Star Wars rewatch: The Empire Strikes Back is the special effects movie that hates special effects
As we count down to The Rise of Skywalker (Dec. 20), Entertainment Weekly critic Darren Franich is looking back on every film in the Star Wars franchise. Last week: Everyone’s an orphan and nobody cares. Next week: A perv sluglord throws a party above some all-consuming desert dentata. This week: The good one.
Nothing works in The Empire Strikes Back. The Millennium Falcon can’t jump to light speed, and the failing hyperdrive cackles like a wheezing hyena. The rebel airspeeders can’t go searching for lost Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) because the engineers are “having some trouble adapting them to the cold.” Bad weather is a primary antagonist. The Tauntauns are Hoth locals — billy-goated camel raptors, fleece white as New York snow — and even they have trouble with the planet’s bitter chill. One beast twitches into a frozen death gurgle, and so Han Solo (Harrison Ford) improvises a sleeping bag from pure carcass.
That’s a fun DIY project, in a movie full of tinkering. We first see Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) welding on the Falcon exterior. Han takes a turn with the welding torch, tells Chewie to flip a switch — and explosions sizzlepop at his feet. Half the cast spends half the running time fixing the Falcon, like refugees baling water off a Swiss cheese lifeboat. C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) talks to the ship directly, computer to computer. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is welding right before she kisses Han the first time. R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) finally fixes the hyperdrive, so here’s the pulse-pounding climax: An engine, working.
In any DIY project, the first couple of plans will always fail. You have to improvise. The AT-ATs have armor “too strong for blasters,” Luke tells his Rogue Squadron. So the pilots weaponize harpoons and tow cables. For artillery, that’s positively janitorial — and later, the Falcon will escape the Imperial fleet by blending into Imperial garbage.
Meanwhile, even the most trustworthy pieces of space tech prove faulty. “All the scopes are dead,” Luke warns R2-D2 when they hit Dagobah’s atmosphere, “I can’t see a thing!” Across the galaxy, an Imperial officer declares that the Millennium Falcon “no longer appears on our scopes,” so that’s another captain squeezed breathless by the Dark Side. Don’t trust the scopes: Wasn’t that the big note Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) gave Luke on his Death Star run? Now the Rebels keep hiding in plain sight, while flummoxed Empire types stare feverishly down at their screens. Luke sneak-attacks an AT-AT from underneath. Han hides the Falcon in a Star Destroyer’s blind spot.
George Lucas grew up a gearhead, a car guy from a car culture. Lucas and Hamill both suffered traumatic automobile accidents: Weird coincidence, or just California back then. In Empire, Luke crashes an airspeeder into snowy Hoth, then crashes his X-Wing into the sinking Dagobah swamp. (Call it a hat trick: He crashlands himself down to the bottom of Cloud City.)
And Lucas lived through making the original Star Wars, that ongoing calamity production, a psychological wound that has never healed. In that first production, Artoo couldn’t move more than a few feet per shot. The space battles were unfinished after long months and big millions. One duncecap stormtrooper hit his head walking through a door. There are horror stories about the early screenings, Lucas showing off his months-long anxiety attack to friends who just didn’t get it. Sometimes, when a project is successful, even the most frustrated artist will convince themselves they were happy with the result. But Star Wars made Lucas a very rich man who thought Star Wars needed so much more work. And so he would tinker, replacing the engine, replacing the car.
Maybe it’s wrong to scan much autobiography here. Lucas had less to do with this first sequel than any Star Wars pre-Disney. And so The Empire Strikes Back becomes key evidence for anyone who thinks he was the least essential piece of the Star Wars puzzle. The Lawrence Kasdan dialogue crackles. The John Williams score sounds like a cathedral made of fireworks. Director Irvin Kershner shoots with a walk-and-talk fluidity that makes Lucas’ own staging look painfully flat. All hail sound designer Ben Burtt: The tittering probe droid, the braying AT-AT laserspray.
Yoda (Frank Oz) is a high point for non-human humanity, a young-old elftroll with more personality in his ears than all Peter Jackson’s orcs combined. Every aspect of the production design skyrockets, really. Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) trended iconic off a groovy helmet. I watched Empire on a videotape from the first Bush administration, and the fuzzy image felt like the visual equivalent of Fett’s famously dented outfit. (Who knows about The Mandalorian, but that body armor looks a tad too shiny in the press photos.)
The screenplay co-credits Leigh Brackett, a sci-fi pulp lifer who co-wrote Howard Hawks classics. And the best possible version of Empire — only occasionally the movie that actually exists — is a cosmic creature-featuring space opera squeezed into a Hawksian banterbox rom-com. Infernal monsters keep trying to eat our heroes alive, and those heroes react by debating who’s scruffy-looking.
Every Star Wars after this one will try to make its characters important, like societally crucial, glazed with Chosen One frosting, sanctified with sacred sacrifice. That’s especially true for Darth Vader (David Prowse), forever after a morose figure of tragedy. Here, he’s a gleeful later-stage fascist. The execution of subordinates has become. a regular piece of his work day. Even his big daddy revelation is less emotional than power-grab ambitious: He wants to out-Emperor the Emperor, with Luke riding shotgun.
