Empire Strikes Back (Revisited)
Rewatching "The Empire Strikes Back," to prepare for my viewing of the 40th anniversary of "Return of the Jedi" in theaters, I am reminded at how fun this movie is. Each moment is filled with action. There is no need to explain the characters, even if one hasn't seen "Star Wars" before it. From the first moment when the Star Destroyer moves over us and launches out its probe droids until the last when the rebels begin their search for Han Solo every moment is adrenaline fueled.
There are no back histories for the characters, although Han Solo's dealings with Jabba the Hut are mentioned and drive his and the bounty hunters' actions of one storyline while the other hints at Luke's past later in the film and in the middle of the next. But each character is drawn simply. We know who these people are and understand their decisions. Screenplays should take note at the simplicity with which a writer should write a character without taking up precious time within the movie to explain them. With the personalities of each character established, George Lucas and writer Lawrence Kasden let the action take over and that contributes to the greatness of "The Empire Strikes Back!"
Every story’s success lies in the second act. How has the protagonist gotten into this mess? How did the antagonist gain the upper hand? Do we care if our hero gets out of this jam? Should we continue watching? These questions are what every author hopes to suck his audience in with and if he’s successful he’s got a story that will be a joy to revisit countless of times. In the structure of any story the pitfalls always sit in the second act. And "Empire" is one big pitfall.
This is what makes Empire Strikes Back so successful. The Empire does strikes back and our heroes are on the run from the first frame. The conclusion is the ultimate Cliffhanger from George Lucas who was brought up on cliffhangers and modeled his trilogy as well as his Indiana Jones series on them. As we know, Empire is the second film of the first trilogy of Star Wars movies. This trilogy acts as one long film instead of three separate ones and its success comes from the second act. The fact that the main characters can never get a leg up on the Empire keeps us emotionally engaged and the plot twist at the end cements our desire to watch the third installment.
Lucas recruited help for the screenplay and directional duties for this film and it benefits from it. The story moves and is witty fun while Irvin Kershner's direction is as good if not better than anything you can catch in a Criterion catalog. Add a John Williams score that builds on the brilliance of the original and it completes a film that will be as fresh the tenth time you see it as it was the first.
Because it acts as a second act the feel of this film is darker. The scenes on the Star Destroyer where Darth Varder leads his chase of the Millenium Falcon is set with a backdrop of space but even the white interiors feel harsh. Cloud City evokes dark fall colors of orange and red and of course, even during the day, there isn't much brightness on Yoda's home planet where Luke trains. All of it is in the spirit of a second act that has our heroes in peril.
As I said, this film is fun. From Vader moving down the list of admirals after their failures at capturing the Falcon, to Leia and Chewbacca's frustration with Han and all of their annoyance with C3-PO to even Yoda's patience with a hard to train Luke there is something to keep an audience occupied. There are no dull moments. It is the bar to which all action films should be measured.