Irvin Kershner, who helmed 24 films in a career that lasted more than 30 years, but who is probably best known for directing The Empire Strikes Back, has died after a long illness. He was 87.
Kershner had already directed numerous films and TV shows—chiefly crime dramas full of teen hoodlums, Westerns like The Return Of A Man Called Horse, and the thriller Eyes Of Laura Mars—when he was handed the daunting assignment of making the first sequel to the smash hit Star Wars saga. George Lucas, a former student of Kershner’s at USC, offered the job to his old professor in order to concentrate on the film’s financing and production and effects work. Kershner famously refused at first, not wanting to be the guy who had to follow the most successful film in history at that point.
However, he eventually came around (at the insistence of his agent), and soon began to see the film not as a rehash, but as a deeper, darker exploration of its characters—something he was known for in his previous work. Although reviews were initially mixed, over time The Empire Strikes Back has become a fan favorite precisely for all the elements Kershner brought to it, somehow giving a galaxy-spanning space opera full of epic laser battles and spaceship chases and people getting frozen in carbonite an undercurrent of real human drama.
After the success of Empire, Kershner suddenly found himself in demand as a blockbuster director, and was quickly handed the equally unenviable task of orchestrating Sean Connery’s return to the role of James Bond in Never Say Never Again. Though an “unofficial” Bond film, due to it not being part of EON Productions, it was a box office success, and critics once again praised the film for its human elements—particularly Klaus Maria Brandaeur as the neurotic, oddly sympathetic villain Largo.
Kershner spent much of the ’80s broadening his résumé, playing Zebedee in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ; he also turned up as a film director in Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground, and played Mr. Stoff in the 1995 comedy Angus. In 1990, he was handed yet another thankless sequel job: RoboCop 2, the follow-up to Paul Verhoeven’s dystopic sci-fi classic, had its own rocky road to production, with an “unfilmable” script by Frank Miller famously cast aside at the last second. But despite critical reaction to the film—who saw it as nothing more than a rehash with extra violence—in my opinion, it’s a vastly underrated successor.
Kershner kept many of Verhoeven’s satirical nods while also adding his own elements of black comedy; midway through the film, the story of RoboCop turns into a tragicomic spin on the Frankenstein myth as, after he’s dismantled by Nuke’s gang of drug lords, OCP refuses to let the poor guy die already, instead hooking his twitching severed torso up to a computer and stuffing him full of all-new Prime Directives. It’s mordant stuff—as is the sequence where OCP unveils a series of failed, suicidal prototypes.
The reaction to RoboCop 2 seemed to sour Kershner on handling any more high-profile projects. He directed episodes of Seaquest DSV and turned in a few more acting cameos in the 1990s, but seemed more or less content to keep on teaching at USC, and doing his part to turn out the next generation of filmmakers. And of course, having one of the greatest science-fiction movies of all time under his belt didn’t hurt.