Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Star Wars Week: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) has grown steadily in critical esteem since its theatrical debut in 1980. This increase in approval is so dramatic, in fact, that The Empire Strikes Back has actually eclipsed its blockbuster progenitor from 1977, at least according to some fans and critics.

Yet, if you go back and read the reviews from mainstream newspaper critics in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back received only middling reviews, at least for the most part.  The Irvin Kershner film was appreciated for its rousing special effects…and not much else. 

Writing for The New York Times, Vincent Canby, for instance, termed the sequel a “big expensive, time-consuming, essentially mechanical operation.”

He also noted The Empire Strikes Back’s incomplete narrative, commenting specifically on the fact that the film features no real beginning, and no genuine end or closure.

In terms of outlining the film’s artistic strengths and weaknesses, The Empire Strikes Back is indeed a more difficult film than Star Wars to get a handle on.  Star Wars can readily be dissected as pastiche, and a critic can studiously catalog all of the film’s antecedents and inspirations in terms of Akira Kurosawa's cinema, war movies, and the like. 

By contrast, The Empire Strikes Back largely eschews this dedicated “homage” approach and delves deeply, instead, into the lives and decisions of its dramatis personae.  In other words, the characters take on a new, more in-depth quality here, and so the film need not rely on a shared cinematic shorthand to forge its mythic tale. 

The Empire Strikes Back excavates a far more complex set of psychologies than, perhaps, we might have expected from the swashbuckling Star Wars. Still, Lucas and Kershner prove highly adept at harnessing potent visual symbols to add layers of meaning to this more intricate epic.  Accordingly, The Empire Strikes Back is rife with earthbound points of reference that help us identify with and understand the characters and their travails.

Mr. Canby was absolutely correct in his assertion that The Empire Strikes Back’s narrative is incomplete, since this sequel’s narrative commences with the action of Star Wars and resolves in the finale of Return of the Jedi (1983).  

Yet the plain fact of the matter is that this very quality is actually one of the film’s primary and enduring strengths

Freed from the necessity of laboriously introducing the characters, and, similarly, resolving their crises, The Empire Strikes Back is instead able to plumb new aspects of character psychologies, and furthermore introduce new, visually-exciting worlds to the Star Wars universe.  The sights of The Empire Strikes Back -- from whirling asteroids to AT-AT juggernauts trudging through the snow, to a city in the clouds -- are truly wondrous.

Without carrying the baggage of introduction and closure in broad terms, The Empire Strikes Back can instead function superbly as a racing locomotive, one that sweeps audiences up in romance, action, and a powerful feeling of impending dread. 

It’s a bit paradoxical of an equation, actually. We get more of the characters’ humanity -- even Darth Vader’s -- in The Empire Strikes Back than we did in Star Wars while, simultaneously, the action never lets up.  There’s this dramatic pull of inevitability to the film, a veritable tractor beam tugging us irrevocably to an unknown destination as fates are forged, and crucial decisions are made.  The feeling of unstoppable momentum at The Empire Strikes Back’s cliffhanger conclusion is considerable, and one leaves the film aching to see more of the story.  You sit there with a lump in the throat, wanting more, and wondering how on Earth you can wait three years for the next chapter.  I can still feel resonances of this yearning for more today, more than thirty years after I first watched the film.

Yet The Empire Strikes Back could not have achieved this considerable sense of immersion if it had instead sought to include the “complete” narrative that some critics sought and missed.

I find it very difficult to compare Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back in terms of relative quality. Star Wars accomplishes precisely what it needs to in order to introduce audiences to the world of a “long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away.”  

Similarly, The Empire Strikes Back deepens audience interest in that world, and makes one long to see the next film, Return of the Jedi, where -- finally -- narrative closure occurs.

So it’s probably fair to state that Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back both fulfill the roles they should as successive chapters in a cohesive trilogy.  However, those specific roles are significantly different, and even, in some senses, at odds with one another.

