Emotional distance in The Empire Strikes Back’s emotional core


The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Dir. Irvin Kershner

Empire‘s perspective rejects the propulsion of A New Hope: like turning up unannounced at a friend’s workplace only to find that it is really busy, it is concerned about the action but unable to generate an affective perspective toward it. (Concerned about rather than concerned with). It is diligent enough to observe the film’s many instances of failure, but (this is where the analogy ends) can’t summon enthusiasm for the way this information is relayed because it already knows how things are going to play out. It’s style as dramatic irony- a joylessness that telegraphs events as hopeless ahead of time, a severance of viewer from character that means viewing Empire always through Empire‘s dispassionate perspective- about and not with suffering. A New Hope could have a scene where Luke takes some time out to read a book, and the film would convince us that we need to see it. Empire is only sure of numbers and stakes in past tense, like a recovered first draft of a blow by blow of some vaguely interesting conflict that happened some place else a long time ago.

Empire‘s dryness is the product of either Kershner’s lack of imagination as a director, or a stern commitment to an ancient drama that within blockbuster cinema can’t help but read as occasionally styleless. It takes such a literal approach to articulating events and dialogue on paper that it’s staginess can’t be a mistake- plain line readings make up verbal exchanges in the prequels after all- but it’s peculiar that this is the one where distancing techniques are employed. Empire is the Dark one, the Good one, the fan favourite, and I can understand why narratively, but the drab perspective of the film has its ruined hopes and dreams all seem hypothetical. Put differently, I want drama in my melodrama. Or, this is a good film, but it feels weird praising something (inanimate) whose only aesthetic decision is to be boring. Boring or bored, it is almost worthwhile for the way the spotlight is put on the perspective itself during Luke’s confrontation with Darth Vader. It is an uncomfortable, fumbling exchange, and the collision of the fatalism of its telling with the genuine human stakes it can’t contain.

The film moves alongside Darth Vader, unable to read Luke’s body language, as he crumbles and writhes uncomfortably and throws himself to death. More than any revelations we the audience are supposed to take away from it, the film and Darth Vader are blandly confused, because they just didn’t see it coming. The event becomes its own discordant mess, breaking away from the tyranny of its austere narration. In that moment, it screams. And it’s powerful.

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