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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Happy 30th Birthday, 'The Empire Strikes Back'!

By: Gary Susman

Movie sequels are seldom as good as or better than the originals. The best sequel ever? According to a recent survey of movie buffs, it's not 'The Godfather Part II' or 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day.' It's 'Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back,' a movie released 30 years ago this week, on May 21, 1980.

To mark the anniversary, there will be celebrations big and small throughout the year, starting with this weekend's marathon of the original 'Star Wars' trilogy on Spike TV, with Saturday's screening of 'Empire' simulcast on MTV's jumbotron in Times Square. The remembrances will culminate in the publication in October of 'The Making of The Empire Strikes Back,' by Lucasfilm insider J.W. Rinzler, a coffee-table tome with hundreds of pages of never-before-seen photos taken during the production. Meantime, you can amuse yourself by inserting your own face into 'Empire' footage, courtesy of the jokers at JibJab.

Why the hoopla? Because, for most moviegoers, 'Empire' remains the best of all six 'Star Wars' movies. It turned 'Star Wars' from a one-time special event into an enduring saga. It wielded massive influence on other movies (and throughout pop culture) that is felt to this day. And of course, it's still a powerful stand-alone entertainment experience, with its own memorable characters, jaw-dropping visuals, roiling emotions and the wallop of that all-time devastating third-act plot twist. Here are some of the ways 'Empire' continues to rock our galaxy.

That Vision. George Lucas' vision for the follow-up to his 1977 blockbuster was grand and vast, even bigger than his own lofty ambition. Which is why he was wise to produce 'Empire' but hand over the writing and directing tasks to others who were actually better at characterization and dialogue than he was. He hired legendary screenwriter Leigh Brackett ('The Big Sleep') to flesh out his story, and after she died in 1978, he hired young hotshot Lawrence Kasdan (not yet known for his scripts for 'The Big Chill' and Lucas' own 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'). Kasdan is widely credited with the movie's memorable dialogue (including Yoda's twisted syntax), while journeyman director Irvin Kershner has been praised for the movie's grim tone, thrilling combat sequences, and deep wellsprings of emotion.

As Kasdan explained in a 2000 interview, the success of 'Star Wars' and Lucas' decision to step back freed the filmmakers to do what they wished. "Everybody sort of loosened up. And that's where all the fun comes from," Kasdan said. "It's gritty -- Kershner had a huge impact on the way it looked. It looked better than 'Star Wars': it's shot better, it's lit better, the effects are better. George can tell you. So it has a much better look, and you're letting the characters do much more interesting stuff."

That Tone. For a summer blockbuster, 'Empire' is awfully dark. The heroes of the first movie spend most of the second getting their butts kicked. By the end of the film, Han Solo is frozen in carbonite and being hauled off by Boba Fett to Jabba the Hutt's lair; Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian have barely escaped with their lives; and Luke has had his hand chopped off and has suffered the psychic wound of learning the horrifying truth about his origins. Sure, everything would be resolved in the next movie, but in the meantime, none of that darkness stopped 'Empire' from being a huge critical and commercial hit. That's a lesson not lost on the makers of "middle" films ever since, including 'The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,' 'The Matrix Reloaded,' 'Quantum of Solace,' 'The Dark Knight,' and of course, Lucas' own 'Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones,' which climaxes with Count Dooku inflicting on Anakin Skywalker an injury much like the one he'll inflict on Luke in 'Empire.'

Those Shots. 'Empire' often seeks to out-dazzle its predecessor. Instead of the sand dunes of Tatooine, there's the icy wasteland of Hoth and the misty swamps of Dagobah. Instead of a military base inside a space station, there's a city in the clouds. Instead of empty stretches of outer space, there's an asteroid field. There's the pulse-pounding land battle on Hoth and a much-improved lightsaber duel in Cloud City. All of these make 'Empire' awe-inspiring simply to look at.

• Those Characters. New to the 'Star Wars' universe in 'Empire' are such dangerous folk as Boba Fett, a bounty hunter whose mysteriousness (his face is always hidden under that badass helmet, and he's silent except for about three lines of dialogue) is the source of his power and fascination. (He becomes much less interesting in the prequel trilogy, when we learn about the childhood trauma that pushed him over to the dark side.) There's also the triple-crossing Lando Calrissian, whose slipperiness and ultimate heroism are skillfully embodied by that master of smoothness Billy Dee Williams.

And of course, there's Yoda, the character upon whom the whole movie hinges. Yoda is the movie's biggest gamble: essentially a puppet (animated and voiced by Frank Oz, the Muppeteer behind Cookie Monster and Miss Piggy) who has to seem venerable and wise enough to teach Luke both self-restraint and self-confidence. Getting him right was the hardest part of the movie, Kershner recalled in a 1990 interview. "When you saw the rushes, you saw something come alive that had never been done on film -- a piece of rubber and plastic, not acting as a puppet, but acting as a living thing," Kershner said. "It was a character that would swallow and breathe and blink. He was incredible! Frank Oz did a great job with his team." The result was not only the 'Star Wars' saga's most lovable, quotable character ("Do. Or do not. There is no 'try'"), but also an influence on every movie since that's had a wizened, sensei-like mentor who puts the hero through the wringer before teaching him or her to kick ass. (See 'The Karate Kid,' 'Kill Bill, Vol. 2,' and 'Kung Fu Panda.')

Those Little Details. Boba Fett's battered armor. The Einstein-like wrinkles that make up Yoda's furrowed brow. That scar on the battle-hardened Luke's face. (Mark Hamill suffered the scar in a 1977 car accident, but Luke getting mauled by a wampa in the first two minutes of 'Empire' does a pretty good job of explaining his altered appearance.) Leia's snobby "nerf herder" insult to Han. (It's a throwaway line, but it inspired the name of the band Nerf Herder, known for creating the theme song to TV's 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.') Those pinpricks testing Luke's new prosthetic fingers, proving he remains human even with a robotic limb because of his ability to feel pain. That improvised but character-defining exhange between Leia and Han before he's dipped in carbonite. (It was Harrison Ford's idea to respond to Leia's "I love you," with "I know.") As in 'Star Wars,' all these details accrete to form a panoramic portrait of a fully lived-in galaxy populated with fully characterized individuals, a universe of planets and people that seem to breathe and live life beyond what can be contained on the screen.

Han and Leia Say Goodbye in 'The Empire Strikes Back'

That Plot Twist. 'Empire's' climactic surprise, in which Luke learns that his father is not a dead hero but his own living nemesis and the guy who just symbolically castrated him by chopping off his sword-wielding hand, may be the greatest third-act twist in the history of movies. It's the fulcrum on which the whole trilogy pivots. (In fact, the whole 'Star Wars' saga turns on it, since the prequel trilogy will be devoted entirely to the question of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.) It's what turns 'Star Wars' from a deftly executed genre piece with great special effects into a saga heavy with psychological, sexual, spiritual, mythic resonance.

No wonder it was such a closely guarded secret; until the movie's release, only five people knew it: Lucas, Kershner, Kasdan, Hamill, and James Earl Jones, who dubbed all the dialogue for David Prowse's Darth Vader. ("Darth Vader"... sounds like "dark father," doesn't it? How did we not figure that one out when the initial 'Star Wars' was released?) These days, with our culture of spoilers and Internet leaks, it's harder than ever for filmmakers to keep such secrets. Let's hope they keep trying, though. Because if there's one thing the enduring appeal of 'Empire' teaches us, it's that, sometimes, we want more than just to be entertained. We want to be astonished.

*Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.