Billy Dee Williams
2 Hrs., 7 Mins.
The Empire Strikes Back / Scream 2 June 6, 2018
fter being released by Dimension Films in the winter of 1996, the comedy-slasher movie Scream, written by the Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003) creator Kevin Williamson and directed by the maestro of the macabre himself, Wes Craven, made the horror genre thrilling again. Before then, it had more or less been fumbling — watered down by an increasing dependency on insipid slasher retreads of, and sequels to, once-popular franchises. (One of which Craven helped set in motion.)
Scream changed that. It was a slasher movie all right — a run-of-the-mill story about a teen named Sidney (Neve Campbell) who has to deal with her friends being picked off one by one by a knife-wielding, mask-wearing maniac. But it was a trenchant satire, too. Audiences would no longer have to whisper the “don’t go into the closet!” or “don’t look behind you!” axioms to their fellow ticket-buyers. The characters in the movie, all well-read-and-watched culture vultures who’d by then sat through plenty of horror movies, knew exactly what to do and what not to do when battling a Jason-esque killer. References abounded. (That, of course, didn’t stop even the most media-savvy of characters from getting offed.)
Because Scream was both scary and genuinely funny — and defined by a fresh-faced ensemble — it became something of a phenomenon. It assured mainstream audiences that the horror genre was still capable of being invigorated, and showed critics that clichés could instantaneously seem unfamiliar if those behind the scenes face-lifted them just enough.
Because public interest was high, and because Scream proved itself a financial leviathan, a sequel was greenlit while it was still in the middle of its theatrical run. Production on what would be tentatively titled Scream 2 began in March 1997.
Once the latter film made its way into cinemas about a year after the original movie came out, all concerns that freshness wouldn’t remain were dashed. The film, again written by Williamson, directed by Craven, and starring Campbell, kept in touch with its predecessor’s meta sensibilities. But it did so with heightened, even sharper self-referentiality.
Invocations of film and traditional pop culture continued to be pervasive. But added to the comedic gallimaufry were numerous mentionings of movie sequels. And allusions to how, in lieu of attempts to enliven the “bigger is better” mentality and almost obsessively trying to master the craft of one-upmanship, theatrical follow-ups usually, pardon the term, suck.
As one character breathlessly puts it to another midway through the film, “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to create a successful sequel. Number one: the body count is always bigger. Number two: the death scenes are always much more elaborate. More blood, more gore — carnage candy. And number three: never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead.”
All these things hold up in Scream 2, and such makes it better than its forebearer. It’s more comfortable with its acerbic sense of humor, more willing to put attention onto its blood-stained sequences of suspense, and isn’t as afraid to kill off even the most beloved of characters. It’s riskier, sexier, funnier — better performed, too, since the leading actors get to play around more with their designated roles.
The film takes place two years after the events depicted in Scream and finds the central heroine Sidney in college. Also surviving are the previous feature’s constantly meddling TV journalist Gale (Courteney Cox, distinguished by homely red streaks); the clumsy, stuffy-nosed cop Dewey (David Arquette); the all-knowing cinephile Randy (Jamie Kennedy); and the smoldering red herring Cotton (Liev Schreiber).
From the get-go, the atmosphere’s tense for all, especially Sidney. Gale, more high-strung than ever, has published a true crime novel based upon the early movie’s murders. That has, in turn, been adapted into a Tori Spelling-starring movie called Stab, which has inspired a copycat killer(s). This puts Sidney, once again a target, into the same predicament she found herself in back in ‘96.
Against the odds, Scream 2 never feels redundant. We don’t even get the chance to doubt it early on, thanks to a clever opening sequence. (Which finds two characters, played by Jada Pinkett-Smith and Omar Epps, getting killed at a bacchanal of a sneak preview of Stab.) It lives up to what a sequel is supposed to be: better, in every sense of the word, but not in an ersatz, hyper-planned sort of way.
