By Malice Intended of Planet Ill
The sequel is the most difficult of exercises to execute. You can’t lean on an origin/setup plot, you have the fiscal pressure of the first installment to live up to, and you have to keep the story fresh and interesting enough to make people return for another possible movie. How do you further the narrative of characters people have become emotionally invested in, create enough new turmoil to imperil them, and allow them to emerge with more stories to tell while satisfying open strings of narration?
In 1980, George Lucas managed something few thought was possible at the time: he created a sequel that was superior to the original with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. Although initially met with backlash for a narrative device that featured the protagonists actually losing (no happy ending), it is now universally accepted as an American film classic; of such an undeniable level of quality that even casual fans appreciate its craftsmanship. That Empire surpassed is predecessors was no small feat considering the original was one of the most influential even made.
Along with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Star Wars created the template for the summer blockbuster. It represented a major turning point in special effects technology and established FX-laden adventure tales as the order of the day for audiences the world over. It also rewrote the book on movie merchandising. How do you further such a monumental achievement? You take the characters and the story to a place that audiences would never expect.
Lucas passed directorial duties on to his USC professor Irvin Kershner and served as producer. He brought in Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasden to flesh out his story ideas. Together they crafted a tale that ran counter to the rules established by the first film. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C3PO and R2D2 were thrust into the deepest and darkest parts of the Star Wars universe. The expected action and thrills would still be in place, but at the service of a much heavier story.
The darkness in question manifested itself with more despair, a more menacing villain, a cliff hanger ending, and a familial twist that no one saw coming. As if that wasn’t risky enough, a major character was to be portrayed by a puppet. Add those pieces together and you have a film that was anything but a sure bet. No one expected a children’s fantasy film to be so bold in scope and execution.
On the technical side, the burgeoning Industrial Light & Magic provided special effects that were more elaborate and seamless than the ones in Star Wars. From the frigid conditions of Hoth to the muck of Dagobah to the majesty of cloud city, Empire was a virtual sci-fi travelogue. The dogfights in space were even more ferocious, using perspective in dynamic ways. Empire is a living testament to the dependability of practical FX.
The Empire Strikes Back was a resounding success upon initial release, becoming the second highest grossing film ever right behind Star Wars. Still, the critical and audience reception was less than stellar. Most considered it to be okay, but not nearly as good as the original. The unhappy ending did not sit well with the legions of kids who consumed action figures and other merchandise by the truckload. The middle stretch of the film, consisting of a lengthy training sequence, was not action packed enough for children who came to see space battles and light saber fights.
We now live in a time where it’s no longer unheard of for a sequel to be deeper, darker and better than its predecessor. Spider-man 2, The Dark Knight, and the Jason Bourne trilogy are all recent examples. All are decidedly denser thematically and dare to challenge audience expectations to varying degrees. It is not uncommon for a sequel to out do the original in terms of box office and popularity. Back in 1980, things were quite different.
The Empire Strikes Back is part of a very exclusive club that includes the likes of The Godfather Part II. Hindsight allows us to see how it further perfected the blueprint for the blockbuster, making way for richer storytelling and darker shades. Even a fairy tale can be substantial, and even a space opera can have heart. Regardless of what growing pains the Star Wars brand endures (hello Jar Jar Binks), The Empire Strikes Back remains a soaring achievement.
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