- Sep 4, 2018
40 Years ago today, on May 17, 1980, the Empire Strikes Back had it's world premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Four days later, on May 21, it was released in the United States.
Above: Actors at the world premiere.
Following the success of Star Wars, Lucas hired Brackett to write the sequel; after her death in 1978, he outlined the Star Wars saga as a whole and wrote next draft himself, before hiring Kasdan. Lucas chose not to direct due to his obligations at Industrial Light & Magic and handling the financing, and passed the duty to Kershner, his former professor. Filmed from March to September 1979, The Empire Strikes Back faced a difficult production that included actor injuries, a set fire, and fines from the Writers and Directors Guilds of America. The initial budget was $18 million, but ballooned to $33 million by the time production concluded, making it one of the most expensive films ever made at the time.
The choice of Leigh Brackett to kick off the writing was a brilliant one by George. Not only had she experience working as a screenwriter in Hollywood ("The Big Sleep", "Rio Bravo") but she was one of the early science fiction authors as well. She began writing short stories in the '40s, so by the time she started work on Empire, she had 30 years of experience in the genre. You can see here influence here, with the additional emphasis on aliens and strange worlds.
May the Fourth! Tomorrow's the day we celebrate all things Star Wars — which makes it the perfect day to recognize one of the great unsung contributors to the galaxy far, far away: Leigh Brackett wrote the first script draft of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and her contributions helped...
Some differences from the early Brackett draft that are missing from the final film:
- Darth Vader is not Luke's father.
- Father Skywalker appears in ghost form alongside Ben on Dagobah. together they reveal to Luke the existence of his twin sister Nellith (preserved in the final movie as "there is another")
- Imperial city Coruscant is featured
- Yoda is called Minch Yoda
- Lando is a clone
- Han Solo's stepfather is a powerful warlord and he leaves to go contact him, leaving a hook for the third movie
- Chewie fights a Wampa
- Vader has a castle on a lava planet where he feeds gargoyles out of a golden bowl (this is when the prequel ideas for Mustafar began taking shape)
- Luke/Vader fight at the end is more mystical/bizarre & at one point takes place in the stars. the two of them use the force to vibrate so fast they are invisible or flying.
Ralph McQuarrie as always contributed some incredible imagery in preparation for this film.
StarWars.com presents a selection of production artwork produced by the legendary Ralph McQuarrie for The Empire Strikes Back.
With George having his time full between rebuilding/creating ILM, setting up his Skywalker Ranch and his other film companies that would revolution the industry for decades, and securing the financial ownership of the franchise, he famously called in his old film teacher, Irvin Kershner, to helm the project. The film kind of got away from Lucas, and he was under tremendous financial pressure, which made him vocally disappointed in the process at the time. It also likely drove him towards a more money-minded take on ROTJ.
As a result, Kershner was allowed to experience within Lucas's written universe in a way no other director would be. Many such experimentations resulted in the most beloved moments in the film. The clip below includes Kershner discussion the shooting of the famous "I know" line, which was one such moment of experimental filmmaking.
Several documentaries were filmed during the making of this movie that provide direct insight into the challenges and triumphs of the shoot.
How fucking amazing is this soundtrack? Yoda's theme alone is a thing of pure magic and wonder. Then you have the "Imperial March". Before this movie nobody had ever heard that before. It is far and away the best possible Evil Space March Music ever written. John Williams does sweeping baroque operatic stuff like nobody else, and this is him firing on all cylinders, at the absolute height of his powers. He was also writing the Indiana Jones music during this time. Yeah, this is the shit.
The Expanded Universe
More than any other entry, Empire Strikes Back helped to expand the universe. First of all, it introduced the concept of a franchise, with numbered, entries, and it being the fifth, implied the future existence of the prequel trilogy. He set it all up with the second film. Additionally, he introduced many characters for the first time that expanded the mythos are showed us a large and mysterious galaxy far far away.
Above: The Emperor, as he originally appeared in his extremely eerie visage, was an almost David Lynchian visual composite of a hooded woman with the eyes from a chimpanzee.
Some of the people, machines, and places Introduced onscreen for the first time:
- Anakin Skywalker (?)
- AT-AT Walkers
- The Emperor
- Boba Fett
- Bespin/Cloud City
- Force ghosts (Obi Wan)
- Force pull/telekinesis (Luke and Vader)
- Force telepathy (between Leia and Luke at the end of the movie)
- Force projection (Obi Wan visiting Hoth and Dagobah)
What can I say? Personally it is one of my favorite films to look at of all time, and if I had only 1 film from the franchise on a desert island, it would be this. I love it because it really takes you on a visual journey.
