Friday, May 21, 2010

Thirty Years Ago Today: The Empire Strikes Back (May 21, 1980)

Much, probably too much, will be written about today's thirtieth anniversary of the second installment of the original Star Wars trilogy. (The lovely Whitney Matheson of USA Today's blog, Pop Candy, was talking about the anniversary as early as last month.). But, as a blog dedicated to pop culture nostalgia, Chronological Snobbery must pause to ask: Is there a better component of the original Star Wars trilogy than its second chapter, 1980's The Empire Strikes Back? The answer: No, and that's an objective, not a subjective, statement.

Directed by Irvin Kershner, and starring most everyone from the original trilogy, Empire illustrated that the initial Star Wars concept could become a dark and epic cinematic masterpiece. That film has aged well, better than its predecessor in fact, because it takes itself just seriously enough and respects its audience. Characters mature, plot interests are served, and the narrative is bolstered by character, not special effects. From the slow burning passion of Solo and Leia, to the climactic battle between Luke and Vader, this is Star Wars at its best. Its darkness, coupled with its cliffhanger ending, make it fine cinema indeed. Lucas has never equaled it (though the first act of Return of the Jedi does come at least somewhat close).

Sadly, beginning with Jedi, the franchise slipped into producer George Lucas' mad obsession with marketing and his awful desire to place cinematic technology far, far ahead of the storytelling. That approach, of course, culminated in the wretched prequels and the near destruction of any fondness my generation had for the original films. Even before the prequels, though, Lucas couldn't resist the urge to tweak Empire, well after its release. In 1997, he soiled Kershner's austere vision with his overcooked, overdone special edition, released in theatres with superfluous digital nonsense. That attempt to "improve" the film simply cluttered the previously haunting mise-en-scene of the original 1980 version. Lucas, of course, purports that he always intended the films to look as they do in the 1997 special edition; he was simply waiting for cinematic technology to catch up to his vision so that he could accomplish that feat. Whatevs. (An aside: We should probably read the decline of the Star Wars franchise as an endorsement of the skills of producer Gary Kurtz, who produced the first two films, but left after a falling out with Lucas, whose stewardship of the franchise to date has turned the properties into rot.).

Much has changed in movie making and marketing since 1980. These days, Lucas seems more concerned with selling soda and lunchboxes than telling tales (or at least, profiting from the sale of soda and lunchboxes so additional monies can be sunk into special effects technologies which can be utilized to distract cinema viewers from an utter lack of plot in a film by Lucas). Unfortunately, that may well be his legacy. But for me, a child of the 1980s, I remember the trilogy and my great fondness for it as it existed prior to 1997, before the dilution of Empire. It is that film which celebrates an anniversary today; it is that film that I celebrate. Alas, there is very little in the Star Wars universe that came after 1980 worthy of any celebration whatsoever.


Unknown said...

Yeah, I don't think people realize how important Kurtz was to the franchise. He kept Lucas honest and, as you rightly point out, you can see the rot starting to set in once he left. Still, they collaborated on two bonafide masterpieces with STAR WARS and EMPIRE (didn't they also work together on AMERICAN GRAFFITTI?). While, I still have an affectionate spot in my heart for STAR WARS and probably watch it more, EMPIRE is the better film.

Abbytron said...

Well said. Lucas is such a tool.

Ransom said...

I'll certainly have to review that anti-Lucas documentary that is soon to be released (if not already). It's called "The People v. George Lucas," or some such, and I'm quite curious about it. Hopefully, the documentary film-makers who created it won't re-release it in 15 years with new digital effects, though.