The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
George Lucas did not invent franchise filmmaking. The first movie sequel, The Fall Of A Nation, came out way back in 1917. King Kong had a sequel. Dracula and Frankensten had a ton of them. Billy Jack, the first sequel to The Born Losers, was the biggest hit of 1971. A few years before Lucas masterminded The Empire Strikes Back, the highest-grossing film of 1980, his mentor Francis Ford Coppola won Best Picture with The Godfather Part II, a perfect movie that is also part of a continuing saga. And by 1980, the James Bond series was already 11 films deep, most of them fantastically popular.
Star Wars wasn’t even the first George Lucas movie to get a sequel; the mostly forgotten More American Graffiti—produced by Lucasfilm, but directed by Bill L. Norton—came out a year before The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas was surprised at the film’s relative box-office failure, a gross $100 million less than the first American Graffiti’s. After all, sequels were supposed to be easy money: Big-budget films like 1978’s Jaws 2 and 1979’s Rocky II did tremendous business.
But if The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t represent a new kind of filmmaking, it does show a different approach, one that would take a while to truly catch on. Before The Empire Strikes Back, the whole idea of the sequel was to essentially retell the story of the first movie, adding extra wrinkles but hitting the same reassuring beats. In Jaws 2, Chief Brody once again goes into maritime battle with a giant killer shark. In Rocky II, Rocky Balboa once again fights Apollo Creed. Neither film is anywhere near as good as its predecessor, but there’s precious little evidence that anyone even tried to make those films as good as their predecessors—though Jaws 2 at least has the fun bit where the shark eats the helicopter. The sequels are simply good enough. They’re victory laps.
The Empire Strikes Back is not a victory lap. Instead, Lucas and his collaborators took the Godfather Part II approach. Empire imagines the larger world around that first Star Wars movie—the circumstances that led to the events of the film, the ripple effects of the climactic battle, the changing relationships of the characters. Empire introduces new landscapes: a frozen wasteland, a marsh, a majestically psychedelic city in the sky, a gigantic space slug’s digestive tract. It brings in characters that, in their own ways, are nearly as iconic as any from the first picture: Yoda, Lando Calrissian, Emperor Palpatine, Boba Fett. Even after the world-historic success of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back is a bigger creative swing than anyone could’ve reasonably expected. Empire takes the leap of imagining a film as part of a grand, overarching continuing narrative—sort of like the old film serials that inspired Star Wars in the first place.
George Lucas didn’t direct The Empire Strikes Back, and he isn’t credited as one of its screenwriters, either. Lucas had instead put his energy into establishing his Lucasfilm studio, figuring out the film’s financing and planning out the whole production. The first screenwriter that Lucas hired was Leigh Brackett, a veteran sci-fi pulp writer who’d also co-written film classics like The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo. But Brackett died of cancer after finishing her first draft. Lucas wrote a couple of drafts himself, and then he farmed out final screenwriting duties to Lawrence Kasdan, who was barely 30 and whose name had never appeared in the credits for a movie. Kasdan had written a couple of as-yet-unproduced scripts, and he’d gotten together with Lucas and Steven Spielberg to write Raiders Of The Lost Ark, a film that wouldn’t come out until a year after Empire. For a director, Lucas brought in Irvin Kershner, who’d made a number of smaller films and who’d been one of Lucas’ lecturers at USC. That’s a strange group of people to entrust with the sequel to the biggest movie of all time. Lucas chose wisely.
Lucas put up his own money to make Empire, financing it with loans and with his Star Wars earnings. The budget went way over, thanks to problems like a fire on the set of The Shining, which was shooting at the same English studio complex. (Empire would go on to open on the same weekend as The Shining, absolutely annihilating it at the box office, so maybe Lucas got his revenge.) Eventually, Lucas had to call 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, to get more money, so Empire didn’t end up becoming a completely independent film. But even with the cash influx, Lucas kept the sequel and toy rights for the series—contract-negotiation wins that eventually made him a billionaire.
As storytelling, Empire keeps up the brisk pace and episodic structure of the first Star Wars, though it tells a more downbeat story with a cliffhanger ending. Star Wars ended with the Death Star explosion and the medal ceremony, and it looked like the Rebellion had struck a decisive blow in its war against its oppressors. Empire does away with that impression in a three-paragraph opening crawl. Before those yellow letters fade from the screen, we learn that the Rebels are still on the run and that they’ve had to retreat to a remote ice-pit just to stay alive.
The opening scenes of Empire are just great storytelling. In quick, economical sketches, we see just how dire the Rebels’ situation is. Luke Skywalker gets attacked by a snow monster that scared the shit out of me as a kid and embarks on a frozen vision quest. Han Solo swaggers around, getting into Hepburn/Tracy verbal jousting matches with Princess Leia and broadcasting swaggering asshole charisma everywhere. Leia carries herself as a military leader, something she never really got to do in the first film. We also get the chilling whirr-glide of the probe droid and the jerkily stop-motion animated tauntauns. (I love the way those things move. They’ve got personality. It’s worth noting that you could still use stop-motion in a big-budget effects extravaganza in 1980: Ray Harryhausen, the master of the form, would make his final defining statement a year later with Clash Of The Titans.)
