Monday, 11/29: The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner died this morning. As it happens, this essay, just published Friday, is probably about as in-depth a paean to that film as I will ever write. As one of the all-time great sequels and the most-admired of the Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back was a constant point of comparison in evaluating other sequels. Few if any films to which it was compared benefited from the comparison. I’d like to think Kershner might have appreciated this essay.
To the unenchanted, myself included, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 plays as a dark, confusing downer without much magic, action or emotional weight. Enthusiastic fans, though, have dubbed it a deeper, more mature film, even going so far as to compare it to one of fantasy cinema’s most revered classics: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
Not that anyone, so far as I know, is actually putting Deathly Hallows: Part 1 in the same league as The Empire Strikes Back. That’s obviously crazy talk. Still, as a dark, penultimate chapter with an indefinite ending setting up the triumphant finale, could Deathly Hallows: Part 1 reasonably be considered, in its own modest way, a loose counterpart to Empire Strikes Back?
Or, failing that, how about a somewhat less revered point of comparison? Say, The Two Towers, another dark prelude that’s cropped up in discussion around Deathly Hallows: Part 1?
Um. No. What makes The Empire Strikes Back so great as a sequel is that it is not only darker but also grander, more heroic, more romantic, funnier, richer, and in practically all ways more ambitious than its predecessor. The Two Towers may not outdo its predecessor in the same way, but its inventiveness, visions and vistas take the world of The Fellowship of the Ring into utterly new places, enriching the series with many of its most memorable elements.
Even by the more modest standards of Harry Potter films, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 doesn’t do anything like that. Here are a dozen reasons why.
- Spectacular action scenes. ESB and TTT boast unprecedented set pieces that still awe today: the Walker assault on the Hoth Rebel base; the siege at Helm’s Deep; the asteroid-field dogfight; the Ent assault on Isengard; the first encounter and lightsaber duel of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. The HP series has offered magical action scenes in the past—Harry’s battle with the dragon in Goblet of Fire comes to mind, and folks like Quidditch—but what action there is in DH1 is strictly been there, done that: a couple of ho-hum chase scenes, a couple of pedestrian showdowns. Nothing to write home about.
- Visionary new locales. ESB and TTT offers dazzling imaginative settings: frozen Hoth with its Rebel base melted into the ice; the rustic Nordic grandeur of Edoras; the asteroid field; Helm’s Deep; Yoda’s swamp world of Dagobah; Saruman’s terrible workshop; Bespin’s Cloud City. The HP series has taken us to some magical places, above all Hogwarts itself—but DH1 has only one halfway interesting imaginary setting, the Ministry of Magic. Nothing to compare to the eye candy of previous films. (There is some nice natural scenery dimly echoing the rugged beauty of Rohan in TTT, but that’s about it.)