WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!
So just how do you follow up one of the most popular hits of the ’70s? With a complete dud, as it happens. “I did More American Graffiti , it made 10 cents, it failed miserably,” said George Lucas of his first foray into sequels. That film’s inability to recapture the imaginations stirred by its 1973 forebear didn’t bode well for Lucas’ next project. Would The Empire Strikes Back turn out to be simply More Star Wars, another pale imitation of a dazzling original? Emphatically, no. It was a different beast entirely. Oh, and the defining chapter of the greatest space story ever told, too.
Lucas’ refusal to rehash his space opera was underwritten by the financial independence – and, by extension, creative freedom – that Episode IV’s seminal success had brought him. “This film was not a traditional sequel,” he says. “It didn’t have a beginning and an end. It had a unique structure where a lot of the big action sequences are early on in the movie, and it ends on a personal note. These are things I’m not sure a studio would have gone along with if they’d had their say about what was going to happen.”
George was calling the shots – figuratively if not literally, having decided to put down the megaphone and act as executive producer instead. So who would direct? Step forward Irvin Kershner, Lucas’ former film-school tutor. It was an unusual but inspired choice: Kershner didn’t have blockbuster credentials (he’d just come off the Faye Dunaway thriller Eyes Of Laura Mars), but was determined to put a human face on this galaxy far, far away. “My main concern was how to characterise the people you’d already met in Star Wars,” he reflects. “I wanted humour. I wanted emotion. I wanted the people to be interesting.” And boy, did he reward his ex-pupil’s faith. Look at Empire Strikes Back and you don’t see evidence of a production that went over-budget and over-schedule; where the original screenwriter (Big Sleep scribe Leigh Brackett) died, rows erupted over the first rough cut and the film stock snapped in the camera – the latter during the Hoth shoot, in coldest Norway. No. None of that. What you see, instead, is a film that’s full of confidence, risk and vision. It sparkles with laughs (Yoda squabbling with R2-D2; C-3PO’s fussy prattlings) and smoulders with feeling (the Leia/Han “I love you”/“I know” exchange; Chewie’s mournful Hoth howl). And yes, the people are interesting.
A New Hope zaps you into euphoria, but emotionally it’s as callow as its farmboy hero. Here, the characters are more complex. Take Luke, neck-deep in a moral quandary over the fate of his friends; or Leia, torn between regal propriety and a hankering for a bit of rough. Okay, so not everyone’s a cauldron of contradictions, but there’s no denying that scriptwriter Lawrence Kasdan, Kersh and the cast brought fresh shading to these creations.
And there’s the new intake: duplicitous smoothie Lando Calrissian (the series’ answer to accusations that it was set in an all-white universe); bounty hunter Boba Fett (an instant icon despite doing and saying next to nothing); and perhaps Episode V’s biggest gamble, Einstein-eyed Force wrangler Yoda. “If that puppet had not worked, the whole film would have been down the tubes,” Lucas reckons. But it did work, wonderfully. Thanks to Frank Oz’s ultra-expressive performance, no Jedi mind tricks are needed to make you suspend your disbelief when lil’ green’s on screen. Nor, indeed, when Industrial Light & Magic are in full flight, the FX johnnies upping their own ante with quadruped war machines, treacherous asteroid fields and the daddy of all space wagons, Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer (introduced to the rhythms of John Williams’ ‘Imperial March’ – surely the saga’s top tune).
But it’s the darkness that defines Empire Strikes Back: the betrayals, the tortures and, of course, That Moment. No, not Vader’s fatherly revelation – earth-shattering though it is – but Luke’s suicidal fall, his choice of death over Darth. Lucas’ concerns over the ending’s bleakness were so grave that he even spoke to psychologists about whether the younglings could handle it. But he bit the bullet and the rest is box-office history: the film was one of the ’80s’ biggest winners. (Although, worldwide, it’s the lowest-grossing Star Wars movie, top dog being The Phantom Menace. Wrong with this picture, something is...)
And of course, it gained swift recognition as the most divine of the Holy Trilogy... didn’t it? “It’s funny, people always talk about Empire Strikes Back being their favourite,” says sound-effects supremo Ben Burtt. “Yet at the time, it was not considered as such. It leaves things undone, and when it came out there was a lot of disappointment. It was a success and it was respected, but there wasn’t this judgement that it was the best of the three films.”
Time’s been on its side, though. In 1997, The Empire Strikes Back got the lightest Special Edition facelift of the trio, which spoke volumes. And today, with the Skywalker circle completed by Revenge Of The Sith – close, but no cigar to Empire’s intensity – it’s as plain as Dagobah that the Force was strongest in this one.
You can count on one hand the sequels that have surpassed their predecessors: Bride Of Frankenstein, maybe The Godfather Part II and Aliens. And Empire was a fat middle-finger to industry wisdom that says a follow-up shouldn’t fuck with formula. More importantly, it gave audiences a childhood classic that’s stayed with them as adults; a grown-up fairytale minus a sappy ending. Unlike Star Wars, this second-act stunner can’t stand on its own. But in the Lucas firmament, it’s the one that stands tallest.