Below, I will go through the entire movie, addressing images from many shots, as presented in the Harmy Despecialized Edition, which is one of the fan attempts to re-release the film as originally aired. Now, i love the Special Edition changes but I think it's appropriate to look at the original film as it was released. Warning: this will be very image heavy.
Themes that will be addressed in this 6 part review (20 minutes covered in each part):
- Colors. The use of White & Black & Blue & Red & Orange.
- Lighting. How lights are used on set. The use of shadows. White and black.
- Framing. How a character is framed in an image. Are they trapped in a defined frame or being swallowed by a field of color? Are they shot from below or above at an extreme angle? Where is their line of sight pointing? How are different characters treated differently in the same frame?
- Visual language. How visuals tell a story without dialog. I will reference Star Wars lore here.
We start with the famous title crawl. When the first movie was released, there was no episode number, it was simply "Star Wars", but here, we have an "Episode V", a move by Lucas that suddenly recontextualizes the two films into part of a 6-film series. With this simple change, an unending franchise was created. This is the kind of marketing move Marvel would find great success in, using your current movie to sort of pre-sell future installments. Lucas pulled this move 40 years ago. Also note how straight and to the point that opening paragraph is. In just two sentences they validate the events of the last film and set up the current struggle.
After the crawl we pan down to our first image -- that of a lone Star Destroyer. The last film jumped us into the middle of a chase, but here we witness the Empire, silently sweeping through space like a shark looking for prey. The few planets we see are distant and tiny. The Star Destroyer is almost cut in half by shadow, the lighting emphasizing the angular nature of the ship.
Probe droids are sent out, again, silently, the Empire stalking our heroes like an animal predator. Hoth from the outside appears to be a safehaven; a clean "heavenly" white planet with a blue glow. The Empire's reach into places that seem to be clean sanctuaries is another main theme of the film, to be returned to at the end of the film with the Heaven Into Hell descent at Cloud City.
The first non-ship entity we see in the movie is this, the odd Probe Droid. The cold mechanical Empire is invading the pure snow of Hoth.
Then we see another entity, this time a Tauntaun, making it's weird sounds as it carried Luke across the dunes. The first couple of minutes of this film are completely alien, featuring non-human things going on. We are seeing new technology, new creatures, new environments. Right away it is full sci fi.
Luke's grand entrance, which is shot with shakey cam, in order to convey a sense of realism. Before now everything we have seen has been a spaceship, a droid, a weird animal, but now we finally see a human. Instantly we can tell Luke is no farmboy in over his head, but has been with the Rebellion for a while now (3 years) just by looking at his costuming. The soundtrack plays a tiny version of the heroic main theme, which is interrupted as Luke spies another droid. The first words in the movie are "Echo 3 to Echo 7, Han old buddy, do you read me?" Now we know the other Tauntaun's is Han Solo, that the two of them have been patrolling.
Suddenly the Wampa attacks. Luke is out cold. 4 minutes into the movie and our main hero is in grave danger. This is how you build suspense.
Inside the Rebel base we see Chewie working on the Falcon. The room is fully lit so we can see all the details. Everyone in here is doing their part, and we can see mechanics and robots all working together. Han stops by to check in one Chewie and promises he will be right back, first he has to check on Leia. A big theme of this movie: friends care about friends.
Now we see inside the control room, which has more realistic lighting. Note the heavy shadows and the striking first use of red. The color red will play a significant role in the visual storytelling, it is a symbol of danger, and this could be subtle foreshadowing. Han is shot from below, as if he is descending (and he is, from bright planet exterior to shadowy base interior). He is placed halfway between the red and the blue here, deciding between staying or going, and that's quite a worried look he has on his face.
This is the look Leia gives before turning back to her work. It's a thirsty look! Also somewhat worried. More foreshadowing?
A white variation on the C-3PO design. One of these appeared in the Blockade Runner at the start of the last film but visually he makes sense for a snow planet. The green space diagrams that were used on Yavin (jungle planet) have similarly been replaced with white to go with the snow theme.
More of that wonderful lighting inside the Echo Base. Note how most of the light on the actors appear to be coming from the consoles themselves.
Han gets emotional after telling Leia he is leaving and only getting a cool and calm "That's right" in response in their first interaction (he pays this back at the end of their time together in this film). He storms out and she follows him to argue in the hallway. Han is literally walking away here, and Leia has to run to catch up. An encounter with a bounty hunter is his excuse.
The camera cuts to a close up of the two just as Leias says "Han we need you". And Han shoots back with "What about you need me?". She doesn't know what he's talking about. Leia tries to keep the conversation professional, but Han wants the discussion to be more intimate. The use of close up emphasizes the emotional vulnerability.
