Wednesday 18 November 2015

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) started a Star Wars tradition of confusing and alienating audiences that has become pretty much synonymous with the franchise over the years. For despite being advertised by just that four-word title ahead of release (see the poster), the film's opening crawl instead referred to it as Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. A science-fiction franchise had suddenly become a humongous 'saga' that had apparently and inexplicably begun on its fourth installment. The course had been set for a bright future of crippling continuity errors and, eventually, a leaden prequel trilogy - a curious achievement for what is clearly and unequivocally the best film in the series.

This doesn't quite seem to have been the intention right at the start: some of the most distinctive plot elements of Empire (SPOILERS) were only introduced by George Lucas after he was disappointed by a first draft, written by veteran space opera and planetary romance writer Leigh Brackett in the final stages of her battle with cancer. In reworking the script Lucas came up with the film's darker direction and the no-longer-stunning plot twist that Darth Vader is (well, claims to be, as far as Empire is concerned) Luke Skywalker's father. This in turn led to a backstory expansion in which Anakin Skywalker was Obi-Wan Kenobi's apprentice before being seduced by the Emperor (now a user of the dark side of the Force and no longer a mere politician, though not yet Ian McDiarmid), opening the possibility of a prequel trilogy. This newer, bigger story also retroactively turned Obi-Wan into a liar who manipulated Luke into helping him and attempting to blow up his own father along with the Death Star, but really, in the continuity mess of even the core Star Wars canon that's small change.

The story: forces of the Rebel Alliance, including all the surviving heroes of the previous film, have constructed a base on the inhospitable ice world of Hoth. Before long, though, they're discovered by the Imperial fleet of Darth Vader. The rebels manage to hold off the Imperial ground assault long enough to pull off a successful withdrawal but Han Solo and Leia Organa (Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher) fail to get away from the Imperials because of the Millennium Falcon's broken hyperdrive. Hiding first in a deadly asteroid field and then fleeing to Cloud City, where Han's old frenemy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) runs a mining operation, they're hunted by Vader's fleet as well as a bunch of bounty hunters.

Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) follows a vision of his one-time mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi to the swamp world of Dagobah. There, Obi-Wan's own teacher, the diminutive and ancient Jedi master Yoda (Frank Oz), instructs him in the ways of the Force, teaching him to become a Jedi knight himself. Before he can complete his training, though, Luke has a premonition of his friends in danger. Worried by Yoda's warnings but ultimately unable to ignore Han and Leia's suffering, Luke races off to Cloud City, his training unfinished, to save his friends from Vader's clutches.

The final script, written by Lawrence Kasdan based on Lucas's second draft, is fantastic: it zips by, the necessary exposition is handled supremely well (for a film that expands the story so much, there are very few scenes of character simply sitting down and talking), and the dialogue is much punchier and more contemporary than Lucas's self-conscious throwback pulp stylings in Star Wars. Those work too, and having lavished praise on Lucas's script I'm not about to change my mind. But what worked for Star Wars wouldn't work for Empire: where the first film was all about roughly sketching a world of intergalactic adventure and a stark battle between good and evil, the second installment fleshes out that world and develops its characters from old-school sci-fi archetypes into, well, people.

(Even so, let's not beat about the bush: the timeline of Empire is pretty much impossible (which isn't to say Star Wars fans haven't made up elaborate excuses for the film). In the time that Han and Leia take to run from Hoth to Bespin, the Empire hot on their heels (a few standard days at most), Luke goes to Dagobah, meets Yoda and gets a significant chunk of Jedi training done (weeks at least). Impossible in terms of realism, to be sure. But in story terms, it works: Luke's less action-packed, more contemplative and philosophical scenes alternate effectively with scenes of danger involving Han and Leia. Time has always moved at the speed of plot in Star Wars, and I'm happy to give the film a pass here.)

