There was never a phenomenon like Star Wars. Argue what you will about other movies that have come out in recent years, but Star Wars will hold the title of the movie with the biggest cultural impact of all time.
What a thrill it was to learn as a kid that a new Star Wars movie was going to be made. Sequels weren’t unheard of in the 70′s, but they weren’t as prolific as they are now. How could George Lucas not make another Star Wars movie? He had the hottest property Hollywood has ever seen, and he always spoke about how Star Wars was supposed to be a nine-part series.
In the 70′s and 80′s, movies that did well were re-released in theaters because home video wasn’t yet the big business it was to become in the mid-80′s. There was no internet to connect to, so the only way to see the trailer for the new Star Wars movie was to see it in the theater when Star Wars was re-released in 1979. The trailer for Empire has to be one of the best trailers ever made. Not only did it show brief clips of unexpected events from the new movie (OMG was Han shooting at Vader? Luke fighting Darth Vader?), but showed clips that were enough to get your nerdgasm going (Walkers…’nuff said, right?).
The events leading up to May 21, 1980 were pretty intense. The Star Wars Fan Club had a special phone number to call to hear messages from characters in the film (1-800-521-1980). I had those recordings at one point and apparently lost the one tape that I think had them all. I wanted to know which theater in my area was playing the movie. Star Wars played at the General Cinema in Menlo Park, NJ and it was the best theater in a 30 mile radius. Sure enough, Empire was going to make its area debut at that theater. The Monday before the movie opened, my mom bought me the novelization to the movie. If there was ever a time I tested myself to not spoil a movie for myself, this was it. Turning to the dark side for just a little bit, I opened to a random page near the end of the book. There, in black and white, were the five words that would make the audience gasp, and send fans into disbelief for the next three years. As a twelve year old kid, I had to tell everyone I knew, and I did, and I learned to never, ever spoil a movie for anyone ever again. To this day, I’m told by my friends of how I ruined Empire for them, but we laugh about it now.
The day the movie was released, one of the morning shows in New York teased scenes from the movie all morning. It was tough having to rip myself away from the TV to go to school, but I had to, hoping to see the movie itself that evening. My friends and I wanted to see it badly that night. Forget homework and chores, we refused to wait until the weekend to see it. My parents told me I couldn’t see it that night because my they were busy, but fortunately my dad was able to change his plans and took me to the 5pm show. There was already a line forming and we were lucky to get near the front, but as time went on, more and more people showed up and the line wrapped around the theater. I had never seen a line that long for a movie before, and it definitely wouldn’t be the last.
Inside, my dad and I sat in the balcony’s front row. I got a copy of the Empire Strikes Back Movie Magazine, and flipped through a few pages before stopping myself. I had already spoiled the movie for myself once, I didn’t want to make it worse. I mean, all, we wanted to know is if Luke wound up with Leia, right?
Nobody knew how the movie would start. Flashbacks? A different opening altogether? Will things pick up at a point in the future? At 5pm the lights dimmed, the crowd went nuts, the 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm logos came up, and there it was: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”
The Star Wars logo erupted on the screen with the saga’s theme, but George threw us a curve ball: Episode V? Did we miss three episodes along the way? No, it was already stated that George decided Star Wars would be Episode IV, and Empire would be Episode V. Most fans already knew this, especially members of the Star Wars Fan Club who found out about it early.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
It is a dark time for the
Rebellion. Although the Death
Star has been destroyed,
Imperial troops have driven the
Rebel forces from their hidden
base and pursued them across
Evading the dreaded Imperial
Starfleet, a group of freedom
fighters led by Luke Skywalker
have established a new secret
base on the remote ice world
The evil lord Darth Vader,
obsessed with finding young
Skywalker, has dispatched
thousands of remote probes into
the far reaches of space….
As the opening crawl ended and started to fade into the distance, there was a great disturbance in The Force…the film broke. A brand new 70mm print decided that it was going to snap just as everyone was getting excited about seeing the first frame of new footage from the movie. The audience, applauding just a few seconds earlier, was now booing the projection booth. They got the film fixed quickly, and we were on our way to Hoth by way of following a probe droid’s path.
