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Darth Vader's Surprise Attack

'The Empire Strikes Back' Is a Dazzling Film With a Daring Departure Into the Future

By Gary Arnold
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 18, 1980

Star Wars," an exuberant, swashbuckling science-fiction adventure fantasy written and directed by George Lucas, then in his early 30's opened with relatively little fanfare on Wednesday , May 25,1977. It quickly became the most popular of modern movies, supassing 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 surly waiting to examine "The Empire Strikes Back," which opens this Wednesday in 70mm and Dolby Stereo 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 prologrue 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 that "Episode V". Having spelled out this revelation, the crawl goes on to spell out the new title and a memory-refreshing, scene-setting 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, eerie, deliberately unresolved sequel activates a climactic psychological 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 alone.

The renewed sense of elation is now complicated by freshly created apprehensions and speculates, 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-progress. The 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 cliffhanging 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" (changed to "Return 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 direction 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 choose 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 their 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-3P0 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 various 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 oversimplify, "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.

But if the series is really going to evolve dramatically, "Empire" has to run the risk it does, triumphantly in my estimation. While Lucas will have his work cut out for him devising clever resolutions for the fixes he's left the heroes in at the close of Episode V, it would represent an artistic retreat to revert to the simplified moral framework of "Star Wars," which audiences can always return to anyway.

"Empire" introduces a more complicated and painful but also compelling framework. One can see that Lucas has allowed himself escape hatches, but the series should have more impact if he doesn't back away from the implications of the climactic shocker that gives "Empire" its special emotional impact. Like his farmboy protagonist, he's taken a giant step into a larger world, and it would be a shame to lose the momentum.

At the end or "Star Wars," a beaming Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) was decoration happy warriors Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) for having saved the Rebellion by destroying the Death Star, a gigantic and seemingly impregnable Imperial battleship. The virtually nonstop action of "Empire" begins on an arctic planet called Hoth, where the Rebel forces have established a hidden fortress.

An Imperial probe betrays the presence of suspicious life forms, and a fleet, descends on Hoth under the command of Darth Vader, the masked, renegade Jedi knight who has been "seduced by the dark side of The Force," perverting his strength and skill in the service of evil and tyranny. Despite a valiant defense, in which Luke particularly distinguishes himself in combat against Imperial Walkers (towering armored assault vehicles that resemble mechanical prehistoric monsters), the Rebel outpost is overrun.

Circumstances compel our heroes to take separate escape routes. Luke, obeying a spectral command from his late Jedi mentor, Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness, looking serene and fit in the spiritworld), and accompanied by R2-D2, flies to a dank, jungle planet, Dagobath, for advanced training in the ways of The Force. He is instructed by a beguiling new character, Yoda, a diminutive gnome with long curly ears and a gravely wrinkled countenance.

Frank Oz speaks the inverted, admonitory platitudes of the estimable Yoda ("Always in motion is the future") in a voice that recalls his Gonzo on "The Muppet Show." The figure itself is an expressive marvel, evidently a puppet of some kind with a face sculpted in remarkably flexible clay or synthetics by make-up designer Stuart Freeborn, who perfected Chewbacca the Wookie and the Cantina monsters in "Star Wars." Yoda's face is so vivid that you'd swear a live actor had some-how been grafted onto the miniature torso, perhaps in a composite shot. Evidently, the illusion is entirely mechanical, achieved through a combination of hydraulics, radio-controlled signals and hand manipulation.

The results are enchanting, a dramatic illustration of the continued technical brilliance and leadership of the Lucas production team. With Yoda they have actually developed the right technology for doing "The Lord of the Rings." The minute he appears, you recognize that this is how Tolkien's fanciful characters should have been rendered on the screen.

During Luke's encounter with Yoda the remaining worthies -- Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3P0 -- navigate for their lives in Han's spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, as the Imperial fleet bears down on its battered rear deflector shields. Another sign of continued wit and enthusiasm on the part of Lucas and Associates is the consistency with which situations and gags introduced in "Star Wars" are cleverly revamped or even stood on their heads in "The Empire Strikes Back."

