Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Empire Strikes Back" Hits 30!

Is the Force still with you?

It may be hard to believe but it has been 30 years since the theatrical release of “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980).

“The Empire Strikes Back” was the second installment of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, coming after “A New Hope” (1977), directed by George Lucas, had become one of the highest grossing films of all time.

This time around directing duties were taken over by Irvin Kershner, who would go on to direct such titles as “Robo Cop 2” (1990). The script was co-written by Lawrence Kasdan, who would also write “Return of the Jedi” (1983) and Leigh Brackett, known for “The Big Sleep” (1946) and “Rio Bravo” (1959). It follows much of the formula which made the previous film so successful, blending science-fiction, soap opera and dashes of humor. The screenplay was nominated by the Writer’s Guild in the “comedy” category.

What has made “The Empire Strikes Back” such an endurable film? Why after all these years do people still want to visit “a galaxy far, far away”? Could it be because the film feeds on our imagination and innocence? Here is a world where good and evil are clearly defined. Where the possibilities seem endless.

Watching the film again I was surprised at what kind of rollicking adventure it is. I remembered the film being a bit more brooding. It is often suggested this film is the darkest of the trilogy, but, no, we are plunged into one daring cliff hanger sequence after another. The film has an energy which at times feels unrelenting.

The plot, what little of it there is, has Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) travel to the planet Dagobah where they search for the old and wise Jedi master, Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz). Meanwhile Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) try to escape the clutches of the Empire and Darth Vader (played by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones).

“The Empire Strikes Back” however remains a visual feast for the eyes. A dazzling spectacle. Viewers discover the ice planet Hoth and tautaums and see Imperial Walkers. But the most memorable creation is the character of Yoda.

The film though is really about entering adulthood, becoming a man and accepting one's fate. Luke Skywalker must learn the ways of the Jedi and how to harness the power of the “Force”. He learns about his identity and where he comes from. Supplying the film with one of the most famous lines in movie history.

This is common among trilogies or series. The middle installment, whether it is “The Godfather” films, “Harry Potter” or “The Lord of the Rings”, is where our lead character must grow up. They are in an awkward stage of their life. They are in their “middle” stage, learning to accept who they must become.

Coincidentally we can say the same about the audience that first saw “The Empire Strikes Back”. Back in 1977 most fans were teenagers, then, three years later, they too had grown up. They were leaving their teen years behind them. They probably had more in common with Luke Skywalker than they may have first realized. Probably because they were too busy being amazed by those light saber fights.

At its time of release “The Empire Strikes Back” was met with both critical and commercial success. The film grossed more than $148 million, becoming one of the highest grossing films of the year. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert placed the film on his “top ten” list, eventually calling it the best of the trilogy. It was also nominated for three Academy Awards and given a special Oscar for its visual effects.

“Star Wars” cultural impact has been proven by multiple parodies. Some of the most notable examples include “SNL” skits, the Mel Brooks comedy “Spaceballs” (1987) and even a music video by “Weird” Al Yankovic (done to the melody of Don McLean’s “American Pie”).

It seems the “Force” will remain with us for another 30 years.