Intellectually, I appreciate the homage-rich pastiche qualities and “complete” aspects of Star Wars, which paved the way for a movie revival of spiritualism in the movie era of Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey

Yet emotionally-speaking, I admire immensely the involving, almost soap-opera, love-triangle, father-son /tragedy aspects of The Empire Strikes Back.  I especially appreciate how the galactic settings of the film, in a very important sense mirror the character conflicts and strife.  

Most of all, you get the sense in The Empire Strikes Back of utter confidence.  

The film never worries about establishing itself or validating its universe and story line.  Instead, it just probes deeper and deeper into the psychologies of the characters -- particularly Luke Skywalker -- at what turns out to be a dangerous turning point in the saga.

“Decide you must, how to serve them best. If you leave now, help them you could; but you would destroy all for which they have fought, and suffered.

Following the destruction of the Death Star at Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) hands, Darth Vader hunts the universe for the would-be Jedi.  

Meanwhile, Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance have made a base on the remote and inhospitable ice planet called Hoth. 

There, mercenary Han Solo (Harrison Ford) contemplates abandoning the cause because of the price that Jabba the Hutt has placed on his head.  Although Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) pretends not to care, it’s clear that she and Solo have developed romantic feelings for one another.

Soon, Imperial probes find signs of the rebel base on Hoth, and Darth Vader orders a sustained surface attack on the Rebels.  After the Empire’s victory in a ground assault, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C3PO and Princess Leia flee the planet in the Millennium Falcon, and Luke and R2D2 head to swampy Dagobah to find Yoda (Frank Oz), the Jedi master who trained Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness).

When Solo and Leia find themselves ensnared in a trap on Bespin’s Cloud City, courtesy of Darth Vader, the bounty hunter Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) and the scoundrel Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Luke must decide whether to continue his training with Yoda or attempt to rescue his imperiled friends.

Upon his landing at Cloud City, Luke learns that Fett has taken Solo (encased in carbonite…) to Tattooine and Jabba.
And finally, Darth Vader divulges to Luke a devastating family secret...

No. Try not. Do... or do not. There is no try. 

A series of four visual symbols dominate The Empire Strikes Back, and each one is encoded into a specific setting or location, and intimately linked with the characters and the development of their relationships and feelings.

The inaugural symbol is “ice,” embodied by the snowy, desolate planet of Hoth.  

As viewers, we automatically associate ice with freezing, stagnation, and cold. In terms of  the film's characters, we recognize this coldness as relating very much to Princess Leia (whose personal quarters, we are told in the dialogue, are “freezing.”)  

Simply put, she cannot admit her romantic feelings for Han Solo.  Over the course of the adventure, the icy relationship between Leia and Han “thaws.”  I don't want to be accused of being sexist here, but the idea in terms of Leia at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back is, literally, that she is "frigid" (emotionally, I mean.)  She covers her feelings in a mask or composure of apparent ice.

Similarly, Luke Skywalker as we find him on Hoth has become stagnant and "frozen," unable to take the next step in his training to become a Jedi Knight.  Until the specter of Obi Wan appears to him on the freezing plains of Hoth to reveal the existence of Yoda, a Jedi Master, Luke is merely walking in place.

On Dagobah, the film’s second significant symbol is revealed, and it relates to Luke Skywalker primarily. During his training with Yoda, young Luke unexpectedly encounters a tree that is powerful with “The Dark Side” of The Force.  He explores its impenetrable recesses, and it responds reflexively to his psychological weaknesses.  

Once inside the gnarled, ancient tree, Luke experiences a vision of  Darth Vader and then, in fact, a vision in which he becomes Darth Vader himself.   Under the hideous helmet, Luke's visage stares back at him.

In literature and psychology, the tree embodies several vital concepts.  Prime among these is the idea that a tree represents knowledge.  In The Empire Strikes Back, the tree on Dagobah reveals, specifically self-knowledge, a clue regarding Luke’s biological origin or identity (at this point, unknown to him).  

But it reveals more than that.  It reveals the nature of Luke's future struggle: whether or not he will turn to the dark side.

