The stand-alone popularity amongst Star Wars films of The Empire Strikes Back has always put me in mind of that old line of eight out of 10 dentists preferring one type of toothpaste over another. Empire, which is marking the 35th anniversary of its national release on May 21, is routinely cited as the ne plus ultra of the series. If someone tells you they prefer the original picture, A New Hope, you tend to think they’re a bit of a fuddy-duddy, fond of retro serials, while the Return of the Jedi adherents probably like stuffed animals too much, and prequel fans are trying to hard to be different, or are else very young.
Cards out: I’m one of those people who think the first film is easily the best, the one Star Wars film that could exist without any of the others, made with that same daring and innocence that can make first novels so appealing. But as a kid, when I played with my action figures, it was Empire I was thinking about, perhaps because it does the most to move the overall narrative along, with some real plot humdingers, aspects that, as you get older, you realize contain some pretty creepy, downbeat stuff.
Empire, doubtless, is electrifying: you have Yoda and his backwards running maxims, Obi-Wan comes back, those AT-ATs are horrifyingly huge (never mind how they were ever transported to that ice planet of Hoth), Boba Fett does his space opera noir turn, the love story of a swashbuckler and a princess ferments, and, of course, we have one of the all-time great reveals.
That reveal — come on, everybody do the “I am your father” voice — might as well have been sourced from Victorian literature. People like Dickens and Wilkie Collins were always using devices like this, bits of plot fusillade that make us do a collective “no way!” Often with dark material, rather than sunshine and rainbows, as if a pleasing form of shock, like we’re all in on one amazing, forboding secret, better helps the attendant nastiness permeate your system without leaving you a depressed heap on the floor. And it’s this knack, really, that makes Empire what it is.
The entire film is one long effort to flee, until Luke Skywalker makes his approach on Bespin, where a raft of nastiness has already played out. Lando’s betrayal of his friend Han comes complete with a seduction angle as he tries to make time with Leia — just Lando being Lando, baby, nothing amiss to notice here — and then commences over a banquet table. Ever notice how much goes wrong in Shakespeare over a banquet table? If someone invites you to dinner, maybe take your mead and mutton at home instead.
Han and his crew have already emerged from a cave that was not a cave — and which they must have entered, in this oddly Freudian film, through the back door, so to speak — and where priapic, winged creatures have been sucking on the Millennium Falcon’s power lines. Caves rarely bring glad tidings. They suggest both the unknown and a womb-like return when, of course, you’re not supposed to ever head back there, once you’ve made your way out. They are our most Oedipal geological structure. And in Empire, one cave isn’t enough; Luke gets one of his own on Dagobah, where he encounters some sort of apparition of the guy we later learn is his dad, and, after he cuts said apparition’s head off, he sees his own face. Everyone — kid, apparition dad, app dad with kid face—hanging out in the womb with the snakes crawling around.
Empire is a moire pattern of black on top of black, but the pacing makes the picture feel rammed through with energy, rather than anything emotionally dystopian. As with the first film, there are wipes galore, but they come faster now, and the camera doesn’t linger nearly so much as it does in A New Hope, where it sometimes stops and hangs out with a group of talking characters. Everything is stylized, right down to Dagobah, which is like a seething mass of Gorgon hair at the level of a lost world, so nothing feels slapdash, even as everything dashes about. You get those jolts of adrenaline that comes from pressurized situations, but without the remorse, never mind that the bad guys run this particular interstellar roost, and the weirdness never lets up.
But then again, maybe that’s why Empire rules supreme for most Star Wars fans. There are caves a’plenty in all of us, and most of us, presumably, don’t spend a ton of time exploring them. It’s nice to exorcise some of their latent energy in other forms, for which Empire is a kind of readymade tool.
The Shakespearean and Victorian approaches are further teased out by the presence of a ghost in the blue-shimmering Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is real enough that he displaces vines, and takes a load off on a log to offer Luke some counsel, grounding the otherworldly in something tangibly physical. You like that the ghost sits on the log; it’s reassuring, even if, hey, this guy got knocked off by this kid’s father in the first film, after a doozy of a lie. Depending on one’s point of view, naturally.
Parts of Empire are so Kafkaesque that I wonder if its makers would giggle when writing scenes, as Kafka did when he thought it’d be a good idea to have a dude turn into a bug one day. The Vader v. Luke lightsaber battle, with all of that garish orange floor lighting, is so stylized that it could play out in a Cabinet of Doctor Caligari world, but consider the part after the reveal. As his father stands over him, light sword literally in hand, the young Jedi elects to throw himself into a giant womb-like structure, with smooth walls, which he passes down with great rapidity, only to be saved by his sister. There is on the nose, and then there is Empire on the nose. But we’re all moving so fast, in various forms of flight, that we tend not to notice the devil in these details, and get left with that good, adrenaline-boosting sense of fun instead. There’s a Jedi mind trick for you. •