A tale of Sire and Ice
Second, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
There was a planet of Ice…And then Star Wars became a franchise. A glimpse back at the original Episode V, its iterations and context in the wake of The Force Awakens glorious boosting of Hollywood’s mightiest space franchise.
It was a film that needed no beginning, required no end…
HERE IT IS, EMERGING IN THE DEPTHS OF A DISTANT GALAXY WITH THE DEPLOYMENT OF A SPACE PROBE THAT THEN CRASHES INTO THE ICE SHEETS OF THE PLANET HOTH. Everything we might have assumed from the oddly triumphant and indulgent close of Episode IV wasn’t true. Everything Hollywood imagined about summer films was about to be blown out of the galaxy.
The Empire Strikes Back is legendary, there’s no doubt about it. Still quoted, among a select few, as a if not the premier example of a sequel that outdoes its original, the last three decades of try-hard comparators have failed to dislodge it. Its quality is far too enshrined to be knocked.
Here is where things began. It’s almost solely responsible for the early 21st century preoccupation with blockbuster trilogies, a neat model when it comes to actors, contracts and budgets. But just as A New Hope had slotted genres and intention together in ways never thought possible, Empire was just as ground-breaking in the way it seized and built on that position. It was a film that needed no beginning, required no end. But it served up two dramatic sledge-hammer blows at either end. And immediately, cockily, the threat level was deftly and massively raised as the audience discovers that the destruction of the Death Star had only served to annoy the Empire. Who could guess the twists, turns and ending that were to follow…
And it wasn’t just the threat that had increased.
Star Wars: Episode IV – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The saga’s themes of family and lineage were about to be set in carbonite
Come the end it’s easy to see that The Empire Strikes Back had no choice but to ramp up the drama. That it did it so well, following the simplistic, fairy tale plot of the previous film, is Empire’s considerable achievement. We join the Rebel Alliance in a far different state to the one we left it. On the run and in a make-shift soon to be discovered base; dug into ice foundations that are a metaphor for isolation. It’s cold in space, it’s colder on Hoth. We didn’t know it at the time, but the saga’s overriding themes of family and lineage were about to be set in carbonite. So it’s little surprise that one route to that dramatic elevation falls to classical tragedy.
From Bar to Bard
In Empire our Hamlet, position and role thrust upon him, is destined to encounter his father’s ghost
Indeed, Empire pushes Shakespeare to the fore. We join the Rebel troops on the battlements of Elsinore, unknowingly waiting for a ghost of Hamlet’s father that is a far more powerful and compelling than it appears in massed stop-motion and snowtrooper-clad force. That establishes a heightened universe where Vader, seen for the first time in communication with the Emperor, the father figure he rushed to with indecent haste, can get away with the use of “thy”. But the Bard’s influence is greater than choice words. We have expanded the atavistic palette of Biblical quests and Campbellian monomyth to include the nearer world of Greek tragedy and the great playwrights in general.
In Empire our Hamlet, his position and role thrust upon him, is destined to encounter his father’s ghost at the climax of the film; and in so doing he creates one of the most famous sequences in film history. That sets the tone for the concluding part of the trilogy to examine the consequences of those revelations as the tightening familial loops meets the return to a leaner structure. By Return of the Jedi, Luke would be fully formed as his black robed Hamlet, wavering not between action and indecision but the universal spiritual concepts of light and dark. The story of how he got there just feels so much more compelling…
This is a huge galaxy… Episode V is intent on using the Battle of Hoth to force our apart.
The change to ice from the cold space and hot desert of the first film sits prettier in the hindsight of Vader’s fiery creation on the planet Mustafar, committed to film over two decades later in Episode III. The switch stands up to scrutiny in much the same way that themed ice and fire levels do in videogame platformers; it was something that no space operas had the vision or finance to attempt before, even if such intentions existed on screen, and rammed one thing home: This was a huge galaxy. And every entry in the saga would widen it further up until The Force Awakens chose familiarity. That’s a central tenet to George Lucas’ Star Wars films that he always stayed true to, and no doubt one of the reasons behind his inability to withhold criticism of the most recent instalment. The subtlety of that film’s Jakku being a cold desert planet compared to Tatooine’s hot and arid desert eco-system is lost against the broad palette of the original and prequel trilogies. But as iconic as the Battle of Hoth that opens Empire is (albeit 25 minutes in), the film doesn’t feel the need to stay there for long. While Episode IV brought our heroes together, Episode V is intent on using that battle to force them apart.
Behind the scenes consistency
Nature may abhor a vacuum, Star Wars makes a meal of it.
The original Star Wars trilogy benefits from a remarkable strength of consistency. That overcame the uncertainty that run through the first film’s production all the way up to release, the three-year gap between each sequel and the changing personnel behind the scenes. Lucas was a constant of course, although as he stepped back from directing and writing chores. And it’s clear that The Empire Strikes Back’s benefitted from the addition of some high quality creators. Nature may abhor a vacuum; Star Wars makes a meal of it. And some of those new creators came from unexpected quarters.
Far from the beach retreat that marked the end of Lucas’ short film career in a parallel universe, the few years that followed the release of the first Star Wars film found the producer-director in wildly different circumstances. His science-fiction project had vastly exceeded expectations, unleashing a phenomenon and changing Hollywood in the process. And against the norm, Lucas proceeded to finance the sequel himself, all $30-odd million of it. Not having had the easiest ride directing the first instalment, and having taken on increasing responsibilities producing the work of his freshly minted special effects company ILM as well as the brewing Indiana Jones franchise, he sought a new director. And who better than someone who tutored him at film school? Against early protestations, Lucas insisted Irvin Kershner, previously known for smaller, character-based fare, helm the hottest sequel in Hollywood. Kershner would make a name on action franchises through the next two decades, including the rogue James Bond film Never Say Never Again three years later, but Empire remained his finest hour. Continue reading “Snow Boots: Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”