Full Force

Star Wars introduced a JFK-style idealism to Luke Skywalker's odyssey -- an ask-what-you-can-do-for-your-country slant that underlay the farm boy's urge to rocket away from Tattooine and mix things up with the Empire. In The Empire Strikes Back, Skywalker may, for a while, find a separate peace, but he's itching to wade into battle. Yoda urges calm; Luke can't stand still while he knows his pals are in danger. The need to find equilibrium -- to land on psychic dry land -- permeates the movie and gives it a coming-of-age-in-the-'60s atmosphere, though the visuals are more tropical than topical. Yoda's bog planet Dagobah is clammy and Gothic, like Gustave Dore drawings or Skull Island in the 1933 King Kong; reptiles slither through its caves, and its roiling, fogbound swamp hides a huge, dorsal-finned water mammal that recalls Spielberg's shark. When Han's ship, the Millennium Falcon, drops into an oversize asteroid to escape the Empire's forces, fungoid forms flap against the fuselage and windows; the ship turns out to be resting in the belly of a gargantuan space slug. Kershner brews these primal images of menace into eerie visions of emotional dislocation. At his peak of self-doubt, Luke discovers his unsuspected link with the Empire and plummets through an endless spiral tunnel. Order and identity disintegrate; physical and psychic gravity pull him down.

Hamill is not the only one who changes. If Harrison Ford playacted Bogart in the first film, here he genuinely resurrects him, jostling the Millennium Falcon to life like Charley Allnutt beating on the engines of the African Queen. In The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo, the bluff gambler-adventurer, and Leia, the spunky princess, finally bring their romance out into open space. If Fisher still isn't much of a performer, her petulance does strike sparks with Ford's unbreachable bravado. They conjure an air of sexual frustration that catalyzes flirtatious bickerings and infectious sidelong glances. The movie needs this mating dance -- it completes Kershner's imaginative evocation of adolescence. Concupiscence is one area where Yoda can't serve as a guide.

Under Kershner's direction, the characters who scored in the first film veer ever closer toward the bull's-eye -- Darth Vader's dark armor seems to capture more suggestive reflections and cast more striking shadows, while C-3PO's nervous dithering and R2-D2's blips and belches explore a fastidious-vs.-slovenly chemistry that presages Ren and Stimpy. And the new characters add spice. Billy Dee Williams makes slick elusiveness alluring as Lando Calrissian (the saga's first black character), the boss of the cloud city and its not-quite-legal gas mines; he keeps you guessing whether he's anti-hero or anti-villain. He has a bald aide, Lobot, who wears a computer headset that resembles a laurel wreath. And we see a bit more of Boba Fett, the bounty hunter introduced in Star Wars Special Edition, who looks as bold and battered as a knight from Alexander Nevsky who hasn't changed his armor for centuries.

Working with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, Kershner goes after otherworldy textures and gets them right -- he ensures that a "carbon-freeze chamber" shimmers eerily, that the eggshell tones of the cloud city are blissfully (if deceptively) lulling, that Vader emerges from a mechanical-clam meditation room in a burst of light. Working with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote the final script off earlier drafts by Leigh Brackett and Lucas), Kershner gives the characters more solidity and more opportunities to exploit their quirky humor. (Every time Chewbacca howls, he's canine longing writ large.) Even when Kershner and his craftsmen pay homage to classic screen images, they instill them with raw immediacy. When Han Solo guts a Tauntaun, the image recalls the gutted buffalo in Jan Troell's The New Land -- and equals it in docu-poetry. Kershner's sometimes masochistic visceral thrust separates high adventure from kids' stuff, the men from the boys, The Empire Strikes Back from Star Wars. It puts across the pain and the cost of physical heroism.

Lucasfilm Ltd. and 20th Century-Fox didn't pre-screen The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition in time for weekly deadlines; I re-viewed the 1980 version off the splendid THX laserdiscs in the "Widescreen Collectors' Edition." According to the revised collection of The Art of "The Empire Strikes Back" (Del Rey/Ballantine Books), the 160 revised shots in The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition augment the backgrounds of the cloud city, remove the matte lines once visible in the fighting on Hoth, and beef up Luke's encounter with a feral snow creature (done again with an "old-fashioned man-in-a-creature suit"). The text promises that "even though the lumbering walkers, those four-legged Imperial combat vehicles seen in the Battle of Hoth, had originally been created with stop-motion animation, and sometimes betrayed the occasional pop or jitter endemic to the medium, the effect still represented the state-of-the-art of the day and would not be replaced by computer graphics recreations." At the time of the film's original release, Kershner remarked, "I hate slick films, because to me slick means polished with all the bumps and seams taken out. I think Empire is not slick because it's bumpy in places, and a little ragged, and terribly real." Kershner's feeling for the reality within fantasy makes The Empire Strikes Back unique. In the years since its premiere, critics have dubbed movies like Excalibur "pop Wagner"; The Empire Strikes Back is something just as epic but more accessible and touching: Let's call it pop Mahler.

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