For example, the Falcon's ace-in-the-hole, the jump to hyperspace, is now a running gag. Han keeps asking for the jump, but somehow the good old ship just won't deliver, forcing him into desperate feats of flying skill, such as zig-zagging at top speed through an asteroid belt or hiding inside a cavern (which turns out to be boobytrapped) or along the shadowy surface of a mammoth Imperial cruiser.

In a similar respect, C3P0, who lost an arm in an encounter with barbarous nomads in "Star Wars," takes a wrong turn and ends up dismantled in "Empire." Chewbacca rescues him from total destruction, but what with the urgency of their flight, he never quite gets the time to reassemble the droid properly.

Ultimately, Han pilots the Falcon to a mining colony in the clouds of the planet Bespin. The administrator of the colony is an old crony and rival, Lando Calrissian, a mercenary rogue redeemed by valorous instincts. Billy Dee Williams gives Lando instant glamorous authority, but it's apparent that the character's main duties have been reserved for the next installment. Like a rook activated rather late in the game, Lando makes some intriguing initial moves, but his decisive ones will evidently occur in the future.

Vader catches up with the fugitives on Bespin. Luke, sensing his comrades peril, interrupts his studies and rushes to their assistance, much to the dismay of mentors Kenobi and Yoda, who prefer that he master The Force. Deftly setting up new surprises in Episode VI, Kenobi laments, "That boy is our last hope." To which Yoda replies with a gleam in his eye, "No … there is another."

The heroes will need all the help they can get. Vader appears to hold the upper hand at the conclusion of "Empire." Indeed, he looms as an even more formidable and insidious villain. With one hero delivered into the hands of his enemies and another seriously injured, the prospects for the Rebel cause look decidedly grim.

Of course, the critical commercial question for "Empire" is whether audiences will be content to stew in the ensuing suspense. I'm certain that an overwhelming majority will be delighted to cooperate, although it's unlikely that any other group of filmmakers could presume to keep multitudes on simmer for as long as three years.

The concluding chapter will require some eloquent, sustained dialogue or truly inspired pantomime to settle such outstanding issues as Leia's attraction to both Han and Luke and the struggle for Luke's allegiance being waged between Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader. The characters seem overdue to have it out in ways that impressive special effects and mortal combat won't quite replace.

For all the talk about enhanced character development in connection with "Empire," the movie seems to finesse characterization rather more systematically and astutely than it explores it. Although "Empire" teems with exciting sequences, one doesn't find prolonged moments of intimacy in rich profusion. The romantic interludes between Han and Leia, for example, are stolen moments, too fleeting to propel the relationship much beyond their initial prickly attraction in "Star Wars."

The effective change is indirect, a matter of mood rather than formal character delineation. While it's a fast-moving, high-spirited, incidentally funny show, "Empire" imposes a more serious tone than "Star Wars." The actors embody this subtle shift in emphasis by simply looking older and acting more mature. The change in Hamill is perhaps more pronounced, but then it should be, since Luke has to leave his gee-whiz personality far behind by the time this adventure draws to a close. Hamill looks stronger for having built himself up with a weight program, and the plastic surgery that followed his near-fatal auto accident in 1976 has given his face a tougher, spunkier appearance. All three principals look as if they'd been aged by the vicissitudes of a fugitive, martial existence.

It came as a pleasant surprise when Lucas chose Irvin Kershner to direct "The Empire Strikes Back." The most skillful and sensitive underrated director in Hollywood for the past two decades, Kershner has justified Lucas' confidence by managing this perilous narrative assignment while sustaining the action at a breathless pace and gripping intensity.

A swift, densely textured two hours of cinematic cat-and-mouse, "Empire" enjoys the luxury of familiarity. Freed of the expository busywork required of "Star Wars" as a series prototype, the sequel can generate even more fun on the wing and presume a higher level of awareness and sophistication in the audience.

