VHS Revival revisits the cultural phenomenon that set the bar for sequel making
We live in an age of instant gratification; the 21st century world waits for nothing. If a sequel, tie-in or teaser trailer isn’t released within a year of the original then you’ve missed the boat. Moviegoers had to wait three years before another visit to a galaxy far, far away, with nothing in-between but a bunch of plastic figures and your own imagination to continue the saga. But when the Empire recovered to rear its ugly head, it was well worth the wait, and just as A New Hope changed the cinematic landscape, The Empire Strikes Back changed the direction of sequel making.
Sequels were nothing new. You only have to look at the old Universal horror movies, their Hammer counterparts, Carry On films and spaghetti westerns as evidence of that. However, they weren’t necessarily continuations of a single story. They simply featured familiar characters in new stories, a bit like the Dirty Harry series, that could conceivably be watched as stand alone films. Whilst A New Hope began as if it were a sequel, ‘Empire’ reintroduced us to characters who had changed and evolved since we last saw them. Three years on from the first film, they visibly carry additional baggage and history to weigh down their characters and add more substance to the light, yet filling original.
Right from the start we know we’re in for a different kind of film. It has a familiar opening, with a star destroyer dominating the blackness of space across our screens launching a probe, but this time it lands on a much harsher landscape. The ice world of Hoth is deadly and inhospitable in a different way to Tatooine. As Luke goes to investigate a ‘meteor strike’ he’s very nearly killed by a Wampa, succumbing to the harsh conditions and requiring a rescue mission and a Bear Grills type survival moment from Han Solo, who warms Luke up in the intestines of his dead ride in order to cheat death. It’s pretty serious and bleak and shows that in the intervening three years since destroying the Death Star, that ‘New Hope’ has hardly weakened the Empire. The Rebels, meanwhile, have backtracked. Luke is no longer fresh faced and enthusiastic, in fact he displays newly acquired battle scars (actually a real scar as a consequence of a road accident that occurred between filming), Leia is getting her hands well and truly dirty and they’re hiding out in a massive igloo.
Leia – I love You.
Han Solo – I know.
However, it isn’t long before we’re plunged headlong into one of the standout action sequences from the entire trilogy as the arctic landscape becomes the scenery for a land battle featuring the awe-inspiring AT-ATs, single pilot fighters and laser cannons. This was all done, at least before the special editions came out, using practical effects and a new stop-motion technique called ‘Go Motion’. A painted landscape was used as the backdrop and the effect is so much more thrilling than the CGI heavy prequels. I wanted an AT-AT so badly that I made one out of toilet roll, string, apple juice cartons and straws! That’s the kind of imagination and youthful thrill that films such as this encouraged in us, fuelling our own creativity and inspiring us to create our own battles. What a time it was to be a child!
It is here that the film genuinely turns dark as Han flees to Cloud City and Luke encounters Yoda, the second of the three father figures he will encounter throughout the trilogy. Managing to find a planet even more grim than Hoth, the swamp planet of Dagobah becomes the backdrop to a personal duel for Luke as he battles his own doubts and personal demons to learn the ways of the Jedi. Most startling is the terrifying scene where Luke decapitates Vader, only to reveal his own likeness behind the villain’s iconic severed mask. This foreshadows the infamous twist and lays bare the fact that Luke’s journey to becoming a Jedi Knight is going to require more than a Rocky style montage.
It really doesn’t get any more cheerful as Lucas’ script abandons all hope with double-crosses, traps and, other than an entertaining but ultimately pointless detour onto an asteroid that isn’t quite solid rock, we’re under no illusions that the Empire has indeed fought back and taken everything the rebels hold dear.
I can still remember watching this for the first time and being utterly crushed when Luke throws himself off the bridge in Cloud City following his confrontation with Vader. To see him suspended at the bottom of the structure on what looks like an antenna, freezing cold, I vividly recall the complete loss of hope and felt cold myself watching it. Today, I still get that feeling, and the only silver lining in the entire film is that Luke has learnt enough from Yoda to channel his newly developing Jedi powers to provide himself with a way out by connecting with Leia.
It’s hard to reconcile the fact that the same person who wrote this astoundingly powerful, thoughtful and character driven film can dream up Jar Jar Binks and not only think it was a good idea, but also splash millions of dollars in realising that character digitally. What Lucas did here is take our heroes from the first film and fill them with flaws that make them as human as you or I. Leia’s tear as Solo is being frozen, defiant in his lack of fight, is a world away from anything we saw in the hugely enjoyable but ultimately cartoonish and childish ‘A New Hope’.
We see Vader elevated to new levels of villainy, a man who we already know is more man than machine. We see a brief but hugely effective glimpse of him as a living being, his helmet removed so that we see the back of his head. Whereas this act removes the mystique within slasher films, here it adds to the mystery as we know there is a human being somewhere underneath that dark, metallic exterior, hidden deep behind a villainous persona that is willing to cut the hand off his own son and see him plunge to his death.
Darth Vader – No, I am your father.
We’re introduced to a world where even friends are willing to double-cross and sell each other out in a manner not witnessed in the first film. We know Han is a rogue but he has a code of honour – Lando realising too late that he has double dealt with the wrong person, costing him his friend’s consciousness. In short, the film works on an emotional level as well as appealing to the inner child in all of us, whilst fleshing out the characters and the universe within which all of this takes place.
Family films should include an element of learning life’s lessons, and this is where ‘Empire’ ultimately succeeds. By setting itself up as the middle part of a trilogy (not unusual in today’s cinematic world) it was in a unique position to show youngsters that, sometimes, the good guy loses. Things aren’t always as they seem, friends who appear to have altruistic motives can’t always be relied upon to follow through. By the same token, it also shows what is possible. Yoda is small, old and apparently weak, yet he’s able to achieve great things by using the power of his mind and his influence is felt long after his death. Isn’t that a great message to send out to kids? Put your mind to it and you can achieve anything!
Epic in scale, emotion, thrills and imagination, Episode V deserves its place as arguably the best ‘Star Wars’ film, and one of the greatest films of all time. Even now, it’s rare that you hear anyone connected to a sequel claim that it will be lighter and more whimsical than the original…to look at a similar space saga, just look at the emotional depth that the recent Guardians of the Galaxy 2 reaches, with unlikely alliances, double-crosses and the blurring of family lines. Today, the second instalment of a franchise has to be darker and emotionally challenging, and ‘Empire’ can claim a large chunk of the credit for that.
But of course, the saga MUST continue, because even though the bad guys sometimes win the rebels deserve another shot. With Obi Wan and Yoda dead, the Jedi are all but extinct…but what’s that we hear about their return?
To be continued…