The big Hoth battle scene, with the Rebels’ snowspeeders taking on the Imperial AT-AT Walkers, is just great action filmmaking, more kinetic than anything in the first movie. Despite the limited technology available to them, Kershner and Lucas made a legible, coherent, exciting set piece on an epic scale. But there’s plenty more to love about Empire. There’s Billy Dee Williams, the first person of color to appear in a Star Wars movie, introducing the idea that maybe people sometimes fuck in this galaxy. There’s the Butch & Sundance-esque way that Han and Leia refuse to let mortal peril interrupt their banter. There’s the absolutely unreal Cloud City production design. And there’s Yoda, a technological marvel who’s also presented as the soul of the story.
Honestly, for me, the sequences of Luke training with Yoda are the weakest points of Empire. Those scenes are the film’s most mythic, and also its most boring. As an actor, Mark Hamill does his best, but he doesn’t have the presence to share the screen with an aphorism-spouting rubber creature for minutes at a time. Still, I love the idea of this movie, a guaranteed blockbuster, building its plot around magical kung-fu training sequences conducted by a tiny green troll who talks exactly like Grover from Sesame Street.
In a way, Yoda is the element of Empire that most connects the movie to the cinema of its era. After all, Empire came out a year after The Muppet Movie, and the Yoda scenes look a bit like a more-serious version of Kermit in his swamp. And the remarkable craft that went into Yoda would, at least temporarily, change the way movies looked; I can’t imagine we’d get E.T. or Gizmo without Yoda arriving first. That puppetry, as well as the neon Cloud City lighting, clearly mark Empire as an ’80s movie. Not much else does.
It’s striking how much Empire stands apart from the other films of its moment. Most of the blockbusters of 1980 were broad, silly comedies: 9 To 5, Stir Crazy, Airplane!, Any Which Way You Can, Private Benjamin, Smokey & The Bandit II, The Blues Brothers. Some of those movies have action set pieces or special-effects sequences, but they’re all light and fluffy and utterly unserious. Just a year after Kramer Vs. Kramer dominated the box office, social-realist dramas were almost entirely dead, though a few, like Coal Miner’s Daughter and Ordinary People, wound up among the year’s top 10 grossing films.
Most of those comedy smashes are deeply underwritten, and they get by on the star power of their leads. The films play on established movie-star personas—and sometimes on already-known characters—and they put those familiar figures in wacky situations. Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda take their shitty boss prisoner! Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder break out of prison! Goldie Hawn joins the Army! Clint Eastwood is (still) friends with an orangutan!
The Empire Strikes Back couldn’t possibly be less like that. It also consciously separates itself from the storm of Star Wars ripoffs that hit the market after the first film’s astounding success. Cheaply made knockoffs—Starcrash, Battle Beyond The Stars, Battlestar Galactica—flooded the market. Some were fancier. Disney attempted to make its own Star Wars with The Black Hole. The Bond franchise blatantly hopped on the bandwagon with Moonraker. Even 1979 hits like Alien and the deeply stoned Star Trek: The Motion Picture—two movies that have nothing in common with Star Wars tonally—were probably a whole lot easier to get greenlit because they came out after Star Wars. Empire distances itself from all of them.
The film goes out of its way to add gravity to the whiz-bang fun of the first movie. The big Empire plot twist—that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father—is the sort of thing that throws the entire saga into disorienting uncertainty and recontextualizes everything that had come before. I was 8 months old when Empire came out, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know of the Vader/Luke connection. But to people experiencing the film for the first time, it must’ve been a legit shock. In Baltimore, where I grew up, the newspaper’s film critic was locally infamous for spoiling the twist in his Empire review. When that critic retired more than a decade later, people were still clowning him over it.
Empire isn’t a dark film, exactly, but it makes room for darkness. That’s a choice, and it’s a choice that goes against the prevailing film trends of its moment. In a year dominated by those antic comedies, Empire was a phenomenon. It earned nearly $300 million—close to triple the gross of 9 To 5, the year’s No. 2 movie. If Empire was a gamble, then it certainly paid off. The films that would dominate the rest of the ’80s—some with Lucas’s name in the credits, many more with that of Lucas’s friend and collaborator Steven Spielberg—show just how comfortable audiences became with that kind of grand-scale adventure storytelling.
The contender: The absurdist joke-every-five-seconds satire Airplane! still plays as a work of gloriously dumb genius. Unlike virtually every parody movie that would follow, Airplane! features a cast that, for the most part, refuses to acknowledge that it’s starring in a comedy. Instead, the actors use the same stolidly square soap-opera acting that they would’ve used in the movies that Airplane! so mercilessly mocks, and that just makes the jokes hit harder.
Airplane! is a 1980 comedy with a whole lot of jokes, and one of its directors would go on to make the clangingly dumb 2008 right-wing spoof An American Carol, so you probably won’t be surprised to learn that some of those jokes seem at least a little bit shitty today. But its anarchic spirit, and the sheer commitment to its own forehead-slap, joke-whirlwind style, is a miracle. It was a huge hit, No. 4 for its year, and that’s a miracle, too.
Next time: In Raiders Of The Lost Ark, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg apply the nostalgic gee-whiz thrill of Star Wars to a more earthbound setting, and they give Harrison Ford a second iconic character in the process.