Arguably the most important movie sequel ever made, The Empire Strikes Back forever changed the way Hollywood does business and cemented the place of Star Wars in pop culture. As a result, it even helped spawn a religion. Not many films can claim that.
Today, on the 30th anniversary of its release, we can take a moment to look back with appreciation, plus I’ll review some cool Star-Wars-related stuff that will enable you to enjoy the dream in more depth — and maybe create your own…
Many people, me among them, think The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the Star Wars films. Its character development and emotional resonance are the most satisfying, while it managed to retain the kinetic action and jaw-dropping special effects of the first film. If it had flopped, Star Wars would not have become a franchise, Industrial Light & Magic might not have evolved into the groundbreaking special f/x juggernaut that created all the Indiana Jones films, the Terminator sequels, the Back to the Future trilogy, all the Jurassic Park movies, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, many of the Star Trek films, Harry Potter, Avatar, and on and on, and we would not now have a handful of big-budget summer sequels routinely taking up the bulk of Hollywood’s attention and resources every summer. It can be argued that there would probably not be movies like Iron Man 2 if The Empire Strikes Back had not succeeded.
And the hundreds of thousands of people world wide who claim to belong to the Jedi religion would have had to find something else to believe in.
As far as artistic merit goes, there’s little question that the greatest movie sequel ever is The Godfather Part 2, but that movie, excellent as it is, did not have as wide-ranging an effect on both the popular imagination and the way the movie business was subsequently conducted as The Empire Strikes Back. The Godfather Part 2 is an impressive achievement in cinema. But Star Wars changed lives and remains an indelible part of world culture.
Update 9/21/11: Now you can get the whole 6-film Star Wars Saga as a very good blu-ray edition. (Note: in addition to the preceding link, you can find Star Wars: The Complete Saga here and here.)
I made a pilgrimage with family and friends on that night in May 1980 to see The Empire Strikes Back on a 70 mm screen.
The big 70 mm screen was at the original Century 21 theater in San Jose, California. I wanted so much to like the film and was not disappointed. (Just like Isaac Asimov, after the movie was over, I wanted to stand on my chair and shout, “Start the third part!”) I mean, the sections with Yoda on Dagobah alone were worth the price of admission. I never became a full-fledged Star Wars geek (dressing like a wookie, collecting action figures, etc.), but it did fire my movie-going enthusiasm (which has not flagged to this day).
More than ten years later, when I had a delivery business in Marin County, I would occasionally make stops at Industrial Light & Magic in San Rafael. ILM was in a modern but nondescript office park. There was no identifying info or signage on the outside of the building — just an address number and a keypad. The windows were blacked out. I guess they were concerned about hordes of devotees showing up and asking for tours if they had known what was going on behind those unmarked doors.
In 1980, I frequently read Pauline Kael’s reviews in The New Yorker, and I wondered what she would think of the film. (For those younger sorts who never heard of her, Pauline Kael was the most influential movie critic at the time, and one of the most influential critics ever, in any art.) Here’s how she summed up The Empire Strikes Back in her book, 5001 Nights at the Movies:
By far the most imaginative part of the Star Wars trilogy. This middle, bridging film is chained to an unresolved plot and doesn’t have the leaping comic-book hedonism of the 1977 Star Wars, but you can feel the love of movie magic that went into its cascading imagery. George Lucas kept the first movie hopping by cutting it into short, choppy scenes; Irvin Kershner, who directed this one, is a master of visual flow, and, joining his own kinks and obsessions to Lucas’s, he gave Empire a splendiferousness that may even have transcended what Lucas had in mind. When Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is frozen into sculpture — his face protruding from a bas-relief, the mouth open as if calling out in pain — the scene has a terrifying grandeur. The characters in this fairy-tale cliff-hanger show more depth of feeling than they had in the first film, and the music — John Williams’ variations on the Star Wars theme — seems to saturate and enrich the intensely clear images. Scenes linger in the mind: the light playing on Darth Vader’s gleaming surfaces as this metal man, who’s like a giant armored insect, fills the screen; Han Solo saving Luke’s life on the ice planet Hoth by slashing open a snow camel and warming him inside; Luke’s hand being lopped off, and his seemingly endless fall through space; Chewbacca, the Wookie, growling in grief or in comic fear, his sounds so hyper-human you couldn’t help laughing at them; the big-eared green elf Yoda, with shining ancient eyes, who pontifically instructs Luke in how to grow up wise — Yoda looks like a wonton and talks like a fortune cookie…”
I think she liked it.
