Sunday, June 8, 2014

Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back second thoughts

So this was it, then. This was the big thing, the reason to watch the whole series. What a swerve. I was not ready for that. This film is completely different from the first one, but in so many good ways.

You got me.

You all got me.

Somehow I never knew about what must be one of the most talked-about things in movies. Roomie and Lacy say that people have been riffing off of that scene ever since the film came out and I immediately understand why. I don't want to talk about it yet though.

Once again I'm given a movie that feels like more than one film. Where the first one was all "show," though, this one is all "do." Star Wars gave me three major acts in the film that were each like self-contained mini-movies in a larger continuous universe. Empire Strikes Back, by comparison, is relentless in its singleminded dedication to unleashing STRESS. While it still feels like three acts, the menace of Vader and the DEATH TRIANGLE armada, driven by that epic and evil theme, puts it over the moon in terms of execution. The Empire strikes back and holy crap did I feel it.

By the end of the movie I had forgotten all about the ice world and the walking tanks and I had to go back to take in what I'd watched. I forgot about the asteroids, I forgot about the swamp. I definitely forgot about the kangaroos.

I said the first film was all "show," and I think my initial impressions this time gave me a lot more room to crack wise because "show" wasn't on the table. In the first film, they had long scenes of nothing but pure fantasy, unleashing imagination with no purpose other than letting us know they could. In this film, there's only really one comparable scene to the bar scene; it's the one with the collection of bounty hunters, and it's over really quickly since they want us to focus on Serious Dangerous Man. Other scenes that leaned toward "show" included that amazing shot of the fleet where the DEATH TRIANGLE's shadow falls over all the huge ships before it appears, a few of the ice base shots, the incredible duel set with its hellish red lights and eerie mist, and Yoda raising the ship.

For all the wonder of Star Wars, it was in many ways a dizzying wonder. Empire Strikes Back was more composed in its delivery, setting up scenes that took their time getting a reaction. The music is even better than before - not just Vader's oppressive TUN TUN TUN theme, but the second theme of the film, the song that focuses on Han and Leia and just hides in all of these scenes. I didn't even realize that I was recognizing a leitmotif until toward the end, but now I realize it must have been going throughout most of the movie. The score for Yoda levitating the ship is just transporting. I don't know how they do this with music but I was just grabbed by the whole thing and kept there. This is a different kind of wonder, like a slow-dawning fascination.

Nothing in the movie says that better than Yoda. I didn't pay him any attention at first because I thought he was just a quirky alien comic relief. It seems so obvious in retrospect that when he says "wars don't make you great" that he's the old master. That's his bitterness, I think, that's his pain. I remember the first movie where Ben felt the weight of Alderaan blowing up as a terrible blow. Yoda lives on a planet with no cities, all alone, and it reflects the toll that burden took on him. When he reveals the truth and turns around, and suddenly his face isn't that of a silly Sesame Park puppet; it's a REAL FACE full of so many emotions. They made the newest and most imagined character in the film into the most realized. Incredible work on that. Do modern computer-made effects hold up to that standard today? I'll find out eventually, I suppose.

In retrospect, the space worm is pretty silly, but it makes for a fun side diversion, and it was good to go back and chuckle at me not getting it when Han was shooting the cave.

Another part of the movie that's distinct is how much more human it is than alien. Empire Strikes Back has far fewer new-looking things to take in, but they're used much more deliberately and not pointlessly distracting otherwise. The only really weird ones were the pig gremlin things from the cloud city.

There are three new characters in this movie. Four, I suppose, but the bounty hunter I feel is really next movie's character making an early guest appearance to RUIN MY LIFE more on that later. Yoda is a fantastic character. Lando, as I said in the first impressions, feels like they wanted to attract black audiences or answer a studio request for cast diversity of the non-puppet kind. However, the guy who plays him doesn't accept that kind of role; it takes him all of ten minutes on screen to leap into the main cast and become a new party member, and once again I have to say: I would probably make out with that voice. Straight man's opinion. He's going to take on a bigger role in the final film and I'm eager to see how the bigger party works together with the betrayal at the cloud city. I say that because HAN IS NOT DEAD more on that later. Which brings me to the third new character.

I feel like I'm supposed to be disappointed by the Emperor. I feel like that's the point; that he's this old, froggy, ineffectual figurehead who gives the political power and capital to Vader's black fist of doom. The message of this movie is that Vader has no time for your shit, galaxy. The emperor has been counseled on a new threat to him from an unaccounted-for space wizard and is like "Vader, what do we do with this" and Vader's already on top of a plan to corrupt Luke and present him to the Emperor as a shut up and give me more ships present. The symbols of power are massively discrepant - the Emperor pulls a routine straight out of The Wizard of Oz with his giant projected head - big in size, but transparent and feeble. He's got it rigged up so you have to kneel to talk to him and I think that says a lot about where he stands and how much he feels it. Vader by contrast has the doom throne and casually murders his own people on a whim. I'm surprised Pete's still an admiral as opposed to the other kind of admiral Vader refers to. Kudos to the actor behind the mask; the power and physicality of the villain is unshakeable in this movie and drives the stress and the action.

The love story between Han and Leia has awkward moments; I don't know if that's just based on what I've been exposed to in terms of expectation, but it takes some inferred backstory to file off the creepy edges of his interactions with her. Once I got to the end, though, I realized it was all true; she was trying to keep him at arms' length for some reason even though she did love him, and that last line from Han FOR NOW BECAUSE HAN IS NOT DEAD more on that later just perfectly sold it for me. The look on his face capped the whole story and made me realize that he was chasing meaning in both of their lives outside of the fight they were committed to. Leia stuck around at the base until it was actually too late to get out safely - she's prioritizing the larger struggle over personal feelings and it kills her that he's a reminder of what a different life could be. That's my read on it, and I came away much more sold on it than I started with.

