Arguing about whichStar Wars movie was best can land you in a bar fight with a guy who has the death sentence on 12 systems. (Assuming you frequent the nerdiest saloon in the world.) Now that the original trilogy is coming out on Blu-ray—and you’re buying it in yet another format for, what would this be, the ninth time?—you’ll be able to relive the visceral joy of watching the Death Star explode and the satisfaction of (rightly) insisting that Han shot first. But come on, let’s be honest here: You’re going to head straight for the same disc as every other passionate fan: The Empire Strikes Back.
Empire is the darkest of the six films. The heroes lose. And it has one of the most shocking reveals in the history of cinema. But more than that, Empire looks and feels different than the other five. The pacing is tighter; the acting is better. Chalk that up to the guys behind the camera.
The director, Irvin Kershner, was best known for actorly films like A Fine Madness and Eyes of Laura Mars—not the ideal résumé for a space opera. Empire was his only Star Wars gig, as it was for cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. “George Lucas, I think very intelligently, decided to choose two people who were not obviously the right choice,” he says. “I had never done an action film or a special-effects film before. We had a fresh eye, an innocence, and a love of film.”
Even Lucas stalwarts acknowledge something different about this sequel. “It’s much more ambitious than the first Star Wars,” says Dennis Muren, who did visual effects for five of the movies. “It was the hardest film that I ever worked on. A lot of the Jedi stuff was shot in a real forest, which simplified it. In Empire, all of the shots of walker machines and battles were completely synthetic.”
I interviewed Kershner for Vanity Fair shortly before his death in 2010. The critics, he said, “wanted another Star Wars. I decided that the potential was much greater than a rerun.” He was no fanboy. “When I finally accepted the assignment, I knew that it was going to be a dark film, with more depth to the characters,” he told me. “It took a few years for the critics to catch up with the film and to see it as a fairy tale rather than a comic book.” So next time the guy a few barstools down tries to talk up the Obi-Wan/Anakin fight in Revenge of the Sith, hit him over the head with that: The other five movies are comic books. Empire is a fairy tale.