Saturday, March 15, 2008

Review - The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back
1981 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

An alternative title for this review could be "Why The Empire Strikes Back is the only good Star Wars movie." It followed an earnest but flawed effort and was followed up by a much inferior merchandising cash-in. It's not the best because of the "downer ending" or the introduction of the worst popular character in the history of pop culture, it's because The Empire Strikes Back subverts the very elements that the rest of the Star Wars films revel in. It's the deconstructionist Star Wars film, the adult one, and consequently the good one.

Consider the end of Star Wars. As the ending for an immature adventure film it's fine; the scary thing got blown up, the heroes get medals (at least the human ones), the main character apparently gets the girl, and everyone is happy. It's also completely unrealistic. (Bear with me as I use the term "realistic" to describe a space opera in which a telekinetic in black leather fetish gear drives around in a planet destroying basketball.)

The Death Star is one tiny portion of the empire's military. For the sake of destroying it the rebels have lead their enemies to the main base, lost their spy network, neutralized their main agent, caused the removal of the only political force that could stand between them and the Emperor, bear some moral responsibility for the death of billions of people, and lost the only mystic who could stand up to the Empire's greatest evil. To call it a "happy ending" would be like the Japanese military declaring victory in World War 2 because they sunk the Arizona.

And that's what The Empire Strikes Back does. It takes all the stuff that worked for an adventure movie and turns it on its head. The "happy ending" was a Pyhrric victory at best for the rebellion and that's the tip of the iceberg. The daring plans to stop the invasion force can beat one walking tank but there's an army of them. Jedis aren't telekinetic fencing masters, they're Zen mystics and you can't become a good one just by showing up for an intensive training montage. The last minute rescue not only doesn't work, but is a disaster. The fledging just trained hero doesn't beat the experienced villain, the hero gets trounced with hardly any effort. The hero doesn't get the girl, the comedic sidekick does. It doesn't really matter if the hero dies because there's a back up plan. Oh and the wise old master from the first film? He was a lying, manipulative bastard.

For the two people on the planet who need a plot synopsis this time the terrorists are on the run from the government and after quite a bit of chasing they get captured and interrogated. Eventually the main character who had been doing LSD with a nonsense spouting toad goes to rescue them and chaos ensues.

This film strongly benefits from the lack of George Lucas. Lucas neither directed it or had a direct hand in the screenplay (he's credited with "story" which means they took the concepts from Star Wars and used them). In the original Star Wars the cinematography was only really active in the special effects sequences. This time around the effects sequences are more subtle and downplayed while the camera work during the character moments is greatly improved just by having a more active camera. Also while it's still not a particularly great cast all of the actors give better performances in Empire as well.

Everything you knew from Star Wars was wrong which is what makes The Empire Strikes Back effective. Unfortunately it is tied to two much worse films directly like a pair of anchors. The first is necessary since in order to subvert Star Wars's space opera it has to build on that. Empire lacks a complete story, though, and it's follow-up completely failed to deliver on the promises of this film. The Empire Strikes Back may be the only good Star Wars film but it does not stand on its own.