Thursday, May 21, 2015

Happy Thirty Fifth Anniversary To The Empire Strikes Back

Happy Thirty Fifth (!) Anniversary to The Empire Strikes Back! Thirty five years! Can you believe it?

I've been a big fan of Star Wars ever since I saw the first film in the theater way back in 1977. To say it had a huge influence on me would be a disservice to understatements. For months, make that years after seeing it I would sit around and draw the ships and characters, which eventually got me to try my hand and designing my own sci-fi hardware. I doubt I would be a designer and illustrator today if not for Star Wars.

When The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, it wowed me even more. In fact I consider it a better film than the original Star Wars (or A New Hope, as it's since been Lucasized). I've seen it more times that I can count, more than any of the other films, and still watch it regularly a couple times a year.

Empire outdoes A New Hope in just about every way. Everything is bigger, it expands on the old characters and introduces new ones, and it takes a dark turn that was unexpected at the time. Best of all— unlike most sequels, it continues the story, rather than simply rehashing what's gone before (Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Revenge Of The Jedi and your Death Star II).

I don't think I blinked once during the AT-AT battle on Hoth. Believe me when I say no one in the audience had ever seen anything remotely like that before. And the asteroid chase! I was actually ducking space rocks during that sequence. Those scenes still wow me today, even in this age of CGI effects.

By the time Luke battled Vader I was squeezing the armrests in panic. And when Luke lost his hand, I practically fell out of my chair! Luke's the hero! Nothing's supposed to happen to the hero! For a few uneasy moments I actually thought they might kill him off (this was way before the internet and spoiler sites!)

When Vader revealed he was Luke's father— the entire audience audibly gasped. I've never experienced a reaction like that in a theater since. By the time the film was over, I was exhausted. I could barely make it back to the car.

A few Empire Facts:

• George Lucas had a contingency plan in case Star Wars wasn't a huge blockbuster. He commissioned sci-fi writer Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the Star Wars novelization, to come up with a treatment for a low budget sequel.

When Star Wars became a huge hit, Lucas scrapped Foster's bargain basement sequel and came up with a more ambitious script. Foster went on to publish his treatment in book form, as Splinter Of The Mind's Eye.

I've read it a couple of times, and... meh. It's OK, but it's no Empire.

• Leigh Brackett wrote the original draft of the Empire screenplay. She previously wrote the screenplays for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, Hatari! and The Long Goodbye. Unfortunately she died shortly after turning in her first draft, and it was rewritten by Lawrence Kasdan. Her story was basically the same, but with a few differences. In her draft Han didn't get captured and put into carbonite, Luke doesn't lose his hand and he finds out he has a twin sister that may not be Leia.

The biggest difference was that Vader was not Luke's father. In Brackett's script, Luke actually meets the ghost of his father on Bog World, the original name for Dagobah.

Empire received mixed reviews at the time, but most fans, like myself, believe it to be superior to A New Hope. Credit for that has to go to Brackett, Kasdan and director Irvin Kershner.

Naturally since I like the film so much, George Lucas has stated it's his least favorite. No doubt because he didn't have obsessive, minute control over it as he did the others.

• Stanley Kubrick's The Shining premiered just two days after Empire. What a time that was to be a movie fan!

• Yoda was originally going to be called Bunden Debannen, Buffy (!) or Minch Yoda. He initially looked quite different as well, as production art depicts him as everything from a garden gnome to a Smurf-like thing.

Makeup artist Stuart Freeborn designed the Yoda puppet, modeling his eyes after those of Albert Einstein. Frank Oz of course voiced and operated the puppet.

Although Oz did a terrific job, kudos also have to go to actor Mark Hamill for Yoda's success. He really sells the idea that he's talking to a real, live alien being, which makes the audience believe it as well. If not for Hamill, Yoda would have been just another Muppet.

Yoda's line, "Try not! Do, or do not. There is no try" blew my little mind as I sat in the darkened theater, and was my introduction to the philosophies of Buddhism.

ALIEN star Yaphet Kotto was considered for the role of Lando Calrissian, but turned it down because he didn't want to become typecast.

Most fans agree that Lando was included in Empire after Star Wars was criticized for being awfully... not very diverse.

• Shortly before Empire was filmed, Mark Hamill was involved in a serious car crash, and had to have facial reconstruction surgery. For decades the story went that Lucas wrote the Wampa attack scene to explain Luke's facial scars and altered appearance.

Lucas has recently denied this, saying it's an urban legend and that he scripted the Wampa scene well before the accident. 

• Han Solo was frozen in carbonite because Harrison Ford wasn't crazy about starring in a third Star Wars film. If Ford hadn't returned, it's assumed that he'd have remained frozen and Lando would have taken his place.

These days studios have learned their lesson. Marvel regularly signs actors for multiple films, so there'll be no question as to whether they'll appear in a sequel or not.

• As most fans know by now, Han Solo's "I know" response to Princess Leia was ad-libbed. When Leia tells Solo she loves him, his original line was a heartfelt, but bland, "I love you too." Ford felt that Solo, ever the wisecracker, would have something wittier to say, and came up with the "I know" line. 

Naturally Lucas hated it, but the enthusiastic response from test audiences convinced him to reluctantly leave it in.

• Vader's big reveal was supposedly a secret even to Mark Hamill, who didn't learn about it until just before the scene was filmed. Only Lucas, director Irvin Kershner, Hamill and Vader voiceover artist James Earl Jones knew the secret before the film premiered.

It's unlikely something like that could ever happen today, with the advent of social media and cell phones.

Vader's mind-blowing revelation is one of those movie lines that are constantly misquoted. Everyone always says "Luke, I am your father." What he actually says is, "No, I am your father."

So Happy Thirty Fifth to The Empire Strikes Back. Maybe now that Disney owns Star Wars, we'll finally get the proper ORIGINAL editions of the film on blu ray.

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