Saturday, December 19, 2015

Stubs - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels. Directed by Irvin Kershner. Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Story by George Lucas. Produced by Gary Kurtz. Color. US. Science Fiction, Action, Adventure, Fantasy

Eight weeks after the initial release of Star Wars, Lucas was already planning the sequels, their money and his own reduced involvement in the filmmaking process. In an August 25, 1977 interview in Rolling Stone, he’s quoted as saying, “I figured the merchandising along with the sequels would give me enough income over a period of time so that I could retire from professional filmmaking and go into making my own kind of movies, my sort of abstract, weird, experimental stuff.” Merchandising from Star Wars along with his share in the profits allowed him to become an Executive Producer on the next film, investing $33 million into the production of The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas quickly went from what he liked to consider himself to be, a Hollywood outsider, to his own mini entertainment mogul.

As early as June 22, 1977, 20th Century Fox was already negotiating with Lucas about a sequel, then called Star Wars 2. To write the film, Lucas hired Leigh Brackett, a science fiction writer. She completed a first draft in 1978, which Lucas didn’t particularly like. But before he could talk to her about it, she died of cancer. Lucas then wrote the second draft by himself. It was in his draft that he first used the idea of calling them Episodes; this was Episode II at the time, still no notion of a pre-sequel. It was in this draft that Lucas first came up with the idea of Darth Vader being Luke’s father (oh yeah, spoiler alert). Lucas enjoyed the writing process so much that he wrote two more drafts in April 1978.

The idea of Darth being Luke’s father was not thought of until then. It definitely changed the storyline both going forward as well as backwards. If you remember, Obi-Wan talks about Luke’s father as having been killed by Vader; now that explanation sounds sort of esoteric as if one personality killed the other or something like that, if you lean your head to the side like a dog watching television it sort of makes sense.

To justify this new plot twist, Lucas wrote a backstory for Vader. Tell me if this sounds familiar: Anakin Skywalker was Ben Kenobi's brilliant student and had a child named Luke. Anakin was swayed to the dark side by Emperor Palpatine (was also a Sith Lord as well as a politician). Anakin battled Obi-Wan Kenobi on the site of a volcano and was wounded, but then resurrected as Darth Vader. Meanwhile, Kenobi hid Luke on Tatooine while the Republic became the Empire and Vader systematically hunted down and killed what was left of the Jedi order. (That’s basically three movies summed up in a paragraph.) Now the sequel was a going to be part of a trilogy and Episode II was now Episode V, I mean he had that backstory to put on the screen. An article in the May 19, 1980 issue of Time magazine made this official, as Lucas explained that Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were centerpieces in a nine-part narrative and only two characters were planned to continue their roles throughout: R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Lawrence Kasdan, who had just completed writing Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for Lucas' pal Spielberg, was hired to complete the work on the screenplay.

To direct, Lucas looked no further than one of his old school professors at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Irvin Kershner. Kershner was not one of those, who can’t do, teach types. He had been a director before and after his time at the school. Kershner, though, was known for smaller, character-driven films like Hoodlum Priest (1961) and Face in the Rain (1963) and episodes of TV series like Ben Casey (1961) and Naked City (1962-3). Prior to Empire, Kershner had directed the thriller Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Nothing in his career seems to be pointing him for a sci-fi epic like Empire was setting up to be.

Production would get underway on March 5, 1979 on the Hardangerjøkulen glacier in Norway. The filming was just in time for the worst winter storm in fifty years. For one shot, the crew remained in the hotel and shot Mark Hamill running outside into the snow.

Eight days later, production moved to Elstree studio in England where they used 60 sets. They stayed there until September; meanwhile the budget had increased from $18.5 to $25 million, making it one of the most expensive films made to that time. The cost was so high that the bank, where Lucas had received a loan, threatened to pull it. Lucas went to 20th Century Fox to acquire more financing, which he managed to get without giving up his sequel or merchandising rights. So good was the deal that it cost Alan Ladd Jr. his job as head of the studio.

Rather than sneaking into a few theaters, like Star Wars had, Empire was given the gala treatment, with a world premiere on May 17, 1980 at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., a Royal Premiere in London three days later. The film went into general release on May 21 in the U.S. and the U.K.

Here we go...

Like Star Wars, the film opened with a crawl that sought to fill in the story since the end of the first film. The film was now titled “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”: “It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy. Evading the dreaded Imperial Starfleet, a group of freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker has established a new secret base on the remote ice world of Hoth. The evil lord Darth Vader, obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space…”

A behind the scenes shot showing the filming of the title crawl.

