Thursday, May 21, 2020

The 40th Anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back

In general, sequels do not have good reputations. The majority of them are not only considered inferior to the original movies upon which they are based, but often they are considered vastly inferior. For that reason, there are very few sequels that are considered superior to their predecessors, and even in some cases it might be a matter of some debate. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is generally considered better than Frankenstein (1931), but insisting that The Godfather Part II (1974) is superior to The Godfather (1972) can result in arguments. Another sequel that is considered superior to its predecessor is Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), more simply known as The Empire Strikes Back. While there are those who will insist Star Wars (1977) is the better movie, one will find many who will insist The Empire Strikes Back is the superior of the two.

Even before Star Wars (1977) was released, George Lucas had considered the possibility of a sequel. Science fiction writer Alan Dean Foster had been hired to write a novelization of Star Wars (which was credited to George Lucas). As part of his contract he was also required to write a second novel that could provide the basis for a low-budget sequel to Star Wars (1977) provided the film did poorly at the box office. As it turned out, Star Wars (1977) not only proved to be a smash hit, but the highest grossing movie of all time at that time (it is still currently the second highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation, after Gone with the Wind). Given the phenomenal success of Star Wars (1977), a sequel to the movie was most assured.

It was in August 1977 that George Lucas began creating an outline for the sequel, then titled Star Wars: Chapter II. Writing the first movie had not been the most pleasant task for Mr. Lucas, so to write the sequel he hired science fiction writer Leigh Brackett in November 1977. George Lucas planned for the screenplay to be something of a collaboration between him and Miss Brackett, with Mr. Lucas providing her ideas while she did the actual writing. Story conferences for Star Wars: Chapter II began on November 28 1977. During this period George Lucas came up with several ideas for the sequel, some of which would never be used and others which would not be used until the third sequel, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983).

Leigh Brackett would deliver her treatment on February 21 1978. For the most part Leigh Brackett's treatment was very similar to the film as it was finally produced, with one major difference. In the treatment the characters of Anakin Skywalker (Luke's father) and Darth Vader were still two different characters. In the treatment Anakin Skywalker appears as a Force spirit to train Luke. George Lucas was disappointed with Leigh Brackett's treatment and wanted to discuss it with her. Unfortunately, she died of cancer on March 18 1978 before he could do so.

George Lucas then wrote the next draft of the sequel by himself, drawing upon Leigh Brackett's treatment to do so. It was with this second draft that Darth Vader became established as Luke Skywalker's father, as opposed to being an entirely separate character from Anakin Skywalker. Not only would this revelation entirely change the audience's interpretation of Star Wars (1977), but it would also entirely change the direction of the Star Wars movies. It was also with this second draft that George Lucas decided that The Empire Strikes Back would be the second film in the second trilogy out of two trilogies. It was then that the movie officially became Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. As Star Wars (1977) was now the first film in that second trilogy, it became Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

The Empire Strikes Back premiered at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C. on May 17 1980 as part of a benefit for the Special Olympics. It would have its premiere in the United Kingdom at the the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square in London on May 20 1980 as a Royal Charity Premiere. The following day, May 21 1980, it went into general release in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

It might come as some surprise given its status as a classic and a sequel considered superior by some to the original Star Wars (1977), but The Empire Strikes Back received mixed reviews. Richard Combs of The Monthly Film Bulletin gave a largely negative review, writing, "With the revelation that Lucas has such a series in mind, even the genuinely ‘fun’ elements of the first film – its comic-strip eclecticism, its movie-serial dash and narrative tropes – are pedantically filled out and institutionalised, much as the galactic landscape is by effects technology," and "That story counts for less than gimmicks, and characters less than both, might be judged from the lack of resonance in the one narrative revelation, concerning Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker." Vincent Canby of The New York Times gave The Empire Strikes Back a much more positive review, but still dismissed the movie. He wrote, "The Empire Strikes Back is not a truly terrible movie. It's a nice movie. It's not, by any means, as nice as Star Wars. It's not as fresh and funny and surprising and witty, but it is nice and inoffensive and, in a way that no one associated with it need be ashamed of, it's also silly." Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune gave The Empire Strikes Back a much more positive review, giving it three and a half stars and saying, "It's a nearly flawless movie of its kind." Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times and Mr. Ebert's co-host on the TV show Sneak Preview, actually included The Empire Strikes Back in his list of the Best Movies of 1980.

While reviews for The Empire Strikes Back may have been mixed, it proved to be a box office smash. In its first run it earned $181.4 million in the United States and Canada. While this was less than Star Wars (1977), it easily made it the no. 1 movie of 1980. Currently it is still the 13th highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation.

In the end The Empire Strikes Back would prove to be a pivotal film in both cinematic history and the history of the Star Wars franchise. Indeed, if The Empire Strikes Back had failed miserably at the box office, it is very possible that there may have been no further Star Wars movies and, quite possible, little in the way of a Star Wars franchise at all. Beyond the fact that the success or failure of the then nascent Star Wars franchise depended upon The Empire Strikes Back, the movie would have a major impact on the franchise in other ways.

Of course, the biggest of these was the revelation that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father. Although common knowledge now, it was one of the most shocking reveals in the history of cinema at the time. Furthermore, it has shaped the Star Wars franchise ever since. The first trilogy was not conceived until George Lucas decided that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father, and ultimately the first trilogy would be the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker. While the third trilogy would be conceived by people other than George Lucas, the revelation of Luke Skywalker's parentage would shape it as well.

Beyond the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father, The Empire Strikes Back would introduce characters who would prove pivotal to the franchise. Chief among these was Yoda, the Jedi master who trains Luke in the movie. Yoda would not only play a central role in the second trilogy, but in the first and third trilogies, as well as Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Lando Calrissian would not be as pivotal to the Star Wars franchise as Yoda, but he would prove to be one of the franchise's most popular characters. He would be the protagonist of a series of novels and appeared in both the TV series Star Wars: Rebels and the final film of the Skywalker Saga The Rise of Skywalker. While bounty hunter Boba Fett would prove to be a popular, his impact on the Star Wars franchise would be less than either Yoda or Lando. He would appear in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and has appeared in a number of novels.

Forty years after its release, The Empire Strikes Back is regarded by many not only as being better than Star Wars (1977), but as being the best Star Wars film ever made. Even among those who do not regard it as being better than Star Wars (1977), it is still respected as one of the best films in the franchise. Certainly, without the success of The Empire Strikes Back, we would not have the Star Wars franchise as we know it.

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