The Ronald Reagan New Wave: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Edited June 2016

After the completion of my American New Wave series, I found myself hungry for more, and with the rather stark delineation of mainstream ’70s American and ’80s American cinema, continuing chronologically seemed a fair idea indeed for it’s ease of access without necessarily pluming the same self-consciously raw, arty cinema I generally stuck with to define American film during the 1970s. This is an opportunity for me to plum an type of film I have almost entirely avoided thus far for the purposes of this blog: classic genre filmmaking, or pop fare as we call it when we’re feeling particularly feisty. The series will continue, albeit with a generally more slap-dash rule set fitting the parameters of the generally lighter, airier cinema of the ’80s like a glove. Essentially, I’ll go by year, but within each year, I can cover one film in depth, or a few in smaller review format, or any mix in between. Whatever suits my boat, for, after-all, the ’80s was all about personal satisfaction, wasn’t it?

As for publication schedule, It’ll be more compact, a sort of Holiday treat to myself where I get to focus on “fun” movies in place of all the doom and gloom I force upon myself cinematically (I’m such a masochist aren’t I?). In other words, I want to keep things coming fast and loose, to give myself a filmic sugar rush, and to have a little fun with it. My estimation will be the series will continue into the very early ’90s (being that the first few years of the ’90s were basically the ’80s culturally and cinematically anyway, before the New American Independent bubble really blew up big time mid decade). And I’d like to have it all done by the New Year, or slightly afterward. So that’s one month of the poppiest pop I can find. Survival, without cavities, is not an option. And do excuse the titles; sometimes I like to have fun with myself, even against myself. The titles are Holiday Present Part B. 

So much has been written about Star Wars it’s almost impossible to add anything new to the corpus, and I won’t try to, except to say that everyone who criticizes it and everyone who adores it are really speaking past one another. Their arguments enjoy fundamental similitude. It’s no secret that a great many people loathe the Star Wars prequels – I’m none too heavy a fan myself – and the reasons are obvious and multitudinous: indulgent filmmaking, superficial visuals, self-serious, haphazard dialogue, druggy, ham-bone acting. As a rule, I won’t argue with these flaws, but I will say this: many of them, particularly in the writing and acting department, are true with as full a force in the original three films as in the prequels. Insofar as people wish to pump up the Star Wars films as implacable, fertile, drip-fed drama in the traditional way people discuss drama, they’re out of luck come their proof.  Insofar as the Star Wars prequels misunderstand or avoid the human condition, so too do the original films.

Here’s the thing: so what? Star Wars shouts out into the broad daylight that it wants nothing to do with the human condition, or “realist” dialogue, or lived-in acting. Complaining about the acting and dialogue in the Star Wars prequels miss the point not only because they are similarly suffering in the original films, but because the original films are very plainly antithetical to this spirit. They are, on some level, anti-nuanced, and far more interested and in love with rococo emotional gestures. The reason is simple: George Lucas does not particularly comprehend dialogue, but he is a master of visual storytelling. The emotions in Star Wars – and they are emotional films to the core – lie not in the characters and how they relate to each other, but in us and how we relate to the images and sounds on display in the film. They’re perceptual, sensory, experiential films, a beacon of style and substance in harmony rather than a battle between the two. If the Star Wars prequels misstep, and they do frequently, it is because Lucas’ ego misread his heart, recasting the erotic pull of the mythical otherworld into a script-first excoriation of common sense where the dialogue, not the visuals, stage a coup for control of the film. That they are simple is not a problem; that the prequels mistake themselves for complex is a disaster. The appeal of the original trilogy is as iron-clad as it is elemental: nothing less than the thought of being a child again, looking up at the sky, and imagining the day away with a world far, far away.

