Wednesday, August 3, 2016

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) - *****


Rated PG for sci-fi action violence
Running time: 124 min.
Release date: June 20, 1980


The Empire Strikes Back is the continuing story that began in Star Wars back in 1977. Where the original film was about introducing characters and only hinting at some of their backstories, Empire delves even further into providing some depth, which only enhances the story arc. The characters become the focus here, with the special effects still ever-present but not the focus. This is the stronger of the two films at this point, and makes the rare case for a sequel being better than the original.

Continuing the story a few years after the Star Wars ended, the crawl at the opening lets us know that the Rebels have been pursued by the Galactic Empire across the galaxy. The rebels are currently holed up on a frigid world known as Hoth. The Imperial fleet launch probes across the galaxy, with one of them landing on Hoth's surface, searching for evidence of Rebel settlements. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is on a reconnaissance mission when he is attacked and captured by a creature called a wampa, which is sort of like an abominable snowman. When Luke doesn't return to base, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) goes out in the sub-zero winds searching for him. We get to witness Luke practicing some of his new Jedi powers in his escape from the wampa, but they can't protect him from nearly freezing to death. Han eventually finds Luke and they return to base, where we learn that the probe droid has reported findings back to Darth Vader (David Prowse), who orders a ground assault. The Rebels are forced to evacuate once again, leading to an impressive battle on Hoth involving giant, elephant-like mechanical walkers.

Luke and his sidekick droid, R2-D2, break off from the group and head to a planet called Dagobah, where the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) has instructed him to go and seek the Jedi master, Yoda, to help continue his training in the ways of the force. Meanwhile, Han, Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) head off in the Millennium Falcon to evade the clutches of the Empire, narrowly escaping several times. It is here that the action scenes are counter-balanced with the more mythological scenes on Dagobah. Yoda is a diminutive creature that is voiced by renowned puppeteer Frank Oz. Yoda's speeches about the Force and his facial expressions are a wonder to listen to and to watch, as this puppet looks and feels lifelike on the screen. Meanwhile, we get a deepening romance between Han and Leia which is constantly disrupted by the comedic timing of C-3P0.

At the beginning, the viewer is wondering why the Empire is seeking out Luke, but that question is answered by a meeting between Darth Vader and the mysterious Emperor. The Empire wishes to turn Luke to the Dark Side of the Force in order to create a destructive power against the Rebels. Vader vows to turn Luke or Luke will die. Vader also harbors a secret that he reveals later in the film that becomes the central focus of the story arc. We also get to find out what happens to commanding officers when they fail to please Vader. Watching the Vader character develop from the first film to the next has been amazing. We catch a quick glimpse of Vader's scarred head in Empire, and that is all we need to remind us that he too is human and that perhaps his story is most interesting of all.

The viewer ends up on the frigid surface of Hoth, the murky foggy swamps of Dagobah, and the pristine, floating Cloud City on the planet Bespin. Watching the screen unfurl these new worlds just enhances the experience for the audience. The first film had taken us to a desert planet and then into outer space; Empire expands the universe with more life and sights to behold. On Dagobah, the story slows down just enough to explain more fully the power of the Force, which was only touched on in the first film. There is also a tenuous relationship between the master and his student, as Luke struggles through his training. On Bespin, we meet Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the smooth-talking administrator of Cloud City and an old friend of Han.

As noted, the special effects take a back seat to storytelling and character development in this film. That does not mean that are no less impressive. These are people who inhabit these worlds and they just happen to fly in spaceships and shoot blasters and fight with lightsabers. The story indeed takes a dark turn and just made an already interesting story arc much more interesting. We are promised a continuation of the story but in the meantime, there is plenty here to ponder. From beginning to end, The Empire Strikes Back provides the audience with action, story, wit and characters to care about without much of anything to nitpick. This is an excellent, near flawless film.



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