Vader; and Vader is him; they are father and son.
Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker it’s true. Vader is Skywalker’s father — the greatest pull off surprise in cinema history!
The feeling, as I remember, was Darth Vader was lying. But you knew, from small child to adult, he wasn’t. And there was something immensely satisfying that Vader was not lying. It was, — is, something dreadfully similar to our own galaxy’s teleological pull.
Forced into a crossroads, Luke falls from the electrical tower. And this adds something even more special. Yoda and Ben Kenobi, wise as they are, are fallible. When Luke left the monastic sanctuary of Dagobah, Yoda and Kenobi had given up on him. They knew of Vader and Skywalker; they knew. But within the hero is often something bigger than even the wise see.
And it is why Skywalker let go, literally.
I have argued for sometime Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back is the greatest masquerade ever filmed. A film disguised as a popcorn movie. Films typically deal with more adult issues; they are more often than not concerned with the school of realism. They often seat their drama in the oscillating soil of character. It is why so many dramatic films are character pieces. Yet, Empire, while couched in Space opera fantasy, nails human nature so profoundly; so realistically; I have considered it to be a type — if you will — of filmic realism.
I often return to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back. Watching it closely; intimately; for it is one of the greatest popcorn movies, slash films, ever made. I can remember reading a statement by George Lucas that Empire was his least favourite of the Star Wars films. It was with that statement, somehow, I knew the second trilogy would not be as good. Empire lives, the first trilogy lives, unlike the wooden second trilogy.