There’s no shortage of reasons why The Empire Strikes Back still stands as the best thing ever to come out of the Star Wars saga, but for all the things that make that 1980 movie great, a ton of credit has to go to director Irvin Kershner for making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Kershner died today at the age of 87, three decades after Empire hit the big screen, and it’s hard to overstate his efforts in taking a summer blockbuster premise and mixing it with story and character depth and complexity and a darkly hopeful tone that hasn’t been seen in the saga since.
He’d already been making movies for two decades – The Return of A Man Called Horse and Eyes of Laura Mars were among his directing credits – when George Lucas asked him to direct the Star Wars sequel.
Some of the best insight into Kershner’s influence on the saga can be found in Alan Arnold’s 1980 book Once Upon A Galaxy: A Journal of The Making of The Empire Strikes Back.
“The thing you learn in directing is that no matter how complex the shooting, you have to remain sensitive to the people around you or the machine will ultimately take over,” Arnold quotes Kershner as saying. “If you don’t keep in mind the essential humanity of it all, technique will dominate. Then, suddenly, all you’ve got are technically fine shots, technically fine performances, a story being told but with something lacking, something that is mysterious and indefinable.”
The book also offers some nice, though brief, peeks into Kershner as a dad who took his then ten-year-old son to see Star Wars, and in a bit of good fortune that couldn’t have been more appropriately timed, the author persuaded Kershner to wear a cordless mike for a day, which just happened to be the day they wrestled with one of the film’s most gut-wrenching and tone-defining sequences: Han Solo’s carbon freeze. (Arnold’s audio tapes, in fact, helped shape this year’s epic tome The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.)
Kershner worked post-Empire, of course, most notably directing Robocop 2 and Sean Connery’s return to the James Bond role in Never Say Never Again, but he never returned to that galaxy far, far away – though an unsourced note on Wookieepedia claims he declined the director’s chair on The Phantom Menace. (Aw, man.)
From a first-generation Star Wars fan’s point of view, The Empire Strikes Back era was a Golden Age: The Best Movie Ever was getting a sequel, and the dark, emotional, and chills-inducing result turned out to be the high-water mark of a saga that’s still celebrated across generations.
Clear skies, Mr. Kershner. Thanks for the awesome ride.