So then, where were we when we left our wide-eyed child last time? It would seem his main-man Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), that child’s depiction of the classical hero’s arc at its barest, had saved the day! A Jedi he’d become, and a Death Star he’d thwarted, all mere, but particularly loud, blips on a large path to inadvertently becoming the great hero of the galaxy he’d likely spent many a sun-scorched Tatooine day dreaming on about. Of course, he’d lost much along the way: his adoptive parents, his mentor Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), his innocence, and his ability to ever dream wide without knowing the consequences. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is those consequences laid out with stunning tersity and grandeur for the eye to see. For the Empire’s leadership, Darth Vader (voiced by an ear-piercingly baritone James Earl Jones and given physical weight and heft by David Prowse) and Emperor Palpatine/ Darth Sidious (voice of Clive Revill) had escaped the destruction of their home-base, and were on the offense now. They, and the Galactic Empire they rule over with an iron fist, lay waste to a rebel base on Hoth, sending adrift Luke (who must train more by seeking out one of Obi Wan’s old friends Yoda) and his friends Han Solo (Harrison Ford playing the lovably thuggish rogue who, more than Luke, was always the character children wanted to be), his hirsute sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fischer, ready to play with the boys in a commandingly demanding performance)  off to Han’s old friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, oozing class and sinewy cool) on the high-flying Heaven’s Gate of Cloud City.

Certainly, the undeniable highlight of the film is its visual storytelling, announcing it as a work of world and character building that reaches magisterial heights. The sheer lived-in detail of the whole film is astonishing, from the towering grandeur of the space vistas to the minute ticks that galvanize the daily lives of the characters on the ground. The sense of history, that this is a place that’s weathered the passage of time and withered and flickered throughout history, is palpably pungent. From the tactile yet wonderfully cluttered military base of Hoth to the caustic, sickly swamps of Dagobah, to the whimsy and existential impression of the high-flying Cloud City, everything is positively slapped together in a fascinatingly messy, oddly personal way, approaching the dysfunction of real life more than a movie-set.  The character of every place is felt in its visuals, and that, for all Lucas’ flaws as a writer of dialogue, is the culmination and linchpin of his mastery of visual storytelling.

But yes, that dialogue is part of the movie, even if it’s thankfully less common here than in A New Hope (there’s nothing that achieves the slithering high-camp of Alec Guiness’ wistful pronunciation of “Reach out with your feelings”). Lucas seems more willing to let Irvin Kershner’s camera do the talking, a welcome change indeed. And there are, if nothing else, a few wry bits of character-dialogue (the famed exchange, Leia: “I love you”, Han: “I know”, captures the essence of the mischievous, egotistic ass that is Han Solo better than any thing else in any of the three films).   Besides, even when the dialogue has a serious case of the hams, it works in the antediluvian, operatic way this slice of grand space theater has been intended, playing out less on the layer of reality or film than a bunch of kids with their favorite action figures having the time of their lives.

Scripts are things for petty fools in the world of Star Wars though, especially when Kershner reapplies Lucas’ world to achieve something as metallically fastidious as the fire-and-brimstone haunt of the operatic tragedy that is the conclusion. As a work of visual storytelling pairing kinetic verve with thoughtful reflection, there are few films to match. So much has been said about how Empire is the “dark” sequel, but that underplays how filigreed with zip and pizzaz a good portion of the film is (after all, this isn’t a Rossellini film). The inextricable sense of consequence not only bolsters the drama, but gives the energy of the film a kick in the pants from the opening Hoth battle to the dramatic conclusion. There’s a real sense of impact to the whole thing – in the environments, in the characters, in the action and the wounds – that galvanizes the film in a darker energy than the first “gee willickers” film in the series. If A New Hope belonged on Broadway, Empire has the grandiose bombast of Wagner, minus the fascism.

Within, it’s a perfect pop mixture, the kind of darkened, sinister, serious blockbuster where the stakes and gloomy quasi-horror serves not to smother and kill the kinetic vibe but to enlighten and enliven it to new realms of impact. It’s nimble and light on its feet but graced with the heavy fires of hell, sublime and able to move with little effort between the pits of existential dread to the mountaintops of sky-high excitement, all before bottoming out in one of the most unadorned nihilist conclusions ever found in corporate summer fare. This is a bruised, brittle blockbuster, and if it’s not really one of the greatest films of all time, as just about everyone wants to believe, that’s more a function of the artistic demarcations of blockbuster filmmaking altogether. This excepted, Empire is still unbelievably good at the things it sets out to do, and those things, if not truly all that radical in the grand scheme of future blockbusters, certainly were for the time. More importantly, they are assembled into such a fierce beast of a film, every cog precisely wound for success but with enough liberating freedom to charmingly mishap. It’s a hard meal to back away from, even if it’s more “great craft” than “great art”. For great craft is a beautiful thing, and few films are crafted quite as well as The Empire Strikes Back.

Score: 9/10

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