And almost every modern franchise lives with the conventional wisdom that Empire is great because it’s bleak or heavy, battles lost, old friends carbonited. But Ford and Fisher centralize the plot around a zippy mood of flagrant cool. They are getting away from something: the Empire, technically, but also from the Rebellion, that cheerful band of vanilla soldiers. The inverted plot structure — from Epic Battle to Psychodramatic Duel — makes this the right kind of war story, the epic canvas sharpening to a personal saga.
Early on, Leia leads a stern strategy session on Hoth. She could be any gruff official in any grimdark battlefest. The playful spirit of Empire cuts the stilted self-seriousness down to size. “I am not a committee!!” Leia will scream at Han: More rom-com fun between hate-lovers, and a profound statement that this character is more than her military bona fides. The journey of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) tracks a similar arc. Introduced as a high-level politician in a society ornate enough to give important men decorative capes, he struggles to rationalize the financial needs of his mining colony with the moral problem of space fascism. And then he grabs a blaster and tells Cloud City to abandon ship — a scene Williams plays with relaxed gravity, but he’s very clearly taking this job and shoving it.
Hell, did anyone working on Empire really care about the Rebellion? The opening crawl describes the Hoth contingent as “a group of freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker.” Luke seems, let’s say, undevoted to his own authority, ditching the rendezvous for a semester abroad catching vibes with an old philosopher. And Yoda’s whole teaching process is one big cutdown of Luke’s apparent rebel-hero status. Actually, to hear the Jedi Master tell it, Luke’s problems began with his origin story, when he started looking iconically toward those twin suns. “Never his mind on where he was,” the teacher rages, “What he was doing!”
Today, we live in a world where it’s common to read how sequels where superheroes save the world for an adoring public are somehow “deconstructive.” Empire deconstructs its hero the old-fashioned way, chopping off a hand, castrating his glowsword into the abyss. Of course, Luke gets his hand back by the end. It’s mechanical, though. Will that malfunction, too?
Something about Empire does feel personal to Lucas. He carries a “story by” credit, and I wonder if his ever-troubled experience as a film director informs the narrative. The Empire Strikes Back is a great special effects movie about special effects that never work. “Watch this,” Han says. Nothing happens. “Watch what?” Leia says. She could be someone in the audience at that terrifying first screening, watching the big screen with aggressive disinterest.
1980 was a pretty good year for cinema: The Shining, Raging Bull, 9 to 5, The Elephant Man, Airplane!, Dressed to Kill, The Stuntman, Caddyshack, heck, Xanadu! The phrase “special effects movie” was starting to connote popularity, escapism, kid-friendliness, maybe something impersonal, certainly anything synthetic. Today, no one ever talks about “special effects movies” because the most mainstream entertainments are greenscreen operas. So the analog action of Empire has vintaged into propulsive physicality, authentic especially when it’s not fully believable. In the “Imperial March” scene, tyrannical megaships seem to dance with each other, though Williams’ raging score makes it less Cosmic Ballet than Mosh Pit of the Death Pyramids. And the Imperial walkers are a stop-motion wonder, though the real animation high point is the dying Tauntaun, swooning to death with the consistency of poured cookie dough.
For all the kinetic thrills, it strikes me that the most moving moment in Empire is entirely anti-momentum: A close-up of a mostly static puppet preaching passivity. Yoda, you have to remember, comes off like a pacifist in this first outing: “Adventure, excitement, a Jedi craves not these things,” and “Knowledge and defense, never attack.” Big talk, no question, for a film about raygun mecha-dinosaurs. Soon enough this franchise would become a middle-aged man’s disinterested dream of adolescence, at once preachy and goofy. But Empire recaptures the youthful swagger of the first Star Wars, then challenges it with whimsical wisdom.
The Force, Yoda explains, is a powerful ally:
Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us, and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere. Yes, even between the land and the ship.
There he is, a green-tinged conglomeration of foam latex, legs rarely seen because that’s where the puppeteer keeps his arm. And he is a luminous being, but the crucial fact of Empire is just how much its appreciates the crude matter. During that big speech, even Dagobah looks beautiful. And Dagobah is a toilet bayousphere made of batwing residue.
It’s a galaxy of terror: ice planet, swamp planet, sky city built atop a plummeting gas planet. And it’s a universe of machines that break down. Someone has to fix them, and it’s better when everyone helps. “My hands are dirty,” Leia says. “My hands are dirty, too,” Han responds: Who needs to say “I love you” after that? In the end, of course, one machine fixes another: Thanks, Artoo! says the healed Falcon, in a robo-language we’ll never speak. There were other movies in 1980 that were so achingly human. But The Empire Strikes Back is hardware, at least, and now all we have is software.
[Next: Return of the Jedi]
Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back