Sarah Michelle Gellar
arly on in Scream 2, we are transported to a college film class, apparently one prone to devolving into high-spirited chatter. Following a long discussion revolving around whether violent media leads to everyday carnage — provoked by the murder sequence we witnessed in the opening — someone suggests that what’s happening is something of a real-life sequel to what Sidney and co. faced two years previously. That comparison doesn’t go over well, not least because everyone in the class
is partial to the belief that sequels are, definitively, inferior.
All forget about the actual tragedy that has befallen the area and
enthusiastically begin brainstorming which sequels have surpassed their antecedents in quality. Picks like 1974’s The Godfather: Part II are chosen without much hesitation. Titles like Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), though, are more controversial. “You’ve got a hard-on for Cameron,” Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character, Casey, says to the guy who dares to bring up the latter film.
One feature goes pointedly unmentioned during this unusually lively classroom conversation. That's Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the much-acclaimed first sequel in the original Star Wars trilogy (1976-’83). But Williamson has us covered. Later on, during a lackadaisical fraternity party, Timothy Olyphant’s character, Mickey, casually brings it up to a fellow classmate also attending. He agrees that The Empire Strikes Back, as most Star Wars aficionados have come to believe, is, in fact, superior to A New Hope (1977). But because it is part of a pre-planned trilogy, he believed it unfit for that aforementioned classroom discussion. It’s not a sequel, he suggests — it’s a continuation of a supposed-to-be-ongoing story. Nevermind that he was the one who brought up The Godfather: Part II, which, like The Empire Strikes Back, is also part of a pre-planned triad.
My belief that Scream 2 is finer than Scream is a generally supported one. But my conviction that The Empire Strikes Back is merely an entertaining trifle that exists mostly to link A New Hope and Return of the Jedi (1983) together, both of which I find more successful as standalone films (though I’m not so fond of the latter’s cuddlesome ewoks), is one bound to get me spat on by Star Wars pandits. It is so exceptional, a truer fan might tell me, because it is darker, more emotional, more visually splendiferous, more dramatically hefty, more mysterious, and more identity-driven.
All these things are true. The Empire Strikes Back does indeed expand upon the characterizations and themes developed in A New Hope, and it does so with a seriousness that has sustainably shown that the Star Wars films can effortlessly traipse between the tormented and the lighthearted.
But because the film contains no real beginning or end, and spends so much time uninterestingly twirling about during its middle act, it has difficulties both satisfying and containing the never-hesitating urgency of its precursor and its 1983 byproduct.
It takes place three years after the fateful destruction of the Death Star, which has resulted in much political turmoil. As of late, the lionhearted Rebel Alliance has set up shop on the gelid planet Hoth, while the remaining members of the antagonistic Galactic Empire hungrily search for the rebels, particularly the boy wonder Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the rough-and-tumble anti-hero Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and the skookum Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).
Much of the film is spent in the immediate aftermath of an attack on the Rebel Alliance by the Empire. Luke and his loyal automaton, R2D2, relocate to the hazy planet Dagobah after a crash landing; Han and Leia, along with their companions, the fleecy Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the dutiful robo-servant C3PO (Anthony Daniels), toil away in an asteroid field in their crumbling ship, the Millennium Falcon.
Of course, plenty about The Empire Strikes Back is pivotal. This is the movie where Darth Vader, with his carcinomic menace, tells a certain someone that he’s his father. It is also the movie wherein Leia and Han begin to realize that they have feelings for one another, where the green pygmy Yoda (Frank Oz) helps Luke see his dreams through to become a Jedi (he lives on Dagobah), and where we first meet the bright-faced smuggler Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).
But The Empire Strikes Back only becomes state of the art if you watch it immediately after seeing A New Hope, soon followed by Return of the Jedi. That being said, it's still assuredly marvelous. It's an artistic triumph to be sure, and all the action sequences are, expectedly, breathtaking. But it lacks the punch it’s infected with when its ancestor and next-in-line are stitched to it when by itself. That makes it a good movie, but arguably not a great one — a great movie should not have to depend upon another (or two others) to fully realize its potential. But what do I know? If a character from the Scream movies thinks differently, I’d better get to rewatching to stay in line with the well-informed them.
The Empire Strikes Back B+
Scream 2 A-