"I think it went beyond 'Star Wars'. You had some humor, you got to know the characters a little better. I saw it as the second movement in an opera. That's why I wanted some of the things slower. And it ends in a way that you can't wait to see or to hear the vivace, the allegretto. I didn't have a climax at the end. I had an emotional climax."
No matter what he did before or after 1980, director Irvin Kershner - who passed away at the age of 87 this weekend - immortalized himself in the pantheon of cinema with The Empire Strikes Back. Kershner, one of George Lucas’s instructors at the USC film school and an offspring of the Roger Corman clan, reluctantly took the directing job at first, but without his keen eye and his ability to infuse themes of human weakness and dark tragic elements, Star Wars: Episode V may not have ever been considered not only the best sequel ever made, but the most complete and amazing science-fiction fantasies ever constructed. But what is it about The Empire Strikes Back that makes it feel so complete and so captivating?
Perhaps it is the fact that Empire equals the second act of a single film. Consider the set up, the action, and the conclusion of a conventional three-act narrative. The heart of a picture is where things are revealed, where characters begin their transformation, and where the story itself really picks up steam. That is promising in theory, but the characters must be given depth in order for the audience to care about the events at hand. That is where Empire excels over the rest of the Star Wars pictures. Consider the budding flirtation between Han and Leia, the early signs from Luke that he may have the force, the re-establishing drive of the Empire behind a determined Darth Vader; all of these elements are in play, and the momentum of these characters and situations is what gives the picture its heartbeat. In Episode IV, the audience had to meet these characters. Everything was very new and fresh and the base of the story had not been yet established. By the time we pick up the action on Hoth we know these characters, their dispositions, and their situations. It is time to watch them blossom as human beings in this world.
And speaking of Hoth, the change from the deserts of Tattooine to the snow planet for the opening battle is a subtle but effective move for the story. Empire is the only film in the franchsie that does not have a single moment on the desert planet. From sun-bleached yellows and browns we get cold blues and grays. This deft touch by Kershner, putting his visual stamp on the opening sequences, also indicates the darker, more brooding atmosphere of Empire when compared to A New Hope. Empire is all about introducing the viewer to new worlds in the Star Wars universe. The cloud city is another example, as is the swamp planet Grentarik in the Degobah System where we meet Yoda. This brings me to yet another element of Empire that makes it so captivating: the introduction of new characters that include Yoda, Boba Fett, and Lando Calrissian. This new blood infuses new energy and life into the story. And these characters are all pivotal in their own way.
These elements are what make the rare great sequels better than the original. This is what is so effective with The Godfather Part II, with The Dark Knight, and certainly with The Empire Strikes Back. But it is also Kershner’s firm grasp on a tone for the film that set it apart from the other Star Wars films. Empire is decidedly more dark and ominous in its gray palette and mood. The shift in tone is a welcome one for the narrative, as the events that unfold here fit the menacing nature of Kershner’s visual choices.
The darkest and most sinister plot device is, of course, the revelation at the end. Take a moment to consider the daringness of such a revelation. For nearly two films, the audience has been operating under a certain assumption, a black-and-white division of good and evil that has their loyalties set. So when Vader reveals to the injured Skywalker near the end of the picture that he is, in fact, Luke’s father, everything that had been preconceived by the audience up to that point now must be re-evaluated. It is a bold stroke of genius by George Lucas, but the execution of the scene is what is so memorable. The way Vader is towering over Luke, wounded and without escape at the edge of the plank, conveys the emotional charge of such news. It puts Vader in control of Luke, and changes perception of both of these characters. Vader is no longer a robot, Luke no longer a green Jedi without a past. The one scene unfolds so many more elements; elements of Greek tragedy are now in play, areas of gray have been exposed, and things are forever changed. That is the most powerful turning point in the entire franchise, and the penultimate moment that makes Empire the best of the franchise and arguably one of the best films of all time.
Irvin Kershner devoted over two years to the direction of The Empire Strikes Back. The film ran over budget and had a number of production issues, none of which were detrimental or out of the ordinary. Kershner also took the original treatment from George Lucas and worked for a considerable amount of time in developing the characters. Kershner has said that he was not as interested in the hardware and effects of the Star Wars universe, and was more interested in fleshing out the characters. His work on the people at the heart of the story paid off, and his fingerprint on these elements of Empire are what make it so unique. Lucas has never been a writer of characters so much as events, and the influence of Kershner is undeniable.
Kershner would never again reach the heights of The Empire Strikes Back in his career, although he did direct another sequel to a successful science-fiction franchise when he directed Robocop 2 in 1990. While nowhere near as impacting as the original, Robocop 2 has its own ultra-violent charm. Kershner needed not to make another picture after Empire if he didn’t get the urge, as his direction in Empire is what sets it above and beyond any of the other five entries into the franchise and cements Episode V as a staple of classic American cinema.