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'The Empire Strikes Back'

By Judith Martin
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 23, 1980

To call "The Empire Strikes Back" a good junk movie is no insult: There is enough bad junk around. And surely we're getting over the snobbery of pretending that it is undemocratic to recognize any hierarchy of culture, as if both low and high can't be appreciated, often be the same people.

But when light entertainment is done well, someone is bound to make extravagant and unsupportable claims for its being great art. You will hear that this sequel to "Star Wars" is part of a vast new mythology, as if it were the Oresteia. Its originator, George Lucas, has revealed that the two pictures are actually parts four and five of a nine-part sage, as if audiences will some day receive the total the way devotees now go to Seattle for a week of immersion in Wagner's complete Ring Cycle.

Nonsense. This is no monumental artistic work, but a science-fiction movie done more snappily than most, including its own predecessor. A chocolate bar is a marvelous sweet that does not need to pretend to be a chocolate soufflé; musical comedies are wonderful entertainment without trying to compete with opera; blue jeans are a perfect garment that shouldn't be compared with haute couture. There are times when you would much rather have a really good hot dog than any steak, but you can still recognize that one is junk food and the other isn't.

"The Empire Strikes Back" has no plot structure, no character studies let alone character development, no emotional or philosophical point to make. It has no original vision of the future, which is depicted as a pastiche of other junk-culture formulae, such as the western, the costume epic and the Would War II movie. Its specialty is "special effects" or visual tricks, some of which are playful, imaginative and impressive, but others of which have become space-movie clichés.

But the total effect is fast and attractive and occasionally amusing. Like a good hot dog, that's something of an achievement in a field where unpalatable junk is the rule.

In this film, as in "Star Wars," a trio of nice, average-looking young people (Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia) is pursued by a sinister figure in black mask and cloak, Darth Vader. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Skywalker is dull-witted -- for various reasons, he is hanging upside down during most of this film and is always having to be rescued by the others -- but brave young heroes traditionally are.

There are new bad robots, as well as the good robots, C-3PO and R2-D2, whose humanistic fussiness charmed audiences in the earlier film. A new puppet, representing a great guru but looking like an elderly, Eastern rodent, is a success; an invented beast of burden that looks like the rear half of a cheap camel costume is not. The monkish character played by Alec Guinness is back with sparkling lights on his shoulders and a transparent body to indicate that he was killed off in "Star Wars."

The Future is no longer quite pictured as belonging to white males plus one pedestal princess in a white gown. The princess has put on more sensible clothes for wartime, and there is exactly one other woman in the universe, who can be glimpsed working at the home base. There is one black, Billy Dee Williams as a man who seems to have been set up with his own planet by the Small Business Administration and keeps complaining that he has "no choice" about betraying everyone.

At the beginning and end of the new film, the bad Empire and the good Rebellion are still at odds. The fact is that there is no beginning or end, just several middle-of-the-story chases -- one on ice, several using spacecraft in airplane dog-fight style, and some classic duels, except that the swords are laser beams and use of the mystical "Force" means that one can will one's weapon back in hand after it is knocked away.

As for the idea of the Force, it is a mishmash of current cultic fashions without any base in ideas. It doesn't seem to be connected with ethics or a code of decent behavior, either. Shywalker is never called to account for having behaved unpleasantly to his guru before knowing who he is -- even to the extent of knocking food out of the hungry guru's hand. How many religions of any kind would tolerate a disciples having refused to share his food with his disguised spiritual leader?

But then, you don't go to junk movies for your philosophy or religion, do you?

© Copyright 1980 The Washington Post Company

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