The action starts with an Empire Spaceship deploying said probes. Several land on Hoth, the frozen planet below, where the Rebels have set up their base of operations. While he’s on patrol riding a two-legged Tauntaun, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) sees a probe land and thinks it’s a meteorite. 

Luke (Mark Hamill) tells Han he's going to check out what he thinks is a meteorite.

Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who is also on patrol, heads back to camp while Luke goes to investigate. He notices that the Tauntaun is getting spooked and before he can do anything, he is knocked unconscious by a Wampa, a predatory creature, which kills the Tauntaun and drags Luke away.

Luke hanging in the Wampa's cave like a side of beef.

Back at camp, Han announces to Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) that he’s leaving to stay ahead of Jabba the Hut, his creditor. If he doesn’t leave, he fears for the security of the base. Leia doesn’t want him to leave, but recoils when Han suggests it’s because she’s secretly in love with him. They part on bitter terms.

Before Han can leave, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) informs him that Master Luke has not returned from patrol. Han is alarmed to hear that. With a blizzard raging, night falling and the base about to lockdown, he goes out in search of Luke.

Alarmed to learn Luke is still outside, Han (Harrison Ford) decides to go looking for him.

Meanwhile, Luke regains consciousness hanging upside down, like a side of beef, in the Wampa’s cave. Tapping into the Force, Luke manages to call his lightsaber to him. Freeing himself, he fights and at least severely wounds the Wampa. Escaping out into the cold, hostile night, he eventually succumbs to the conditions. But before he passes out, Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) appears to him in a vision, telling Luke to seek out the Jedi Master who had trained him, Yoda.

Back at the Rebel outpost, Leia, who is in charge, reluctantly agrees to seal the base for the night, knowing she is trapping Han and Luke outside until morning.

Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is reluctant to close the base and leave Han and Luke to fend for themselves.

When Han finally finds him, Luke is near death. Cutting open his own dead Tauntaun, Han shoves Luke into its body cavity to stay warm while he sets up a shelter for the night. Luke comes to, back at the base. Han continues to harass Leia about being in love with him. To prove she’s not, she gives Luke a passionate (though we now know from Episode III is an incestuous) kiss.

Even though Han destroys Vader’s probe, it is already too late. Vader knows they’re there and sends in a fleet of armored (and awkward looking) imperial walkers. Boarding his fighter, Luke, along with others, flies out to stop the walkers. But they are outmatched. The ship is hit; Luke’s gunner is killed and he crash lands.

At the rebel base, with Vader’s men moving in, Chewbacca, Han, Princess Leia and C-3PO escape in the Millennium Falcon. On the ground, Luke watches them fly away before getting into his space fighter with R2-D2 navigating, takes off and heads for the Dagobah System and Yoda. When gets to his destination, he crashes into a remote swamp.

Luke is helpless to prevent his ship from sinking to the bottom of the swamp.

Things aren't going much better back on the Millennium Falcon, which is malfunctioning. Unable to activate its light speed hyper drive and with the Empire’s starship hot on his tail, Han tries to avoid detection in an asteroid field, taking refuge inside one. There, the crew feverishly works to repair the spacecraft. In an intimate moment, Han and Leia kiss, but he soon realizes that they are not inside the asteroid, but actually inside the belly of an enormous worm inside the asteroid. They fire up the Millennium Falcon and make their escape just as its closing its jaws.

Han flies the Millennium Falcon out of the belly of a giant worm.

Meanwhile, Luke is not alone. An aged troll-like Muppet is hovering around him. When he engages the creature, he rifles through Luke’s provisions and sort of talks in circles. He claims to know this Yoda (Frank Oz) Luke is looking for, but doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to reveal that he is the one he seeks. At first, he is reluctant to take the boy on for training, citing several reasons, including Luke’s age, his impatience and his bitter attitude which make him unsuitable to be a Jedi. But he eventually does come around, but warns Luke that the Force has a very seductive dark side, adding that Luke will know the difference if he is at peace with himself and that Jedis never use their power aggressively. As part of his training, Luke confronts an image of Darth Vader, whom he manages to behead in a lightsaber duel. However, when he sees behind the mask, it is his face staring back at him.

Luke trains with Yoda  (voiced by Frank Oz) on his back.

Darth Vader, meanwhile, orders his Starfleet to follow the Falcon. For the first time, we see Vader’s evil master, the Emperor (Clive Revill). The Emperor tells Vader that this Luke Skywalker is the son of Anakin Skywalker and must be dealt with before he threatens the Empire. Rather than killing Luke, Vader suggests that he can be lured to the dark side, which is all right by the Emperor. To set a trap, Vader convenes bounty hunters to track down Han and the Millennium Falcon.