I won’t go into the details of what happens in the film (since I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else!), but the audience was hooked. It was one of the few times in my life where watching a film was a communal experience. We weren’t watching it individually, we were watching it as a collective of fans. One point about the film which I always bring up is that I think the movie did well because it grounded the characters. Instead of these people being superheroes, they were characters we could relate to on a personal level, with only their environment being different than ours. The sets were incredible and really pulled the audience in. Dagobah in particular was done so well you’d think it really existed. Cloud City, to me, was the pinnacle of architecture used in any of the films because it took an unrealistic place and made you believe you could really float in the sky.
The story unraveled with such perfect pacing, something that’s lacking in today’s action movies which try to shove so much at the audience. Empire is an example of how you can make a movie that rivets the audience without having to blow something up every 12 seconds. Luke’s training on Dagobah resonated with many people and the struggles they’ve had in their lives to do their best, while Han and Leia tried to work out their romantic issues. Who hasn’t dealt with these things themselves? It all comes to a head when Luke has to decide between saving his friends and completing his training. Stay, and his friends may die. Leave, and he may be turned to the Dark Side. Both paths have their consequences.
Yoda was a pleasant surprise. When I heard there was going to be a Jedi Master in the film, I thought that it had to be a tall, warrior type. Instead we got this short, green, backwards talking character who really showed us that “size matters not”. Luke towered over him, but Yoda displayed such wisdom and power, you’d think Luke was still that whiny farm boy on Tatooine.
Boba Fett was shown during the only decent part of the Star Wars Holiday Special. That animated segment of the show was so popular that they decided to put Fett into the film. Again, the creative team did a fantastic job with his character, making him mysterious and giving him very few lines of dialog while still making him a badass.
The music of the film was beautiful. John Williams did a masterful job of creating a sonic landscape for the film. What Williams is extraordinarily good at is matching a musical score to the visual environment, and this is his best example of how he does it. One of my favorite pieces is Yoda’s theme which portrays his wisdom and patience which Luke needs to learn in this movie, as well as Yoda’s whimsical personality. Williams also created a theme for Darth Vader which resonated the very evil that Vader personifies. Some of the other notable pieces are the music in the Asteroid Field, the attack on Hoth, the theme between Han and Leia, especially when used at the end of the film in the carbon freeze chamber, and the music written for when everyone tries to escape from Cloud City. John Williams won an Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Similar to the musical landsape, I have to mention the amazing work by Ben Burtt and his sound design team. Ben made the environment believable by using sound effects which came from items in the real world. By using sounds that have their basis in our world, they don’t sound that alien and we believe what we hear.
Laughter, sadness, disbelief, anger, and confusion filled the theater that early evening. My dad asked me in the car on the way home, “So which did you like better?”. I had no immediate answer for him. Star Wars was fun, but Empire was more of a film. I think I told him I had to think about it. Thirty years later, I still teeter between the two for different reasons. Today, Empire is listed as one of the best films ever made, and it really is.
At the end we all shook our head thinking “wait, we have to wait three more years to see what happens?”. Yes, we did. Those were three very, very long years to wait.
Thoughts on the Special Edition
I felt I should weigh in on the Special Edition of Empire that was released in 1997. The changes to Star Wars were a mixed bag. I absolutely loved the shot of the Falcon taking off from Mos Eisley, but wasn’t thrilled with some of the other changes like the shot of Luke approaching Mos Eisley which looked poor, the edited shots of the Imperial officers being shot, and some of the bad CGI at the end of the film.
I was very nervous about the changes to Empire, and to be honest, I think they were all pretty good except the shot of Vader’s shuttle landing on his Star Destroyer. Not only did it destroy the pacing of the film, but it was a reused alternate angle shot from Return of the Jedi. I loved the redone shots of Cloud City. The pacing of the escape from Cloud City irks me a little to this day because I was so used to the original film. One other nitpick is a line that was changed. Luke says to Artoo “You’re lucky to get out of there”, which was changed from the original “You’re lucky you don’t taste very good”. The new line makes isn’t funny at all and I can’t understand why they’d alter that line.
I can’t complain too much about it, bit I hope those little nitpicks are fixed for the Blu-Ray release.