The Empire Strikes Back

(Irvin Kershner, USA, 1980)


It is like an episode of The Twilight Zone: a film critic awakes one morning to find he is the only person in the world not whooping with hysterical joy over the loud re-release of the Star Wars series.

When I was a serious, seventeen-year-old cinephile, the original Star Wars movie meant nothing to me. Twenty years, several sequels and many tidal waves of merchandising later, I remain unmoved.

The re-launch of the Star Wars series (slightly revamped with negligible extra bits and a technological brush-up) marks, once more, the triumph of hype over substance. I can only laugh when people grandiloquently claim that these films are our modern mythology.

Compared to the truly rich and resonant SF films of the ’80s – Brainstorm (1983), Blade Runner (1982), even Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – George Lucas’ fantasies are merely (as Thomas Elsaesser once described them) “anthology pieces from basic movie plots”.

No one could deny that there is a certain amount of rah-rah fun, speed and excitement in The Empire Strikes Back. But it is the Twister (1996) of yesteryear: pure video game spectacle, all glittering explosions and brittle one-liners. Only the revelation about the evil Darth Vader’s true identity carries any real frisson. For the most part, this narrative is as elementary and linear as its telegrammatic title indicates.

Like the Indiana Jones series, the Star Wars films rode to box office fame on the promise of recreating the thrill of old movie serials like Flash Gordon. But how many in the young target audience had ever seen any such serial? This is indicative of Lucas’ indifferent, insidious grab-bag of historical, mythological and cinematic references: bits of Buddhism and classic old movies (from Ford to Kurosawa) rub uneasily with tokens of racism, militarism and utterly regressive fantasy. Empire is not an offensive film; just a mindless one.

There is so much that is tedious and unimaginative in the Star Wars films. What was maddening to watch in Empire in 1980 is still so: the endless twittering, howling and kvetching from a cute gang of robots, animals and aliens; the irritating attempt at adding a love interest. Irvin Kershner’s bland direction is a carbon copy of the master Lucas’ style – itself extremely mechanical and literal. Was the maker of THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973) body-snatched or what?

Can my Twilight Zone nightmare end now, please? Can I awake tomorrow into a world in which the re-release of profound masterpieces like Touch of Evil (1958) or Days of Heaven (1978) registers as an infinitely more important cultural event than the relentless re-selling of the Star Wars series? Pretty please?

still more Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

© Adrian Martin April 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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