The new and improved dialogue does a lot for the characters, and it's a much better fit for some of the actors. Carrie Fisher's Leia is even more acerbic this time around, and Kasdan gives her a couple of fantastic zingers: 'Would it help if I got out and pushed?' when Han's rust bucket won't get going, or the wondrous 'You don't have to do this to impress me' as he heads into an asteroid field. That brings us neatly to the problem of Leia in Empire: she's reduced from the aristocratic leader of Star Wars to playing the straight man to Han Solo's antics. Which is enjoyable, but leaves the character a little thin. Ford is freer and looser this time around (thanks, no doubt, to a more cooperative director), and Hamill is - well, I like him less in Empire than in either Star Wars or Jedi, but his final scenes in the film are terrific, no doubt about it.

In the smaller roles there's so much goodness: I'm a particular fan of all the pitiable Imperial officers who must achieve impossible objectives, or be murdered by Vader. (There is, in general, a lot of excellent bleak humour in the scenes aboard the Executor). An easy favourite is Kenneth Colley's put-upon Admiral Piett, a man who through long practice has become really good at ignoring people being force-choked right next to him, and actually makes it out of Empire alive. But Julian Glover's General Veers, a man who clearly enjoys nothing more than (a) sneering and (b) stomping on infantry with his enormous armoured tank, is a wonderful mini-villain too. On the other side, I'm a big fan of Bruce Boa's General Rieekan, who radiates a slightly gruff but likeable authority on Hoth.

That's all well and good, but let's get to the best character in Empire, shall we? Because Yoda is that. I still love the reveal that the cackling imp who rummages through Luke's equipment is, in fact, a powerful Jedi master. He's a perfect embodiment of the film's thesis that the Force as a mystical ally can help the weak triumph over the strong, that it makes the underdog's victory over all the Empire's might a real possibility. He injects a warm sense of wonder about the Force, a humanist love of people over cold military power ('luminous beings are we, not this crude matter') and a yearning for peace ('wars not make one great'). And he does it all with humour (Frank Oz's outraged delivery of 'Mudhole? Slimy? My home this is!' cracks me up every time), dignity, and real authority. I understand that for Hamill weeks of sharing the scene with a puppet weren't too much fun, but the result is spellbinding.

(You know who sucks in Empire, though? Obi-Wan Kenobi. He does nothing but deliver some exposition and whinge about stuff. And Alec McGuinness, whose wry self-amusement worked wonders in Star Wars, is really phoning it in this time around. It's a waste.)

Lucas didn't do much to polish Empire in the special editions and home video releases. The major exception - one Star Wars fans don't object to, curiously - is Ian McDiarmid portraying the emperor (instead of Elaine Baker with digitally inserted chimpanzee eyes and Clive Revill doing the voice). Even better is that you don't need the despecialized edition to appreciate the special effects, which Lucas, despite his reputation, has only ever tweaked to remove errors. And they're wonderful. Terrifying stop-motion AT-ATs marching mercilessly across the frozen landscape while seemingly mosquito-sized rebel snowspeeders flit around them, a city floating above the clouds, a star destroyer adrift after a hit from the ion cannon. My absolute favourite, though, is the tauntauns. The puppet work in close-ups is very good, but I adore the stop-motion used in wide shots even more. The creatures move in an alien yet believable way, and they've got an almost Harryhausenesque amount of personality. (Plus great sound design, but in Star Wars that goes without saying.)

In the hands of Irvin Kershner Empire is a bit more life-sized than Star Wars, its characters just as mythical but a little less archetypal. By the second film, the series was starting to fill out its world, developing its characters (who are starting to feel like people we know and like instead of The Naive Young Hero, The Rogue, The Damsel, The Mentor, &c.) and breaking free from its '30s forebears. Put another way, Empire feels much less like Flash Gordon fan-fiction and much more like the work of people who suspected that more than just paying homage to them, Star Wars would utterly displace the pulp serials of yore in the public imagination. With a compelling story involving great characters, terrific setpieces and top-notch craftsmanship, Empire provides a good argument that Star Wars' place as a pop culture juggernaut is fully and legitimately earned.

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