The Emperor (Clive Revill) communicates with Vader via hologram.

Han flies toward the Cloud City metropolis of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), a former associate who now controls the Tibanna gas mine near Bespin.

Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) used to run with Han in the old days.

Meanwhile, Yoda tasks Luke with telepathically lifting his fighter plane from the swap it has sunk into. Luke complains and cannot manage it, telling Yoda that the mystical ideals of the Force are impossible to attain. Yoda, however, raises the fighter with little effort. Luke continues to work on his skills and improves, but he’s bothered by a vision that Han and Leia are in danger. He wants to rescue them, but Yoda warns him that he will destroy the Rebel movement if he doesn’t complete his training. Obi-Wan weighs in and warns Luke he will soon be tempted by the dark side of the Force and will have to battle Darth Vader alone. But Luke ignores such advice and sets out to rescue his friends.

Yoda has no trouble with lifting the ship out of the swamp using the "Force".

Obi-Wan’s ghost mutters to Yoda that Luke is the last hope of the universe. In response, Yoda professes: “There is another”. We'll have to wait to find out who that is.

The spirit of Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) speaks with Yoda.

Meanwhile, Han and Lando are reunited and the men pick up where they last left off, fighting over the ownership of the Millennium Falcon. Shortly thereafter, Vader arrives and Lando rats them out to him. That’s when they learn of Vader’s plan to entice Luke into a trap and to then carbon-freeze his body so it can be transported back to the Emperor. But as a Beta-test, Vader uses the carbon-freezing device on Han. As Han’s going into the device, Leia confesses her love for him and gives him a good-bye kiss.

Leia and Han share a kiss before he is frozen.

Vader then hands over Han’s body to the bounty hunters, who leave to collect their rewards.
Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO are detained, but Lando proves he’s not a bad guy, after all, by secretly rescuing them. He also promises to help save Han. But Vader advises Luke to given in to his anger, because it is necessary to killing one’s enemies.

Lando (Billy Dee Williams) turns Han over to Darth Vader. Vader, in turn,
 hands Han over to Bobba Fett (Jeremy-Bulloch), a bounty hunter.

In the fight and perhaps in an attempt to unleash that anger, Vader unhinges part of the space station, causing Luke to be sucked out of the room. While he clings for his life to a railing above an abyss, his friends come under gunfire across the city. They manage to recover R2-D2 and escape in the Millennium Falcon.

Luke gets sucked out a hole Darth Vader creates.

Meanwhile, Luke’s battle with Vader continues and Vader cuts off Luke’s hand. In shock, he backs away to another perch above the abyss. Vader invites Luke, once again, to embrace evil and declares himself to be Luke’s long-lost father. (This is the big reveal that throws the entire storyline akimbo and "gives" us the prequel trilogy. Thanks!)

Darth Vader actually says "No, I am your father", not the oft misquoted "Luke, I am your father."

Having to choose between certain death and a paternal reunion, Luke falls into the void, landing inside a chute, which he slides through to the outskirts of Cloud City. Since the city is floating, Luke has to cling for life in outer space. He calls out loud for Obi-Wan and Leia.  
Leia hears Luke’s voice and insists on going back to save her friend.

Darth Vader returns to his Stardestroyer and orders the Millennium Falcon captured. Speaking telepathically to Luke, Darth tells him that their union is “destiny.” The Stardestroyer manages to get the Millennium Falcon in its tractor beam at the same moment R2-D2 fixes the spaceship’s hyper drive and the ship blasts into light speed, avoiding capture.

Luke is given a new hand while Lando and Chewbacca leave to save Han.

At a Rebel station, Luke is outfitted with a new hand. Lando and Chewbacca, in the Millennium Falcon, set out to save Han as the film ends.

The anticipation for a new Star Wars film assured that this movie, despite its higher budget, would be a success. The film was a huge success, making over $538 million worldwide since in its initial theatrical release. While there were some negative reviews, The Empire Strikes Back is considered more adult than Star Wars and the best film in the series.

Despite that, The Empire Strikes Back got the same re-do that the original Star Wars received in 1997, when a glitzier Special Edition was rolled out with enhanced special effects. I haven’t seen it, so I won’t comment about it, but like Star Wars, the film that was released in the theaters is “lost” in that the right holder has refused for nearly 20 years to release it in any form.

Not that the special effects couldn’t have used some work. Considered ahead of its time, they are and were then, sort of hit and miss. When anyone is riding a Tauntaun, it is obviously stop motion and really no better than Ray Harryhausen had been doing since the 1940s. You never really buy into the idea that someone is really riding the beast. And the close ups of the Tauntaun aren’t really convincing either.