Additionally, in Native American lore, the tree symbolizes ancestry (your roots, to employ a pun), and so the Dark Side Tree is indeed our first, oblique indicator about from where Luke originated….Darth Vader.   If genetics is destiny, then the tree also reveals one path Luke may take: the self-same path that Anakin Skywalker undertook.

A third crucial symbol in The Empire Strikes Back -- a whale-like space monster -- appears during the action-packed asteroid belt sequence. This section of the film is chaotic and anarchic (as exemplified by the random trajectory of the asteroids…).  

Likewise, the characters of Han and Leia here are depicted as conflicted and uncertain about their developing relationship.  They settle down in a place (the belly of a space beast), where these issues begin to crystallize for them. Out of chaos, some clarity emerges...

In Christian myth, Jonah spent three days inside the stomach of the whale.  When he emerged from this second “womb,” his story proceeded with a sense of re-birth and rejuvenation.  Many Japanese folk stories repeat the same idea.  

On purely literal terms, then, when the Falcon escapes the belly of the space beast, its crew receives a second chance at life with Han’s scheme to hide the ship among the Imperial garbage.  

In character-based terms, there is a also kind of re-birth of the Han/Leia relationship following their kiss.  Their love has emerged from the icy, “frozen” quality it boasted on Hoth, and even the chaotic/combative nature of it as witnessed in the asteroid belt.  Their time in the belly of the beast is, after a fashion, what allowed them to find some clarity about their feelings and relationship.

Finally, the last passage of the film set on Bespin offers The Empire Strikes Back’s  final, and perhaps most powerful symbol: clouds

In terms of symbolic representations, clouds are often equated to a realm of “ethereal heights” but also a domain of “higher truth.”  

Here, Leia and Han admit their love for one another; a higher truth they avoided and quarreled over on icy Hoth.  

Similarly, Luke discovers the higher truth about Ben’s story (regarding the death of his father,) as well as Vader’s role in his life.  The self-knowledge hinted at in the Dark Tree on Dagobah become clear in the ethereal clouds, a place, explicitly, for truth telling.  

Indeed, truth becomes the paramount issue of this final section of The Empire Strikes Back.  

Is Vader telling the truth about his parentage of Luke? Is Lando a truth-teller or treacherous?  Is R2-D2 sharing the truth (but not believed) when he notes that the hyper-drive on the Millennium Falcon hasn't been repaired?  Even the discovery of the "truth" about Leia (that she possesses Jedi-ish abilities) comes about in the location of Cloud City.

I very much appreciate how The Empire Strikes Back's visuals -- ice, trees, the belly of the beast, and clouds -- all reflect in an important manner the psychology of the film’s three primary protagonists.  The symbols, essentially, track their progress from stagnation and frigidity to a higher understanding of the truth.  

From Hoth to Bespin isn't just a journey between star systems, in other words, but one of self-discovery and character evolution.

Hoth: A place where relationships and tensions are "frozen" in place.

Dagobah: Luke explores the Tree of (Self) Knowledge.

The Belly of the Beast: A (brief) re-birth follows chaos.

Bespin: A place in the clouds where a "higher" truth is discerned.

Of all the characters highlighted in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker is deepened in the most significant terms. He harnessed the power of the Force to help him destroy the Death Star in Star Wars, but that was only the beginning of his journey, a fact we clearly register here. In this sequel, Luke is unexpectedly dealt reverse after reverse, defeat after defeat, and forced to look inside himself and consider his readiness and even suitability to become a Jedi Knight.

In the span of one film, Luke is badly injured by a Wampa, and nearly freezes to death.  He loses Leia's affections to Han, finds out that his trusted and beloved mentor, Ben, lied to him, and discovers that his father is one of the Most Evil Men Who Has Ever Lived.  Finally, for good measure, Luke sees one of his hands cut off during a light saber duel.  Now, he is already on the path of his father, becoming part machine as well as flesh-and-blood man.

Perhaps more troubling than all these reverses, however, Luke actually finds his very status as a hero questioned in The Empire Strikes Back.  