In the 30 years since The Empire Strikes Back came out, new generations of viewers continue to be engaged by the magic and wonder of Star Wars. To help you remember how entertaining and engrossing you found these films, see the following video, which shows the reaction of a 4-year-old as Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father. You might looked like that, too…
The Making of The Empire Strikes Back
There is a new book about the making of the movie available now — The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, by J.W. Rinzler — that you might want to check out (and consider giving to your sci-fi/movie geek friends; you can also now find it at AbeBooks used, along with other Star Wars “making of” titles). Here’s an interesting factoid: David Prowse, the actor in the Darth Vader costume, was known to be an inveterate leaker of information about the film, so, during the filming of the pivotal fight between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in the cloud city, Prowse was given scripts with dummy lines to say that had nothing to do with Vader revealing the facts of Skywalker’s parentage. Of course, James Earl Jones subsequently dubbed Darth Vader’s voice. Prowse had no idea until he saw the premiere of the film that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. “I felt ridiculous,” he said. Yeah, well, loose lips sink star destroyers, David.
And to hold up that new book, here’s something even cooler: Star Wars bookends depicting details from Jabba’s palace. These are high-quality, painstakingly-rendered bookends that feature Boba Fett and a Gamorrean Guard on one side and Han Solo frozen in carbonite with Princess Leia disguised as the bounty-hunter Boussh on the other. They’re available now from Entertainment Earth (sell out risk is high, so order soonest). They’re limited-edition, hand-numbered, with a certificate of authenticity. Of course, there’s a lot more Star Wars stuff to explore at Entertainment Earth, too.
As usual here on Best Stuff for Men, I don’t discuss a topic without giving you some opportunity to further explore it or act on your curiosity. All this talk of Star Wars might have gotten you in the mood to once again visit that galaxy far, far away, so here’s a good way to do it, game-wise: Star Wars Rogue Squadron III Rebel Strike, some of which takes place on Hoth (and of course there’s a ton more Star Wars games available). And find Star Wars novels at Barnes & Noble. (Did you know that there are now well over 200 Star Wars novels covering thousands of years of story and character development that go well beyond the movies, all coordinated by LucasArts?) If you’ve never read any Star Wars novels, try the Grand Admiral Thrawn trilogy, by Timothy Zahn — they have a lot of the flavor of the original movies. Or try Dave Wolverton’s The Courtship of Princess Leia, where you find out whether Leia enters into a politically-advantageous marriage for the sake of the new Republic.
Do you want to make your own movies? Who will be the next George Lucas?
Then again, perhaps you’re more of a doer — someone who wants to go beyond the entertainment aspect of all this and become a filmmaker yourself. In that case, here’s what you need for a good start…
One of the best cameras for the beginning movie-maker is the JVC GY-HM100U 3-CCD Camcorder, a good combination of performance and price. One of its advantages is that it’s compatible with Apple’s popular Final Cut Studio editing software.
But you can’t make a movie (well, you can, but not very well) without writing something down first. And for that, you want the most useful software for writing a screenplay. So get Final Draft 8 for PC and Mac (the links here go to NothingButSoftware, one of the most respected software retailers on the Web).
After all, someone has to be the next George Lucas. Or the first you.
So, where were you when The Empire Strikes Back came out? How old were you when you first saw it? What did you think? Leave a comment below.