Half in jest, Kershner has speculated that "Empire" may lift the average mental age of the average fan of "Star Wars" from approximately 14 to 18. It might be advisable to presume a similar increase at the youngest end of the audience spectrum. Since "Empire" draws the series a bit closer to the style of "Alien" and generates more psychological horror than "Star Wars," parents may want to be cautious about its effects on the very littlest kids. On the other hand, bigger kids (say 6 or 7 and up) may prefer the fresh notes of shivery ambiguity and actually feel less threatened by the implications than adults do. At any rate, there are a few more variables to take into consideration.

Although "Star Wars" looked pretty nifty to the world at large, Lucas confessed his unhappiness with many aspects of the shooting and special effects work, which he believed was so rushed and underbudgeted that it never attained the pictorial standard he had in mind. Having consolidated his own special effects shop, Industrial Light and Magic, and financed "Empire" through his own production company, Lucas is evidently content with the look of the sequel. As a matter of fact, "Empire" does look more beautiful and streamlined than "Star Wars."

The addition of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who has been lighting Ken Russell's miserable ideas brilliantly for the last several years, appears to have given the production an immediate visual charge. The lighting schemes are bolder and the color saturation richer. The improvement is particularly exciting during the climactic lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader, an encounter whose stunning dramatic implications are accentuated by the nightmarish vividness of the set, a dark chamber illuminated by bright panels of primary colors.

Returning collaborators like composer John Williams editor Paul Hircsh, production designer Norman Reynolds, make-up artist Stuart Freeborn, sound effects editor Ben Burtt, conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie and the talented horde of visual effects designers and artists supervised by Brian Johnson and Richard Edlund have refined or surpassed their previous contributions to the "Star Wars" mystique. Three years of experience and experimentation seem to have turned the special effects crews into breathtaking hot dogs. The miniature spacecraft are now performing incredible stunts with playful confidence. The best sustained demonstration is the Millenium Falcon's race through the asteroid belt, but the neatest single marvel is a shot in which a ship sails under a cloud formation, loops over the top and reverses direction.

"Empire" lacks the self-contained plot and gauchely nostalgic charm of "Star Wars," which was a happy synthesis of many adventure movie traditions and clichés. The sequel is a spectacular entertainment concealing ulterior dramatic motives, but the pattern emerging from this deception appears so exciting that it seems foolish to resent "Empire" for not being "Star War." An indispensable connection work, it was never intended to duplicate or supplant the introductory work.

The success of "Empire" should enable Lucas and his collaborators to sustain a fabulous new superserial, potentially far greater in dramatic scope, cultural impact and artistic influence than the Bond series, coming up on its 20th anniversary and still going strong. The movies would be diminished if Lucas didn't succeed in realizing his grand design, or coming as close to it as fate allows.

Imagine what a kick it will be to follow the "Star Wars" saga as it unfolds and contemplate the completed mythological fairy tale! It's a pop culture phenomenon that shouldn't be missed. If each new episode demonstrates the gusto and artistry reflected in the superlative, seamless collaborative style of "The Empire Strikes Back," Lucas' imaginative whimsy will be even more fun to indulge.

Lucas is an encouraging pace-setter in more ways than one. The "Star Wars" fable seems to be growing, and the innovative illusion-making technology exposed in the first movie has improved dramatically in the sequel. Lucas appears to be in knowledgeable, adventurous control of his own pulp-inspired fantasy life, and the proficiency of his popular artistry is especially appealing and even inspiring.

Far from resisting a position of leadership or rejecting future challenges, the Lucas group is clearly out in front in its field, setting the pace for the popular movie culture of the late 20th century and embracing the future by projecting a coherent, stirring, distinctively Americanized vision of heroic aspiration and struggle onto it. The fact that he seems to know what he's doing and how to do it well engenders a peculiar sense of pride. "The Empire Strike Back," the first major release of what promises to be a colossal box office summer, reaffirms the international supremacy of Anglo-American commercial filmmaking at its snazziest and the peculiar native genius of George Lucas.

© Copyright 1980 The Washington Post Company

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