Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Empire Strikes Back

  There is a noticeable leap in quality in the special effects from Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back. There's a noticeable improvement in just about every other aspect of the movie too. What's amazing about this one is that it breaks free of it's storybook beginnings and becomes full blown space epic in it's own right. There's nothing archetypical about this one. It's not a happy-go-lucky movie either, it's a much darker, and more brooding film. It essentially becomes a tragic series of cliffhangers and sad endings as Luke continues his journey to becoming a Jedi and the Empire is ever closer to crushing the Rebels. Empire is as technically impressive as it is emotionally moving. The characters you grew to love in the last movie are back, and there's a whole lot going on.

  We're reintroduced to our rag tag group of heroes again, fighting against the Empire on a remote icy planet called Hoth. Luke is no more a naive farm boy, he's now a dashing hero and a distinguished soldier. Han is no longer a self-serving smuggler, but a comrade to the rebels and a great fighter to boot. Princess Leia is classy and kick-ass as ever, and we see her almost immediately in a scene that mirrors the climax of the previous movie. Debriefing troops for a dangerous mission in which more likely than not, many will die. She commands scenes like this with bravura, she's still a joy to watch. As are all the characters. Even the foreboding Darth Vader seems to have stepped up his game. Not only does his reputation precede him, so does his presence. The moment he enters the movie, an already cold environment seems to get even icier.
Talk about gravitas.

  As well as bringing everyone back, Empire introduces a couple new characters and settings, and gives the iconic Boba Fett some room to brood. Among those new to the franchise is Lando Calrissian, an old buddy of Han Solo's. With his introduction not only do we get a revealing glimpse into Han's character, but also the history of his ship, the historic Millennium Falcon.  Then we discover Luke's new Jedi mentor, Yoda. Arguably one of the foremost iconic faces of the entire Star Wars franchise, Yoda's introduction is timeless and unforgettable. Such emotion and on-screen presence, one almost forgets... he's simply a puppet. Which brings me to my next point, the special effects in The Empire Strikes Back are head and shoulders above Star Wars. Ships spin and navigate through asteroid fields with fluidity and flair, giant space worms look neither cheesy nor wooden, things have scale and a real on-screen weight to them, even the lightsaber effect feels refined.

  The movie is quite gripping, and is honestly my favorite in the entire franchise. With good reason too. I feel it embodies the best of Star Wars in general. The most iconic sights and scenes, dialog, characters- everything is the best it was and will ever be, in this movie. The romantic tension between Han and Leia, Luke's battle with Vader, his training on Dagobah, the battle on Hoth, the siege of the rebel base, Cloud City, all of it. In this movie, everything is 100%. It reaches the heights of classic swashbuckling adventure, and then explores the melancholy depths of tragedy and revelation. It's somewhat depressing overall, but at the same time- it's a movie full of hope. Hope for the future, for a happy ending, for peace.
This definitely feels like the middle chapter in a trilogy. It's when everything is happening and all the drama takes center stage. I feel more or less like this is the movie that defines Star Wars. Everything you loved about the first one, is here, and done even better.

  George Lucas' unique world that he created for this characters to inhabit expands exponentially here. The same richness that was present in even the minute details of the previous movie, is here as well. Alien races, peripheral characters, cities, planets, backstory- it's all very alive in ways that few movies ever are. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, by themselves rival entire sci-fi franchises like Star Trek, and challenges them to innovate and keep up. If Star Wars sparked a cultural phenomenon, and changed the way sci-fi action movies were made, The Empire Strikes Back didn't just light a spark, but a bonfire. Spawning classic lines such as "No... I am your Father." This movie has it all honestly.

  What you loved from the last one is still here, including the amazing score by series mainstay, John Williams. With new cues, and some very emotional pieces, the music is arguably more iconic this time around. Yet that's a bit of a stretch, the music is so phenomenal through the franchise- even in the not so good ones, that it's hard to single out a specific movie where it was outright better. John Williams is probably the most iconic theme composer ever, so it's hard not to address that in this review. Aside from the score, the cinematography itself is gorgeous. Especially the scenes revolving around Cloud City. No doubt one of the highlights of the movie. From the colorful skyscape of Cloud City, to the carbonite freezing room in which Luke battles Vader, to the bleached white snow dunes of Hoth, and the murky swamps of Dagobah, there's no shortage of visually interesting settings to take in.

  It's interesting to me, the direction this movie takes. It's clear that it wasn't just a sequel, but an installment in a franchise. There's so much that's unresolved at the end. Han has been captured, the Empire is still at large, Luke discovers his true parentage, and Lando becomes acting captain of the Falcon. Can you imagine how audiences must have felt, way back in 1980? Regardless, Empire is a more mature movie than Star Wars and it veers away from the archetypical save-the-day plotting in a big way. The major scenes here are of character development, and revelation. Not of winning or losing a big space battle. That's pretty risky from a certain standpoint. Although it's not the storybook matinee that it's predecessor was, it's earned it's place as my favorite with it's dark, brooding atmosphere, and it's operatic story, giving way to some of the most intense confrontational drama the franchise will ever see.

  Like it's predecessor, Empire is a good movie. One that also transcends labels such as "old" or "dated". It remains probably the most relevant and persistently popular movie of the entire franchise. It's relatable, and feels more of a proving ground for it's characters, as opposed to the coming of age tale that Star Wars delivered. I've seen almost every version of this movie, and while some of the "improvements" were nice, especially in the Wampa scene on Hoth, none of them stood out to me as absolutely necessary. George Lucas' possessiveness of the movies is more than a little disheartening. Take a look at how the Blu Ray releases of Star Trek: The Original Series let you choose between the original episodes... or versions with updated special effects. George would never do that. In his mind, his "improved" versions are the only versions anyone should be watching. Alas... Regardless of age, format, or version, The Empire Strikes back is as thrilling, exciting, moving, and enjoyable now as it ever was. Timeless grade A entertainment. A classic, and deservedly so.

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