Yoda informs him he is impatient and intemperate, and may not even qualify to train as a Jedi.  Luke is too old, too distracted, and too set in his ways.    

The film thus makes Luke reckon with the fact that he may have destroyed the Death Star, but being a full-bore Jedi Knight involves much more than that.  The film gives Luke something powerful to confront, and that “thing” is an awareness of himself and his own character flaws.  He holds the seeds of the Dark Side within him.  He could be just like his father; like Darth Vader.  He has learned too many bad habits and must now unlearn them.

Han’s journey, overall, is a bit more upbeat, despite how the movie ends for him.  He successfully wins Leia’s affection and goes nobly to his fate, thus proving he is concerned about more than money and rewards (per Star Wars).  He also learns that yes, it's possible for a Princess and a guy like him to fall in love.

As for Princess Leia, she comes to understand in The Empire Strikes Back that she can follow her emotions and yet not be made weak by them, as she initially feared.   She can love a "scoundrel" and still be strong and respected.  Leia need no longer be afraid of her feelings.

All these characters are tested in dramatic fashion in The Empire Strikes Back, and so the film significantly deepens our understanding of all these heroes.  Luke’s destiny now features a darker, more dangerous edge, and Han Solo may have no future at all…

These are the worrisome, valedictory thoughts we ponder as we conclude a viewing of the film, and in this sense, the Star Wars "saga" truly becomes a story -- for a time -- about specific characters, not about special effects, or abstract heroic or mythic journeys.  

With The Empire Strikes Back, this is now the tale of three very individual, very human individuals.  The Empire may be striking back, but we care less here about a rebel victory over the Imperials than about how each main character faces or makes his or her fate.  This film brilliantly introduces us to memorable characters such as Yoda, The Emperor, Lando and Boba Fett, but it is the triumvirate of Luke-Leia-and-Han that rivets and consumes the attention.

It’s a crying shame that Return of the Jedi loses track this dynamic thread, and glosses over many of the critical character struggles we countenance here.  Luke’s anger and intemperance, Leia’s romantic choice about her future, Ben’s honesty, and Han’s grim fate are all treated in strictly two-dimensional, almost rote fashion in Return of the Jedi, a fact which leaves The Empire Strikes Back, arguably, as the emotional zenith of the Original Trilogy.


  1. I love the little moments inside this epic movie:

    - Luke's "I know what you mean" reaction to his gunner Dak's enthusiasm -- Hamill wears the face of a man who has been at war a long time and remembers being that excited about combat.

    - Leia's heartbroken expression as Slave I flies away, carrying the man she loves.

    - Han's swaggering "Who, me?" look when Lando accuses him of being a swindler.

    - Chewbacca's mournful howl as the Echo Base doors close, trapping Han and Luke out in the storm.

    - Threepio's "shoo! shoo!" moment when the mynocks swarm the Falcon.

    - Artoo standing on his "toes" to look inside Yoda's hut.

    - Darth Vader watching the Falcon escape into hyperspace, then wordlessly walking off the bridge.

    Star Wars will always be my favorite movie, but I can't deny Empire is an improvement. It's the difference between a raw, talented garage band and a slick, professional rock band.

  2. One of the things I love about Empire Strikes back are the visuals. Cloud City is especially intriguing. The approach to cloud city is at sunset with oranges and reds filling the screen. Even the Cloud Cars the accompany the Falcon are orange. It is not a color scheme we had seen in the series, and is a stark contrast to the whites, blacks, grey and greens earlier in the film. It hints at fire and blood - some kind of disturbing change.

    Later we see Cloud City in whites and blues. It presents itself as a safe haven and one that is above suspicion. We see it in this fashion when Han and Luke feel they are doing some good.

    But always underneath the reds and oranges lurk. And when the betrayal of Han kicks in they come back (with the shadows and blacks). Luke and Vader literally face each other in a visual Hell of smoke and a red floor (mimicking the battle on the lava world in Sith).

    I really admire what they did with Bespin from a visual standpoint and it remains a highlight for me.