Darth Vader's Surprise Attack!

By Gary Arnold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 1980

"STAR WARS," an exuberant, swashbuckling science-fiction adventure fantasy written and directed by George Lucas, then in his early 30s, opened with relatively little fanfare on Wednesday, May 25, 1977. It quickly became the most popular of modern movies, surpassing the box-office records set by "Jaws" in a matter of weeks. An offbeat, underrated $9-million gamble has made more than $400 million.

So the inevitable sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back," can't sneak up on the marketplace, obviously. It won't have to: "Empire" turns out to be a stunning successor, a tense and pictorially dazzling science-fiction chase melodrama that sustains two hours of elaborate adventure while sneaking up on you emotionally.

A vast, eager moviegoing public and a suspicious press are surely waiting to examine "The Empire Strikes Back," which opens this Wednesday in 70mm and Dolby Stero at about 125 theaters in the United States and Great Britain, including the K-B Cinema and Springfield Mall in this area.

"Empire" is a thrilling, witty, inventive continuation of "Star Wars," but it also introduces a more serious approach and springs an astonishing plot twist, which promises to keep audiences buzzing and open up the story for deeper dramatic exploitation. Surprises are in store, perhaps unwelcome if you hoped for a strictly ingratiating reprise of the original movie -- but potentially electrifying if you care for a new departure.

The first indication of unexpected developments comes almost immediately. It is the appearance of the heading "Episode v" at the top of a prologue that crawls from the bottom to the top of the screen. Could one "Star Wars" plus one "Empire Strikes Back" equal five? First there is the 20th Century-Fox logo, accompanied by Alex North's familiar fanfare, which remains unchanged. So does the title "Star Wars" as it flashes upon the screen and recedes into the vanishing point of a familiar celestial background, accompanied by John Williams' even more stirring and reassuring fanfare. Suddenly, there's the jolt of the "Episode v." Having spelled out this revelation, the crawl goes on to spell out the new title and a memory-refreshing, scene-settng prologue that begins with the ominous sentence: "It is a dark time for the Rebellion."

So it is, but the appeal of Lucas' futuristic fable may be intensified and enriched by the startling nature of "Empire." This transitional, erie, deliberately unresolved sequel activates a climactic psychlogoical bombshell, aligning the story in a powerful, sinister new direction, full of dreadful implications for the original movie and the sequels ahead. It comes as a tantalizing shock to realize that Lucas' delightful cinematic dreamworld has darker undercurrents and a more expansive framework than anticipated.

A more impressive and harrowing magic carpet ride than its fundamentally endearing predecessor, "Empire" pulls the carpet out from under you while simultaneously soaring along. The renewed sense of elation is now complicated by freshly created apprehensions and speculations, which can't be resolved for two years at the earliest. The Victorian novelists would keep readers in an anxious state for a month before the publication of a new chapter of a work-in-process. sThe old movie serials kept matinee audiences dangling for only a week at a time. Fans of "Star Wars" are about to participate in a prolonged experiment in serial suspense, and their receptivity to this cliff-hanging endurance test may be remembered as a landmark in the history of popular culture.

Just as "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back" start in the thick of the action, jumping into military operations caused by civil war in a remote, exotic, technologically advanced interplanetary civilization, Lucas recently disclosed that he started in the middle of a grandiose epic narrative. These sensational popular spectacles are intended to be merely the first and second chapters of a trilogy, which will be completed in 1982 or 1983 by a third chapter entitled "Revenge of the Jedi." When "Star Wars" is reissued, probably next summer, the prints will include the subtitle, "Episode iv: A New Hope." This adjustment may already be seen in the published screenplay, which came out last winter in an attractive book called "The Art of Star Wars."

Moreover, this completed trilogy is envisioned as merely the midsection of a nine-part heroic sage chronicling three generations of conflict between adherents of the deposed old Republic and despotic new Empire in that galaxy far, far away. According to Lucas, who has ceased directing movies but continues to function as executive producer, story arbiter and guiding mastermind of the fantastic, ramifying system of illusion he dreamed up and imposed on the screen rather innocently three years ago, "In choosing to film 'Star Wars' first, I chose the chapter I felt the most secure with. There are essentially nine films. The first trilogy is about the young Ben Kenobi and the early life of Luke Skywalker's father when Luke was a little boy . . . . The whole adventure, encompassing the three trilogies, spans about 40 years."

Presumably, the concluding trilogy will focus on Luke's heir or heirs. One of the ingenious aspects of this master plan is its resistance to the reluctance of a star to continue playing the role that made him famous -- the Sean Connery Problem, for example. Each trilogy will require a new set of major cast members. Evidently, only the invaluable droids, C-3po and R2-D2, will remain throughout the cycle. "I have story treatments on all nine films," added Lucas, who is now 36. "Then I've got voluminous notes, histories and material I've developed for vairous purposes. Some of it will be used, some will not . . . . It's a history. Luke is a pawn in an adventure that has been going on for longer than his span of years."

Perhaps the best way to guard against potential disappointment is to be disabused of false expectations derived from the first movie. To oversimplity, "The Empire Strikes Back" does not have a happy ending. Given the structural and melodramatic functions it's obliged to perform, it shouldn't have one.

In contrast to "From Russia With Love," the second of the James Bond adventures, "Empire" is meant to achieve more than stylistic streamlining of the prototype. It's obviously intended to make a sustained, epic narrative possible by shifting the emphasis and complicating our perceptions of the characters and their motives.

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© 1980 The Washington Post Company