Last week, I did something I haven’t done in a long time: took a substantial amount of time off for reasons that didn’t involve traveling or some sort of holiday obligation. I basically did a lot of nothing… and it was glorious. I’ll be honest, part of the reason I took this time off was the less-than-stellar summer-movie slate. I really just didn’t want to sit through any more bad movies. (I know, oh boo hoo. But this summer has been abnormally bad.)
In my time off, I thought about a lot of things: Mostly things that involve my own mortality (and sometimes how I’m ever going to get 10 wins in the Star Wars: Battlefront “Hero Hunt” game mode in order to win a digital prize). But sometimes I thought about movies and why everything’s been so lousy lately.
I rewatched The Empire Strikes Back over my time off. I’ve seen this movie a lot of times. I consider it my favorite movie and I’ve written about it at length. But I still come back to it trying to figure out why it works so well as a blockbuster movie and as a sequel.
A big reason, which I’ve written about before, is that aesthetically The Empire Strikes Back is different than any other Star Wars movie. It was directed by Irvin Kershner and shot by Peter Suschitzky (I’ve interviewed both), and this would wind up being their only contributions to Star Wars. George Lucas wasn’t thrilled that Kershner wouldn’t film a master shot, so that Lucas could later reedit the scenes how he wanted. This is why Empire has a style unlike the others. What Kershner and Suschitzky submitted was how the movie was going to look — and we are better off for this.
What Suschitzky told me for a Wired piece pretty much sums this up: “George Lucas, I think very intelligently, decided to choose two people who were not obviously the right choice. I had never done an action film or a special-effects film before. We had a fresh eye, an innocence, and a love of film.”
So, that’s a huge deal.
But neither Kershner nor Suschitzky wrote the script. (Though, Kershner wasn’t afraid to change the script when it needed it, like Harrison Ford’s famous “I know” line.) If you read J.W. Rinzler’s terrific The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, the mastermind behind the script of Empire wasn’t Leigh Brackett (who died after submitting a first draft that was largely unused) or Lawrence Kasdan (who came on late and polished up the dialogue). Instead, it was the uncredited George Lucas. (Seriously, for all the crap Lucas gets, he never gets enough credit for writing Empire. The peanut gallery loves to say it was written by Brackett and Kasdan, but this is not what happened.)
What hits me about The Empire Strikes Back is that we have these extremely popular characters and we watch them being put in situations and scenery we could never have possibly imagined. Put it this way: Yes, The Force Awakens is derivative (by design), but Star Wars kind of needed a safe reboot of sorts. What we will see in Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII will be his vision of a Star Wars movie and, I suspect, it will be unlike any other Star Wars movie we’ve seen. (So, like Empire, but nothing like Empire.)
The Empire Strikes Back couldn’t really happen today, not the way blockbusters are made. The rule today seems to be, “The first movie made money, so let’s make another one that’s kind of just like it.” If Star Wars 2 were coming out today (the direct sequel to Star Wars, not Attack of the Clones), it would probably be a lot like Return of the Jedi. And we all sort of like Jedi, but only because it comes after Empire. If it came out second (basically an attack on a new Death Star), it would have made a ton of money, but the saga would have suffered.
Empire was not universally loved in 1980. Sure, it’s kind of a downer and it has a cliffhanger for an ending, but the reality is it’s aesthetically jolting. (And, again, the filmmakers are a big credit to that.) Here are these incredibly popular characters, and when the movie starts they are all in heavy cold-weather gear, almost freezing to death on an icy hellscape. All the stuff that was going on in Star Wars isn’t really going on anymore. Everything has changed and there’s very little explanation why. When we last saw the Rebels, they had just won. Now it seems they are losing and they are hanging out on a planet we had never seen before. People say Empire is “dark” (which has been used as a crutch ever since filmmakers describe their upcoming move, trying to get fans excited), but it has some of the brightest locations of any of the movies. Hoth is beautiful. Cloud City is gorgeous. Yet the characters are put in situations that are foreign and awful and we learn so much more about them than we did in the first Star Wars.
Here’s a scene I love… And let’s play a little game, pretending you’ve never seen Empire. Okay, you’ve seen the first Star Wars. Now, you’ve heard there will be a scene in the new sequel in which Darth Vader confronts Han Solo, who we just watched help Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star. How do we think that scene goes down? If it were today, there would no doubt be a long fight of some kind. Oh, and a lot of talking. Hoo boy, words would for sure be exchanged during this fight. But in The Empire Strikes Back, it happens in an all-white dining room, with Vader seated at the end of the table. With no fun quip or any fanfare, Solo draws his weapon and takes four shots before Vader uses the Force to snatch the blaster from across the table, then invites Han, Leia and Chewbacca to “Join us.” The entire scene, from when we first see Vader, to Han realizing Lando had betrayed him, is 35 seconds. And so much happens in those 35 seconds, we learn so much, and it all happens in this really odd environment.
Not only is this unexpected, it’s something I would never have imagined. And that leaves us, the viewer, with a sense of awe and wonder. But so few studios would take that risk today. And the thing is, those studios could point to Empire and say, “Look, it was the lowest-grossing of the original three Star Wars movies. Audiences didn’t love it then.” And they’d be right. But it was a movie meant to last. And most “blockbusters” today aren’t made like that anymore. Why take the risk?
Today, there’s almost a “made in a committee” feeling to a lot of larger movies and we are seeing a lot of that this summer. And as Han Solo said in The Empire Strikes Back, “I don’t have time to discuss this in a committee.”
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.