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.