Perfect Scenes: The Empire Strikes Back

It’s the start of the year and new 2022 films worth watching and reviewing are at a premium. In lieu of a review, allow me to resurrect this series for a long overdue fifth entry.

One of my earliest memories is watching the original Star Wars trilogy on rented VHS tapes for the very first time, on Saturday mornings while my parents busied themselves elsewhere. Like so many others across so many walks of life, I was entranced from the moment I saw that Star Destroyer envelop the screen in Episode IV, but it is a moment in its sequel, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, that actually stands out more to me from that time. I think it was the first instance for me of seeing a scene in a movie and immediately wanting to stop the film, rewind, and watch it again, something that I went ahead and did, multiple times. In this post, I want to examine just why that was, from the perspective of a younger NFB, and of an older one who still feels the need to do so.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back: “Never tell me the odds”

With the Rebel Alliance abandoning their once-hidden base on Hoth, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia and C-3PO are left trying to evade the Imperial Fleet: the only problem is that the Millennium Falcon isn’t in the best condition, and that’s before the asteroid field comes into view.

Young NFB loved chase scenes, loved the idea of dodging asteroids, loved the idea of the Millennium Falcon blasting away at pursuing TIE Fighters. But there’s so much more to this scene then the effects and the action. It’s a blend that Lucas would fail to really appreciate when it came to the prequels, but which Empire, under the direction of better craftsmen in director Irvin Kershner, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and composer John Williams, nail in a manner so spectacular it’s like it comes from a completely different canon to the sometimes thrilling but nowhere near as affecting sequences you could compare it to from Episodes I, II and III.

The action is good enough of course. t’s just simply entrancing, as the Falcon dips and weaves ahead of the TIE Fighters and then does its best to avoid crashing into the asteroids. There are lots of simple little flourishes: the twirling asteroid that moves into the right position just as the Falcon flashes past; the TIE that takes a glancing blow and staggers on, electricity frying, for a few seconds before the final collision; and the final crash between the two TIE’s, tense in its inevitability, as they come together in the asteroid valley that is just a bit too small for them (but not the Falcon). Perhaps its just the relatability of it all: you can imagine much the same beats in a much more grounded format, like a car chase out of something like Starsky And Hutch, but the surrounds presented in Empire elevates it into something truly special. The well-worn concept of “Underdog prey outfoxes the hunters” could never be described as played out amidst swirling space rocks and roaring fighters letting off laser guns.

Honestly, this might be the best four minutes of score John Williams ever created, in terms of lining up with and enhancing what is happening on-screen. It starts with that booming Imperial March as the Empire closes in, its Star Destroyers dominating the screen and its fighters hounding at the Falcon. As the hyperdrive fails and Han is forced into some ersatz maintenance it takes on brilliant mix of rapidly sounding horns and swift, tense strings, an eclectic kinetic mix that makes you feel the desperation of the moment as well as the possibilities of gallows humour. As the Falcon soars around the asteroids we get a booming, majestic space opera moment of auditory delight, that dovetails in with Empire’s general theme as Han steers the group into a cave. The motifs flow in and out of each other so easily it’s difficult to classify them as one singular theme, when in reality Williams has essentially made three. His common “Question/Answer” rhythm has, perhaps, never been so well employed.

The scriptwork is also sublime here, perfectly serving both the moment and the characters. The only time that someone points something out bluntly (C-3PO’s incredible “Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1!”) it fits who the character is, as does the dashing, heroic and slightly reckless response of “Never tell me the odds”. Leia remains the anxious worrier (“I hope you know what your doing”) while Han remains the scoundrel with a degree of self-doubt (“Yeah, I hope so too”). Those two have something electric in every scene they are in throughout this movie, and the asteroid field is no exception from Leia’s panicked insistence that Han doesn’t have to risk their lives to try and impress her, to Han’s admittance that Leia might finally get her wish to be around when he made a mistake. It’s all in the delivery too of course, and everyone is firing on all cylinders in that department.

And despite the seriousness of the scene, it somehow manages to find a few moments of very effective levity. There’s the terrible pause as the hyperdrive fails (“I think we’re in trouble…”), Anthony Daniels as C-3PO is great with his frantic fear and unsolicited statistical computations and there are even some physical yucks as Han gets a hydrospanner to the head. Most importantly none of the humour feels shoehorned in or clumsy: thanks to work done previous to the scene in Empire and Hope, we’re comfortable with these characters and with Han as a guy who prefers flippant comments to a more stoic bravado.

It is the combination of all of these things that forms a symphony of iconic science fiction filmmaking, and the perfect example of what makes Star Wars the addictive adventure that it is. Young NFB certainly thought so, when he stopped the tape, rewound, and watched it all again, and then again. An older NFB is probably going to be watching it over again and again for a very long time.

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