A wipe edit reveals the next scene, of our similarly bickering robot duo (they fight because they love). Note again the use of natural lighting and heavy shadow. Nearly 3/4 of this frame is entirely in the Dark.
They are all worried about Luke. Han's plans to depart are never mentioned again after this, because he cares too much about finding his friend. Echo Base workers tell him "The temperatures are dropping rapidly" and Han (using his famous point) says "That's right and my friend's out in it". He is risking his life to save his friend. "Your Tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker" he is warned "Then I'll see you in Hell!" again his own wellbeing is secondary to that of his friend's. This is a major theme of this film.
Soon we see the Wampa's lair, first cutting to an image of bones scattered in the snow, the camera pans to the right to reveal...
... Luke hanging from the ceiling. His fate seemingly sealed, his lightsaber on the ground, just out of reach. Light seems to be pouring in from outside, a contrast to the dark shadows of the cave interior, much of which is foregrounded in the camera.
Now we see Luke using the force in a way never seen before. He struggles in vain to physically reach it, as the soundtrack ramps up the drama. Then he stops and calms his mind, allowing the force to flow through him. We see that using the force is not a physical thing requiring effort, but mental acuity.
Han travelling to find Luke. The background around them is almost a featureless void of white, demonstrating the enveloping threat of the snow storms.
Han braves the strange icey planet looking for his friend.
A Rebel soldier notifies his captain (John Ratzenberger of Cheers fame) that there is no sign of Luke or Solo. The captain quiets him during the report and glances over sadly at Leia while the bad news lands. When even her co-workers know how much they mean to her, that's when you know she cares deeply.
They notify her that the shield doors must be closed, there is nothing more they can do. She nods, defeated, looking down.
We cut to Chewie, also looking defeated. He lets out w howl of pain as the doors shut.
Now we see our second new force power. With Luke in danger of certain death, Obi Wan's force ghost shows up, directing him to learn from Master Yoda. Luke reaches out for Ben, just as he did for the lightsaber, and just as then, his salvation is pulled towards him. This time it is Han Solo, riding up as the ghost of Obi Wan fades from view.
Han grabs Luke, pleading "Don't do this to me", and Luke rouses back to health. Han Solo here performs the task Obi Wan once performed, of rescuing the knocked out Luke from the local wildlife. This is why visually Han comes from Obi Wan's projection. This is also part of why Luke is calling "Ben, Ben" over and over. Is he in a force trance? At any rate, Han is being compared to Obi Wan, and we all remember how attached Luke was to him in the last movie. He was practically family. All this reinforces the growing closeness of our heroes.
A dramatic shot of the Tauntaun from below as he writhes in pain.
And collapses, in a wonderfully captured bit of stop motion animation. Upon collapse we see the creature breathing its last breaths.
Han Solo is here using a lightsaber to save Luke. Could he be any more Obi Wan? Also, this is the first shot of a non-force user wielding a lightsaber, confirming you don't need the force to turn it on.
The camera does a very deep zoom back, shrinking Han Solo into a tiny point, the sound of wind overtaking the soundtrack. As he builds a survival camp, we see him enveloped in a field of blue. The blue tells us this is a place of sanctuary. Soon the blue fades to white and in an expert crossfade white fades to...
This awesome Rebel spaceship, the first we have seen of theirs all film. It swoops in from behind in an impressive composite, on a clear day, overlooking the previously stormy area. We instantly know that our heroes will be seen in this weather, and that is reassuring. Just from the imagery of a spaceship swooping in, we know that they are saved.
"Good morning! Nice of you guys to drop by!" Han sarcastically says in response to the Rebel patrols looking for survivors. Zev Senesca is the pilot who breaks out into a grin at the sound of Han's voice. He's glad to find him too.
Solo waves to the ship which files in from the left and exits frame right.
The editors used a wipe here to take the scene indoors back to the Echo Base. Note how the wipe follows the trajectory of both Han (down) and the spaceship (right). This is a harmonious wipe.
We watch a very well composited effects shot, with people in the foreground and background, as the spaceship enters the Echo Base from the right and leaves to the left.
Another wipe tells the audience we are going further inside Echo Base. This wipe, again, follows the direction of the spaceship.
This beautifully composited image is almost like a Renaissance painting or something, the glowing light emanating from inside Luke's medical tube. Like a scene out of the Bible or something. Note that the medical robot is blue, which is the healing color, standing for sanctuary. The red pink skin of Luke sticks out here suspended in this tank. The surrounding walls are white and form a semi-sphere. Keep this scene in mind later when we see Vader with his helmet off.
Note: This covers only the first 15 minutes, the rest of the film to come later!
Visual Review Part 3
Visual Review Part 4
Visual Review Part 5
Visual Review Part 6
Visual Review Part 7
Visual Review Part 8