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Star Wars at 35/ Space age fairytales: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)/ Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) ~ Review

May 25, 2012

(A New HopeDirected by: George Lucas; Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, James Earl Jones (voice); Screenplay by: George Lucas; US; 121 minutes; Colour; Certificate: U

I was six or seven years old and it was the first time I’d visited a big, proper shopping mall. I’ll never forget that first visit. Why? Because it left an indelible impression that came back in my childhood whenever I visited both that and similarly large malls. And the reason for that is two-fold – not only, as soon as I’d arrived, did John Williams’ goose-pimple inducing Main Theme blare out over the mall’s speakers, but also to my very young imagination, walking around the pristine, shiny, high-ceilinged and imposing interior of that mall felt just like walking around the Death Star. I wasn’t an ankle-biter out for a Bank Holiday shopping trip with my folks; no, I was Luke Skywalker, accompanied by a pirate, a princess and a walking carpet on a mission to take down the evil Empire. Or something like that.

I wasn’t the only one, though. Quite simply, millions of kids of my generation were bewitched and their little existences embellished by Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (which forever after in this review will be referred to by its original and proper title: plain old Star Wars). No question, for that we were a very lucky generation. And no question, Star Wars was – and still is – a very special film.

It’s not the finest film ever made (far from it, it has several flaws) and it’s not even the best in its series; however, it’s still one heck of an entertaining two-hour ride of cinematic hokum after 35 long, transformative years. Over those years, its conception by eagle-eyed movie-making magpie George Lucas has garnered the lion’s share of praise: the borrowing of aspects from Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic The Seven Samurai (opening the adventure unconventionally by focusing on two servants and the emphasis on an ancient tradition of noble knights), the pilfering of Hollywood Western and war movie clichés (the baddest dude wearing black and the air-bound bombing raid) and the inspiration of fairytale and Greek myth (the peasant hero rescuing the princess from the enemy’s lair and the ‘tragic hero’ and ‘f*cked up family’ motifs that would underlie the rest of the saga). But arguably Lucas’s real achievement is the execution of his conception.

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Despite the writer-director coming off the back of early-’60s set nostalgia hit American Graffiti (1973), it was far from written in the annals of the Jedi Temple that his space fantasy would seduce the Western world’s youth, become the biggest money-spinner of all-time and (for right or wrong) change cinema forever – to quote Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), nothing is written. In fact, to start with, so bizarre a project and weird a filmmaking experience was Star Wars that many involved thought it was doomed (Harrison Ford famously remarked to Lucas that ‘you can write this sh*t [the sci-fi gobbledeegook-heavy dialogue in the script], but you can’t say it’). And yet, despite these difficulties – including a challenging shoot in Tunisia for the Tatooine sequences – Lucas brilliantly realised his ambitious vision. And too often that’s easily overlooked.

His screenplay is slight and tight; there’s no flab whatsoever, ensuring that with fine editing, good pacing and more-than-engaging performances from leads Hamill, Fisher and Ford (who together possess impressive chemistry) and supporting players Guinness, Cushing, Williams and Baker (no mean feat for the latter two given their robot-costume constraints), the story whips along and is given room to breathe and grow – ensuring facets such as the Star Wars galaxy, the Rebel and Empire dynamic and, of course, the Jedis and The Force intrigue and engage the viewer, instead of merely coming off as dappy sci-fi movie prosaicisms.

More obviously perhaps are the coups pulled off by composer John Williams and those beardy boffins of Industrial, Light & Magic, both of whom have rightly been heralded for decades. Williams’ score is simply awesome; there’s little to say about it that hasn’t been before – it’s truly one of cinema’s all-time greats. Meanwhile, the ILM team that was more or less assembled by Lucas to achieve this very flick’s visual effects pull off a Herculean achievement in realising a world of wonder and detail in a way never seen before – allied with production designer John Barry’s shopping mall-like Death Star sets, of course. In short, everyone involved in the movie’s making deserve a medal come the throne room finale – and a growling cheer from Chewbacca.

Just one more thing, as nowadays it’s nigh impossible not to, the version I watched in order to write this review was the 20th anniversary re-release containing the handful of digitally added and touched-up moments (Han-meets-Jabba and Death-Star-going-properly-kaboom among them). And, must say, I think the tinkering Lucas indulged in here pretty much works and adds to his career-defining triumph (in exactly the way Spielberg’s digitised interfering with E.T. tragically does not). Yes, Han may no longer shoot first – but, just like Star Wars itself, he most certainly still shoots from the hip and scores every single time.

Best bit: The title card and the opening crawl right at the beginning as John Williams’ Main Theme kicks-off – still spine-tingling after 35 years

Best line: “May the force be with you” (various)

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(EmpireDirected by: Irvin Kershner; Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Alec Guinness, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, James Earl Jones (voice), Frank Oz (performer and voice: Yoda); Screenplay by: Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett; US; 129 minutes; Colour; Certificate: U

So which is it? The series’ biggest reveal when Vader finally fesses up? The Skywalkers’ long awaited lightsaber duel? Luke meeting and being trained by Yoda? The burgeoning Han-Leia romance? The fast and furious climax in the oh-so-cool Cloud City? The asteroid field chase? Luke eerily facing Darth/ himself in the cave? Vader hiring Boba Fett and the motley band of bounty hunters? The Millennium Falcon’s continual inability to jump to hyperspace? Or that closing shot of Luke and Leia and the droids?

