BLOCKBUSTER: Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (USA, 1980)
Directed by Irvin Kershner
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams 

IMDb Top 250: #11 (28/10/12)

The success of Star Wars took everyone by surprise - most of all George Lucas, who had struggled for four years trying to get his dream project made. Out of the original principal cast, only Alec Guinness had signed on for a share of the gross; ironically, he would be the one to try and distance himself from Star Wars in later life.
With huge box office success and Oscar nominations on his hands, Lucas knew that the world would be a ripe for a sequel. But feeling overwhelmed during pre-production for what was then called Star Wars II, he made perhaps the best creative decision of his life: he backed off, and let someone else direct. This might all sound like schadenfreude, considering the scorn that I have poured on Lucas' skills as a director. But there can be little denying that The Empire Strikes Back improves upon its predecessor in pretty much every way.
Much of the success of Empire lies in Irvin Kersher's approach as a director. Kershner had no prior experience of blockbusters or science fiction, having made his name with small, low-budget indie character dramas. He expressed his surprise at being given the job, with Lucas reassuring him by saying: "you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood." Sadly for Kershner, directing this film proved to be a poisoned chalice: the only films he helmed after this were Never Say Never Again and Robocop 2.
The main difference between Lucas and Kershner, regardless of any gulf in talent, is that Kershner is far more focussed on the characters. Kershner was interested in what he called "the landscape of the human face", filling the screen with more close-ups that focus on people's expressions where Lucas would have the actors just run into shot with the camera some distance back. Even if the story was as silly as its predecessor, this decision at least gives the impression that we are going somewhere, and that there is a greater attempt being made at subtlety.
Fortunately, for Kershner and for us, The Empire Strikes Back does have a better story. The first film always gave the impression that our heroes were going to win, either by plot points directly in favour of them or by the enemies' lack of capability (e.g. the inability of Storm Troopers to shoot straight). This time, there actually feels like there is something at stake, with greater odds being stacked against the rebels. Setting the opening on a snowy planet creates a sense of hostility and impending death, with the inhospitable conditions reflecting the rebels' fragile predicament.
In addition to the harsher opening, the story puts a series of obstacles before the protagonists which create conflict and make the story more interesting. There is no Death Star, which is relatively easy to find and destroy; instead there are far more manoeuvrable Star Destroyers, scattered all throughout the galaxy. Having the hyperdrive of the Millennium Falcon damaged means that there is no get-out-of-jail-free card for Han; he can't just leave the fight to go back to life as a smuggler, notwithstanding his feelings for Leia. And for the most part, there is no Luke to stand around being the hero. All of this may sound pretty elemental when written out like this, but it's worth listing these things considering how stake-free the prequels were.
Not only is the story better, but the dialogue in Empire is much more believable. We see the characters starting to move beyond their original archetypes, and as the higher stakes pull us in so they begin to feel more rounded. Harrison Ford is given a lot more really funny one-liners, turning him from a cocksure cowboy into a genuinely loveable rogue. His and Leia's conflict is very well-played, especially their (incestuous) love triangle with Luke and their (improvised) farewell in Cloud City. The supporting characters are more memorable too, with a number of fleshed-out imperial officers and of course Boba Fett (see my review of Attack of the Clones).
Not only is The Empire Strikes Back narratively stronger than Star Wars, but it is also genuinely darker. We're still in pantomime territory, with the lines between good and evil being clearly drawn, but as before we are conscious that more effort is being put in all round. Darth Vader stops being a souped-up Klytus, with Grand Moff Tarkin "holding his leash", and becomes more threateningly obsessive. His opening scenes during the Hoth battle serve to make him genuinely menacing, confirming that he is human but also reinforcing how callously mechanical he has become.
Vader's development is mirrored by that of Luke, who spends much of the film in isolation and anguish. The training he undergoes with Yoda serves to make the Jedi more complex, showing the pain that comes from being able to see into the future or feel another's presence. His confrontation in the cave dips its toe into debates about the duality of man, while in leaving he is asked to consider whether his friends' death would serve the greater good. You won't find deep existential quandaries in these scenes, but you do get a lot more than you would expect.
The action scenes in Empire are generally very well-paced. Since Kershner was not an action director, or had any great knowledge of special effects, we should give credit to Lucas and ILM where it is due. While the prequels were overflowing with effects but utterly devoid of direction, in Empire the two combine in near-perfect harmony. Lucas provides the eye candy, with impressive model shots and prop work during the battles as well as improved lightsaber and sound effects. But Kershner is always on hand to keep the camera on the characters, preventing us from feeling overwhelmed.
One of the big problems with the prequels was the lightsaber fights; they were so tightly choreographed that there was no emotional intensity to them, and hence no reason to care. But in Empire, the lightsaber battles reflect the mind-set and emotional state of the characters. The duel between Luke and Vader goes through three distinct rounds, so that unlike the duel in Revenge of the Sith, we are waiting with great anticipation each time they cut back to it. We also get the sense of Vader genuinely toying with Luke: he could just crush him like an ant, but that would be too easy.
This brings us, inevitably, to the twist. It's hard to imagine in 2012 how audiences would have reacted to the big reveal the first time around; suffice to say that when James Earl Jones read the script, he openly blurted out: "He's lying!". It's also hard to imagine, in an age where everything is leaked online, how this was kept a secret for so long. The original script that David Prowse delivered had Vader telling Luke that Obi-Wan killed his father, and Mark Hamill only found out a few minutes before shooting. Even after it's been parodied into the ground, it still has quite an impact, coming completely out of left-field and yet completely making sense.
There are a couple of problems with Empire which prevent it from being a great film. There are a number of contrivances in the middle section, designed to stretch out the pursuit of the Falcon; the Empire find and then lose the ship on several occasions, usually just so a character can be introduced (like Boba Fett) or killed off (like Captain Needa). Moreover, there is still the underlying sense of a film is taking itself a little too seriously, or at least that Lucas isn't aware that one can be dark and playful at the same time. It's a relatively minor quibble, considering the film's successes, but it's worth reminding ourselves just how deep into Flash Gordon territory we are.
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back is a marked improvement over its predecessor in (almost) every conceivable way. The improvements in the visual effects are thankfully matched by the strides forward in character development and direction, which make this a shoe-in for the best film in the Star Wars series. Whatever the merits of the instalments either side of it, or the flaws of the series as a whole, it still holds up as a very good film in its own right, and the benchmark against which all the others should be measured.