While I am not an engineer it is also clear to me that Lucas or whoever is responsible for designing mechanical objects in these films isn't either. Take for example, the Imperial Walkers, which is essentially a tank, but rather than treads, it struts around on spindly mechanical legs. It may be awesome to look at, but it is an impractical design. You would suspect that even long, long ago, people capable of intergalactic flight would have come up with something better to propel vehicles than walk them.

Science is also fiction in this film as well. It seems odd to me that Tauntauns would live on Hoth, but haven't evolved so they can deal with the extremely cold weather of the planet. Isn’t that something evolution is supposed to take care of? And the sequence with the giant worm inside the asteroid: While Han and crew don oxygen masks, they traipse around in their “street” clothes, so to speak, in what would be a zero-gravity environment, not to mention extremely cold, etc. This isn’t a planet with an atmosphere, but rather a large rock.

And how would a giant worm get inside an asteroid in the first place? Unless it eats rocks, there is no food or water source. Picky, picky I hear you say, but I have a hard time believing this wasn’t thought about before the film was made. This isn’t the world in which Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon was made. By the time The Empire Strikes Back was released, we’d been to the moon and had learned a lot more about space and that sort of treatment doesn’t really fly anymore.

Most of the original cast returns, minus Peter Cushing, whose character, though killed in the original film, seems to have been a mistake. Once again, as in Revenge of the Sith, Vader reports directly to the evil Emperor, making The Grand Moff retconned as superfluous to the overall story.

Billy Dee Williams is the most notable new cast member. Williams was one of the better known Black actors in the 1970s, appearing in Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and Mahogany (1975), both opposite singer trying to become actress, Diana Ross. After Mahogany, Williams played the title roles in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976) and the TV movie Scott Joplin (1977). He would go on to play Lando Calrissian in Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Lego Movie (2014). A story like this needs new characters added as the story progresses and Lando is a good addition to the cast.

I know he wasn’t supposed to, but there are times when Yoda really does look like a hand puppet; an elaborate puppet, but still nothing more. These were simpler times and in the later trilogy he would be computer animated. Frank Oz, who voices him, had been a mainstay with Jim Henson's Muppets for a number of years. Yoda maybe the best remembered new character introduced in the film.

The big moment of the movie is when Darth Vader reveals to Luke that’s he’s really his father. It’s the statement that forever changes the Star Wars saga and is responsible for three mediocre films to tell a backstory that we didn’t really need. Now that it’s been established through three films leading up to Star Wars and confirmed in The Empire Strikes Back, I’m left with a couple of questions.

Why doesn’t Darth Vader also reveal to Leia that he’s her father, too? The two seem to have at least an ongoing awareness of each other before Star Wars starts. You’d think that their relationship would have come up at some point before.

And why don’t the droids he built as a boy, R2-D2 and C-3PO, recognize Darth Vader as their creator or call him Anakin, since they would have known him by that name? We know their memories weren’t wiped clean.

Despite these minor complaints (you can find them in most films), The Empire Strikes Back is a more complex film than Star Wars. In the predecessor, it is pretty obvious who the good guys are (The Rebels) and who the bad guys are (The Empire). In Star Wars, the only gray character is Han and it’s not because he’s a smuggler, these guys are usually heroes in these kinds of stories (see Firefly as an example). It’s because he shoots Greedo, perhaps, before Greedo would have shot him. In the old west, and those seem to be the rules we’re operating under here, it’s okay to shoot a man/creature dead after he’s shot at you; that’s self-defense not murder.

In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s all about living in the gray. As an example, Lando may have turned in Han to Darth Vader, but it was because he had Cloud City to protect. After that, he comes to the rescue of Leia and the others and goes out to save his friend from certain death.

Luke seems to be surrounded by liars and deceit his whole life. Princess Leia seems drawn to Han, but she also almost purposefully leads poor Luke on. Obi-Wan and Uncle Owen have also been lying to him about his father. Is he the savior of the Universe or is that really left to someone else? What’s a young man from Tatooine to think?

Everyone’s motives are shady, Darth Vader’s included. Despite the Emperor’s order to kill young Skywalker, Vader doesn’t want to. He has split loyalties. On the one hand, he’s the Emperor’s minion; on the other, blood is thicker than water, except of course where Princess Leia is concerned.

More complex characters, and more complex situations, makes this a deeper film. If you liked/loved the original Star Wars, you will most likely enjoy this one as much. There is something about the original film, though, that is hard to beat.

But at this point in the original trilogy, the trajectory is definitely pointing up, which leads us to Return of the Jedi (1983)

No comments:

Post a Comment