Yes, which bit is it that elevates The Empire Strikes Back to utter, unadulterated awesomeness? The answer’s easy: it’s every single one of ‘em – all those bits and more marvellously meld together not only to make Empire easily the best of the six Star Wars movies, but also (got to admit) one of my all-time favourite films.

And yet, the irony of why Empire hits Luke Skywalker’s errant hand out of the ball-park is that it’s effectively the complete negative of why its forerunner, the pretty much universally adored A New Hope, was such a success. Realising he’d done a superb job on the latter movie, George Lucas took a step back during the next three years of Empire‘s pre-production and filming (maybe because he was burnt out?) and surprisingly it proved to be something of a masterstroke. Lucas – father of the Star Wars universe; the story of the entire six-flick saga was ensconced in his bonce for years before even the first film – both wrote and directed A New Hope, but with Empire he gave up the screenwriting and directing duties, retaining creative input as an ‘executive producer’ only. But his picks for replacement screenwriters and director were utterly spot on.

No surprise that fact, though, when one looks at the scribes he hired. Lawrence Kasdan had already collaborated with Lucas in creating Indiana Jones and then went on to solo-script Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), while Leigh Brackett was a Hollywood heavyweight, having co-written the all-time Bogie/ Bacall noir classic The Big Sleep (1946). But surely it was something of a surprise that Irvin Kershner, who’d spent his career on the arty fringes of Tinseltown, proved such a good fit for helmer – yet he surely was.

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Empire‘s screenplay is outstanding, truly. While A New Hope‘s script was simple-as-beans and tight-as-you-like, this one had to deepen the Star Wars universe, further its three leads’ adventures (two of ‘em falling in love; the other trying to become a spiritual knight), rattle the action along and – perhaps trickiest of all – push The Force into the foreground (Obi-Wan’s ghost and Yoda and all) and not alienate the audience as it did so. And, hand-in-hand with Kershner’s direction, Kadsdan and Brackett’s smart, smooth screenplay does all this with bells on.

For his part, Kersh was chosen by Lucas for his commitment to characterisation. And many of Empire‘s greatest moments, when you think about it, have his hands all over them. For example, the sassy-byplay-cum-falling-in-love of Han and Leia, while on their Homeric Odyssey-like misadventures through asteroid fields and as Star Destroyer garbage, is wonderful (funny one second, moving the next and almost tragic come the carbon-freezing). Meanwhile, Yoda’s training of Luke should be the flick’s wordy, downbeat, pace-sapping segment, but it’s anything but. In the hands of Kersh, the Dagobah-set scenes are arguably the film’s most captivating; the mystical, magisterial possibilities of The Force evoked terrifically thanks in no small part to maybe the movie’s most engaging performance – which only comes from the (more or less) Muppet that’s the Frank Oz-operated and -voiced Yoda. Now that’s what you call directing.

However, it would be churlish to give the impression Empire‘s greatness derives from just three or four contributors, because it most certainly doesn’t. As he was for its predecessor, composer John Williams is at the peak of his powers. Not content with repeating A New Hope’s iconic Main Theme and wistful  Burning Homestead, he ups the ante and matches the visuals toe-for-toe with the likes of Yoda’s Theme, Han Solo And The Princess and, of course, Darth Vader’s legendary leit-motif The Imperial March.

And, not to be left in the shade, the SFX wizzes of Industrial, Light & Magic likewise better their efforts of A New Hope – witness, in particular, the pumped-up opening conflict on the snowy planet of Hoth, packing, as it does, AT-AT Walkers and Snowspeeders seamlessly and breathlessly set against the starkly beautiful Norwegian locales, as well as the movie’s closing shot – a pull-away from a humongous Rebel ship containing two of our heroes wondering just how the flick’s cliffhanger ending (how they’ll save the third) will be resolved.

Few movies that make up the middle of trilogies outshine both the first and third entrants in their series (it’s not the case with, say, either The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers or Back To The Future Part II), but The Empire Strikes Back is quite simply the ruby-red jewel set deep at the heart of the original Star Wars flicks. It’s a slice of adventure cinema that’s as close to heaven as it gets – to paraphrase the awesome Lando Calrissian, it truly belongs there among the clouds.

Best bit and best line: “I love you/ I know” (Leia and Han before the latter goes a bit frosty in the Cloud City carbon-freeze chamber)

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2012 9:37 pm

    Great review.
    I enjoy your posts quite a bit, Sir..
    ..though I have to disagree with one point only.
    I just can’t watch either of then as their “tinkered versions” , but hey, that’s just me…
    The CG effects make glaring differences, and just shouldn’t have happened.
    Again though – great writing – Thanks
    AC

    • May 29, 2012 11:38 pm

      Yes, Dave, I can appreciate where you’re coming from when it comes to the CGI tinkering – it’s all a matter personal opinion, isn’t it?

      Glad you enjoy my blogs and these reviews in particular – thanks for your comment… :)

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