Friday, 21 August 2020

Review: Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars - Episode V
The Empire Strikes Back

Cert: PG*1 / 122 mins / Dir. Irvin Kershner / Trailer

And so it goes. Weeks turn into months, the lockdown steadily lifts (for now, at any rate) and cinemas begin to staggeringly open their doors once more. As anyone dropping in will be aware, it's been pretty quiet around these parts of late. And not just in writing about movies, but also even watching them to begin with. There are plenty of people who can review what they watch in their living rooms better than I can, so I've used this enforced downtime as just that - downtime*2.

In a bid to lure the punters back and actually have some content, Cineworld has scheduled screenings of the Back To The Future movies, the original Harry Potter saga and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. And under any other circumstances, I'd be there for all of those in a heartbeat. Then again, under any other circumstances they wouldn't be on. So. I'm as twitchy as anyone about societal 're-entry' at this point*3, and it was going to take something pretty damned special to get me back down there while the UK's virus-related casualty list continues alarmingly on a daily basis.

Fortunately, Star Wars is pretty damned special.


This year marks the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back's debut, and since its actual birthday in May was an understandably muted affair, the film is riding the current crest of opportunistic cinematic re-releases. And so it goes. Star Wars was my last theatrical visit before lockdown kicked in, so it seems only fitting that it's what gets me back in the building after five months. But how the hell am I supposed to review a film which has corded its way into my DNA over the last four decades?

It's a masterpiece. Of course it is, that's hardly a new observation. While I don't find The Empire Strikes Back as self-containedly satisfying as A New Hope*4, it's long been established as the most emotionally nuanced movie of the Original Trilogy, with moments of genuine smirk-inducing humour sitting flawlessly beside the tonal (and at some points visual) darkness. Not only is there firm character development throughout for the film's protagonists, but the cast's performances also intuitively indicate the changes which have taken place between, since the Battle of Yavin.


But along with George Lucas' story and Leigh Brackett's and Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay, the lion's share of credit for Empire's successes has to go to director Irvin Kershner. We already know the cast are fantastic by this point, but it's Kersh who really gets the performances out of them. The story moves along at a cracking pace, and rather than have the players increase their own volume to match, we concentrate on their emotional rather than physical reactions. Luke's commitment to becoming an actual Jedi after what could easily have been a near-death hallucination on the plains of Hoth; Han's dedication to keeping his newfound friends/family safe, only planning to leave to confront Jabba when he knows it's best for both him and the Rebellion; Leia's dawning realisation that the things which drive her crazy about Han are an integral part of why she's fallen in love with him; Vader's growing inner-conflict with the knowledge that the son of Anakin Skywalker has become a power in the galaxy, and whether he can (or even should) remain loyal to his dark side pledge now he has something to protect once again.

And all of this manages to clear the hurdle of sequel-itis; The Empire Strikes Back doesn't rehash or reheat ideas from its predecessor, it successfully expands out a story which already had a triumphant ending. It's not a standalone movie of course, and having the big ground battle in the first act combined with the cliffhanger finale creates an unrest which didn't sit well with me when I was younger. But looking back now (at myself as much as at the film), I can see those structural choices are intentional and precisely implemented, and they make this movie the utter joy it is.
The Empire Strikes Back is an unconventional triumph which dares filmmakers to step up to the plate with their own follow-up projects; a challenge that sees them more-than-often coming nowhere near close to matching. And so it goes.


As a nostalgic aside, this has been the first time I've seen Empire in an actual cinema since its 1997 Special Edition run, and Cineworld Didcot joins the Episode V sub-list alongside the Odeon Newcastle, Robins Durham, Dreamland Margate, Carlton Westgate and Horsebridge Whitstable.

What, you mean you don't keep a spreadsheet of these things? Okay, weirdo...

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Er... Star Wars?

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If you can, do.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Yes, yes and yes.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Yes and yes.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
That seems unlikely since it's one of the two Star Wars movies that everybody likes.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Of course there ruddy well is.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 0: This is Star Wars.

...but ...if (IF) you wanted to go around the houses with it... The Empire Strikes Back stars Mr Harrison Ford, who was in Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade with Michael Sheard, who also rocked up in The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission alongside Bruce Boa, who was in Bond-film Octopussy as was Jeremy Bulloch, who also played the same character earlier in For Your Eyes Only next to Julian Glover, who was in Hitler: The Last Ten Days with Alan Harris, who can be seen in Hanover Street which starred... Harrison Ford.

No really, you're welcome.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Yes, apparently Empire is a "PG" these days. Er, fair enough..? [ BACK ]

*2 Okay, I've got a podcast now. But it's not 'a lockdown podcast'. Just a podcast which happened to come out during the lockdown. And although listeners could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, my co-host and I were planning, tweaking, tuning this and recording pilots months beforehand. It's not a lockdown podcast. Even though it's getting lost alongside all the ones which are. C'est la vie. Or whatever passes for la vie in the trashfire that is 2020. [ BACK ]

*3 Probably moreso than many, to be fair. Seriously, I was doing hand-gel and avoiding people way before it was mainstream. And yes, I'm going to pull hipster-points on that one. No people = less disease, that's just maths. [ BACK ]

*4 On that subject, Empire's birthday means it's also 40 years since "Star Wars" became subtitled A New Hope, and I do wish the class bores would stop banging on about that as if it's some brand new Disney marketing ploy dreamt up to sell cereal (which, incidentally, Star Wars has been doing for 36 years). See also: the Han/Greedo debacle (23 years) and Jar Jar Binks (21 years). You don't have to like it lads, but you will have to accept that for many people, it's always been like that. The only domestic release of 'Star Wars' without the A New Hope subtitle is on the non-anamorphic bonus discs of the 2006 DVD release. Even your old VHS tapes are proving your ideological purity to be unfounded. There. I said it. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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