I have a somewhat unique perspective on all of this, I think.
|Posted: 15 December 2016 at 12:03am | IP Logged | 17
I can't be entirely sure, but EMPIRE may very well have been my entry point for the films, when I was just a small child. Certainly, it was my favorite of the three from day one. Vader as Luke's father was part of my STAR WARS wheelhouse from the start, and I grew up with the STAR WARS TRILOGY, not STAR WARS...and then sequels.
As time has gone on, I've learned a great deal about the production and story history of the films. Enough to say that I think I'm a bit of an expert. During that time, I've had a few myths shattered, and some difficult truths come to light. All part of growing up, I suppose.
It was really in this very forum where I realized that "STAR WARS Fundamentalists" exist--those who only love the original film, and do not have use for anything which came after. That got the ball rolling for me, really. That's when I started researching just when exactly Vader was envisioned as Luke's father, etc.
Here are the conclusions I have come to:
STAR WARS is a perfect movie. A perfect popcorn movie, a perfect adventure movie, and an all-'round well-told, well-executed story with a beginning, middle, and end (with room for sequels--but not requiring any).
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK marks a significant turning point in the series. Lucas had elaborate plans for sequels and prequels, although they didn't quite work out as intended. Yes, there was a financial motive involved--he wanted to use the STAR WARS series to fund Skywalker Ranch and build a state-of-the-art facility for independent filmmakers to do their thing. He also had ideas and themes he wanted to explore. And he wanted to broaden what was possible with visual effects, sound design, creature effects, etc. He reimagined STAR WARS into an ongoing space-opera, rather than a one-shot homage to old serials.
This fundamental gear-shift is either something you buy into, or something you don't.
I still believe that EMPIRE is the best-made of all the films. ALL of them. Best cinematography, best music, best sound design, best dialogue, best directing, best acting. Does it begin a length process of retconning the STAR WARS story into something radically different? Yes. Does that automatically invalidate it as its own entity? Not for me. It's not quite that black-and-white. Especially since most of the key players working on EMPIRE came straight from STAR WARS. This isn't the same as the post-James Cameron TERMINATOR sequels--made by entirely different people--coming along and completely fubaring a previously great set of films made by a single creator/director with a very specific and close-ended vision. This is more akin to the Ridley Scott ALIEN/PROMETHEUS situation, except I'd argue that EMPIRE is a genuinely great film, while PROMETHEUS is not.
EMPIRE is a film that should seem like a cash-grab and a toy commercial. But it doesn't. It should seem like Han Solo being captured and frozen was just a way of dealing with Harrison Ford possibly not returning for a third film. But it doesn't. Yoda should seem like a cutesy Muppet shoehorned into the movie. But he doesn't, and Frank Oz's performance and puppeteering are still amazing, 36 years later. Some will argue these points, but I just don't get it. I mean, something like Leia changing her hairstyle for EMPIRE should not count against the film, nor automatically seem like a To Sell Toys-based creative choice.
By all accounts, EMPIRE was the hardest to make of all of the films. There's a lot of passion up there, on the screen. I think the film is, in many ways, a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere. It's a much more expensive, more refined, more immersive version of the amazing universe introduced in STAR WARS. Stylistically, I think it's the best and slickest of all the films. A jaw-dropping breakthrough in visual effects, which still holds up. It's also telling that, of the original three films, EMPIRE was the one Lucas tinkered with the least, in later years.
In some ways, comparing STAR WARS and EMPIRE feels almost like comparing apples and oranges. STAR WARS is a low-budget, breezy, gee-whiz homage to serials. EMPIRE is a tonally-different outgrowth of that film, almost a soft reboot. It's a more mature, more violent, more introspective version of that universe, with deeper characterization and deeper emotion. A popcorn movie vs. a soap opera. EMPIRE manages the difficult trick of having no real beginning and no real ending in the grand scheme of the series, and yet still successfully tells a smaller, more specific story with a beginning and end. The film ends with a quietly hopeful sense that the good guys are down, but not out. The fact that EMPIRE wasn't just MORE STAR WARS is something I respect. A brave and dangerous choice to make. Perhaps MORE STAR WARS might have been a better and creatively safer choice, but I greatly admire EMPIRE for its boldness in tipping the applecart and taking considerable storytelling risks.
And, interestingly, EMPIRE is still the lowest-grossing of ALL the films. I'll grant that a part of EMPIRE's reputation as the best of the films comes down to young fans getting older and not wanting to give up their STAR WARS toys. So, they gravitated to the "darker" and more "adult" film in the series, an effect not unlike the darkening of Marvel and DC comics, as fans technically aged out, but refused to let go.
If you want to see the "real" sequel to STAR WARS, go read SPLINTER OF THE MIND'S EYE, which was the originally-intended sequel novel (and planned as the basis for a low-budget film). The massive success of STAR WARS scuttled plans for SPLINTER to be a sequel film, and we got EMPIRE, instead. Would a SPLINTER movie have been a better sequel film than EMPIRE? Who knows. But, it would have suffered from one of the same "problems" people charge EMPIRE with--the Empire is still out there, with Vader as the chief antagonist. While I understand the criticism, I don't see the Empire still existing or Vader as a much-feared leader as dealbreakers, as some do.
In retrospect, EMPIRE is weakened by JEDI, which tied up the loose ends in some less-than-satisfactory ways. But, taken as its own entity, it's still one of my favorite films of all time, and is constantly swapping spots with the original in my mind as the best film of the series. Maybe it's a nostalgia thing. Maybe it's a generational thing. Maybe you old-timers got too used to STAR WARS upon its release, and fell so in love with it that you refused to accept anything new or different, no matter how well-made. Maybe I was deprived by not being exposed to STAR WARS as the first and only film in the series, and am therefore unable to see--on a visceral, "watching on opening night in 1980" level how EMPIRE "betrayed" it.
However, I'm now experiencing that same sort of effect, with my being in the minority regarding my major dislike of where Disney and THE FORCE AWAKENS have taken the series. So, I can better understand the viewpoint of those who take issue with the sequels and prequels. That said, I grew up with the original trilogy, but I didn't hate the prequels. Whether or not that invalidates my opinion is not for me to say!
So, just polling the group...who here saw STAR WARS in the theater? At what age? On the flipside, who here grew up with the films after the fact, or came to know them only after they were all released? I kinda think that how and when one was exposed to the films is a big factor in how well one accepts the prequels and sequels.
Bottom line? THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a beautiful looking, sounding, and directed film. I still believe that it's a great film, although time and knowledge have diminished it a bit, in favor of STAR WARS. I loved it as a child, I love it now, and nothing will take that away from me. STAR WARS is the moldbreaker and the best overall film, but EMPIRE is the best-made of the films, and the one I connect with most on an emotional level. I can separate STAR WARS from all of what came after, and love it as a singular entity. I can also enjoy the TRILOGY as its own entity. And, I can even enjoy the six-film SAGA as its own entity. Sort of like having three parallel universes with elements in common, all of which provide a different experience, and each with its own set of pros and cons.
Edited by Greg Kirkman on 15 December 2016 at 12:13am