Building Empire (2006)

2015 #71
Jamie Benning | 137 mins | streaming | 16:9 | UK / English

The first of Jamie Benning’s “filmumentaries” looks at the making of sometime Best Film Ever, and widely-accepted Best Star Wars Ever, The Empire Strikes Back (as it used to just be known). To quote the documentary’s own intro:

Building Empire is an unofficial commentary to The Empire Strikes Back. It contains video clips, audio from cast and crew, alternate angles, reconstructed scenes, text facts and insights into the development and creation of the film.

It begins with director Irvin Kershner explaining how he came to be involved, though my main observation was how much he sounds like Yoda. Maybe that’s just me…

From there, there’s a focus on the special effects and how they were achieved. There’s a lot of detail about the myriad effects on Hoth, the creation of the asteroid field, and the puppetry of Yoda, as well as boundless trivia, like detailing the set-extension matte paintings. Other major themes include changes from early drafts and in deleted material; audio differences between the many different versions (not only the various release prints and Special Editions, but audiobooks and the like); commentary from actors on the evolution of their characters; plus detail on the actual filming, including the terrible weather on location in Norway (they were able to shoot some of Hoth’s desolate ice fields within feet of their hotel) and the rigours of the Luke/Vader lightsaber duel.

My personal highlight of the documentary comes in Cloud City, at the point Lando’s betrayal is revealed. Benning inserts a “deconstruction of an action scene” (Han shooting at Vader; Vader Force-stealing Han’s gun), using uncut footage and B-roll to quickly glimpse how such things are achieved — or were, before “with CGI” was the answer for everything. Here, Benning’s work transcends merely placing rare interviews or behind-the-scenes footage at the appropriate juncture, instead using that material to create something genuinely new and insightful.

Assuming you’re interested in snippets of minutiae and amusing trivia (if not, these filmumentaries definitely aren’t for you), the downsides are few. It’s a shame that, just occasionally, there are stretches with no additional material (though never for long) when at other times the additions race by in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash. There are also quite a few instances labelled “restored music”, but there’s no comment from John Williams, Kershner, or anyone else on why so much was removed and/or changed.

Niggles aside, I felt like I enjoyed Building Empire even more than its later predecessor (how very Lucas). I’m not saying it’s fundamentally better — just as with Star Wars Begins, for those who love making-of details and trivia, Building Empire is a delightful grab bag of such bits and pieces.

4 out of 5

Building Empire can be watched on Vimeo here.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK this Thursday, and in the US on Friday.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.