Star Wars gave us the setting. The Empire Strikes Back gave us the story.
If the first film was a brilliant bit of science-fiction imagining (laced with an undercurrent of old-fashioned gee-wizardry), its sequel is where things became epic. Screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan took the initial vision of George Lucas and structured it as a Bildungsroman, in which young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) came to understand who he was, and what that meant.
Crucial to that, of course, was the expansion of the character of Darth Vader. A threat in Star Wars: Episode I – A New Hope, he developed into a mysterious, intimate presence, thanks to David Prowse’s more delicate movements and the wider range of notes in James Earl Jones’ voice. In Empire, Vader has the fatalistic air of inevitability. By the time Luke is being fitted with a robotic hand at the end, signaling his move toward the dark side, things had shifted significantly in Star Wars’ moral universe.
Perhaps I focus on Vader because Hamill wasn’t quite up to carrying the weight this franchise suddenly demanded (he’s completely out-acted by Yoda). Thankfully, a plethora of supporting characters picked up the slack: mournful Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), all fierce fur and sad cries; the vaudeville comedy routine of R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels); Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), running his cloud city as if it were a nightclub. And then there are Han Solo and Princess Leia, who developed a Beatrice and Benedick dynamic thanks to the charisma of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. If The Empire Strikes Back is first a Bildungsroman, it is secondarily a prickly romance in which the woman is in the driver’s seat. (It never occurred to me as a kid how significant it was that Princess Leia was running the rebellion.) The Han-Leia relationship isn’t worthy of Shakespeare or Jane Austen, of course, but it’s certainly in the tradition of both, as well as of screwball comedy like His Girl Friday. Admit it, you can see Cary Grant responding to the declaration “I love you” with a soft “I know.”
By the time Luke is being fitted with a robotic hand at the end, things had shifted significantly in Star Wars’ moral universe.
With Irvin Kershner stepping into the director’s chair, The Empire Strikes Back also gained a certain stateliness, a studio-factory professionalism that still allowed space for the saga’s inherent scruffiness. Zooming in on crucial objects for suspense, making sure the timing in the Han-Leia scenes is just right (their flirtations almost always take place amidst chaos), Kershner’s steady hand is invaluable, if not groundbreaking.
There is one shot, however, that is fleetingly, beautifully esoteric. Evading a fleet of Star Destroyers, Solo’s Millennium Falcon makes a sudden dive, causing two of the pursuing battleships to nearly collide. We watch from below, and as a series of triangles and trapezoids float in and out of the frame, elegantly aligned yet also on the verge of disarray, it’s as if we’re in the midst of an experimental film shot in deep space. Taken out of context, it’s as abstract as 2001’s light show.
The irony, of course, is that the Star Wars franchise came to stand for the opposite of experimentation. Rather, it was seen as formula – a map that so many other major-studio efforts would try to follow. Which is why it’s always a thrill and delight to return to Empire itself and see what a weird adventure it is. On Dagobah, Yoda sends Luke into a cave where he meets a vision of Vader and, ultimately, himself. The moment is creepy and obscure, not to mention rooted in dark family psychology. And, most wonderfully of all, it’s anchored by the ominous muttering of a little green puppet. There is no formula for this. It’s magic.