Which leads me to HAN IS NOT DEAD. I don't accept it. He's alive and frozen. Lando said so. The look of that slab of steel with him in there is just horrifying; it looks like the most traumatic way to be, and even moreso since he's still in there (not dead). The endgame of the film sidelines Han much faster because, I think, Han could have gotten Luke to run from a trap and because it put that much more focus on the real final confrontation. I didn't think they would get away with him, not really, and the fact that they did means the nameless Serious Dangerous Man is going to be a big villain in the third film. They probably did drop his name at some point and I missed it. I'm counting Lando as a +1 to the party, not a trade, because Han is not dead. We're getting that scoundrel back and a new swindler into the bargain and I cannot wait because I want the party back together again.

And now we're here. I don't want to get too personal in these reactions, but this was definitely the part you've all been waiting for. I know that now. That was a brutal, incredibly difficult swerve. The fight itself was just one long message about how much Luke (and by extension, yours truly) was not ready. Vader owned him in every arena, from lightsabers to Force sorcery. At the start of the film we got Luke demonstrating how to use the Force for telekinesis. Vader shows off the major leagues here, casually RIPPING THE WORLD APART to throw at Luke. I felt that. I wanted Luke to just get out of there. Run away. Acknowledge that the Empire has struck back and you're on the defensive again. Instead things got a thousand times worse.

I mentioned on RPGnet that I lived with my grandparents growing up. I didn't talk about why. Again, I don't want to get more personal than I have to, but this scene just destroyed me. When Vader revealed that awful secret, that terrible, horrible announcement that I needed so deep inside to know was a lie, it just kicked me in the gut. My father left us behind. He left us and it was just this rapid uncorking of my whole childhood to spill out and start over again from square one. I couldn't imagine having to face him after all this time and be confronted with "why" and have it be all my worst nightmares come to life. I heard him say it and it was me there feeling a way I haven't had to confront in a long time. I don't do confrontation well as a general rule, and the empathy I had for Luke just punched me right in the chest.

For years I've listened to my grandfather's best advice, which some coaches have shared with him as well: walk it off. When you need to destress or get back in the game, walk it off. I wanted to stop the movie and just stand up and get out of the apartment. I wanted to be a few blocks away in the fresh air just distancing myself from that horrible feeling. It was a kick in the gut that I wasn't ready to expect from what had been this great, fun, exciting film. And I can't walk.

I just had to sit there and feel the weight of what cam crashing down on me. The man who killed your family, burned your home, vanished your mentor, tortured your friends, cut off your goddamn hand IS YOUR FATHER. And he's totally cool with this. It means nothing to him. He's a complete monster. There was a line in the original film that I misinterpreted hugely in retrospect, where Aunt and Uncle are talking about how Luke's like his father and Uncle says "that's exactly what I'm afraid of"." I thought it was because Luke's father was some foolish adventurer who got killed by Vader for daring to challenge him. I could accept that version. That was Ben's story and I wanted it to be true. It would be a classic fairytale, like the intro promises, with a hero avenging his family.

Instead it's all a nightmare. Your family is the royalty of the Dark Force. Your father is a monster who plans to corrupt you with an addiction to the Dark Force and sell you into the service of the emperor. Pushed to the literal brink, Luke chooses to plunge to his doom rather than face that horror. I'm right there with him. Sometimes you just have to walk it off and can't.

I don't know what else to say. I need to see how this ends. I'm now completely lost. I've got no roadmap to the end anymore. I don't trust the next movie - I'm kind of afraid of what it might do now. In retrospect, some of my worries about the characters in this one seem foolish, but after that final twist came down I just don't know anymore.

This is one of the best movies I have ever seen.


  1. Given your very personal response to the Vader reveal in this film, I think you will either really, really love the next movie, or really, really hate it. Be prepared for more emotional gut-punchery, either way.

    By the way: "Darth Vader" is one of those Meaningful Names. According to Mr. Lucas, "Darth" was a corruption of the word "dark," and "Vader" means "father" in Dutch (although it's not pronounced the same way). Which means that for whatever else he was just making up as he went along, George Lucas always knew that Darth Vader was Luke's father.

  2. ESB is the absolute best SW has to offer. It's all downhill from here. Last movie isn't bad and all the bajillions of stuff (books, comics, games, cartoons, toys...) have their ups and downs but nothing will top ESB.


    1. Of the three movies I've seen, I'm tilting toward agreeing.

      I really really liked the simple wonders of Star Wars, but Empire Strikes Back just came together from everywhere, you know?

    2. You are in agreement with just about everybody -- fan, professional critic, academic, everybody -- in this. STAR WARS stands on its own. You can watch it without watching anything else, and you've got a fine adventure story. In its VERY first release, it didn't have the "Episode IV" or the scrolling text or anything -- it just went from "A long time ago" to the lasers shooting at the ship. That's the version my wife likes best.

      But EMPIRE is the best of the movies. It's the best-directed, most emotionally complex of the movies. It was Roger Ebert's favorite, for instance.

    3. You sir are an idiot. The point of this experiment was that he had no expectations regarding the series. To say the next film is downhill immediately creates a (negative) expectation and even color his response. Let him make up his own mind.

  3. "gave me three major acts in the film that were each like self-contained mini-movies"

    Like Spielberg & Lucas' "Raiders of the Lost Arc" (sic), Star Wars was inspired by the serials that used to play on Saturdays as part of a triple-bill. You hit it on the nose.

  4. Great thoughts on this film... I'm really appreciating how well read and insightful your comments are. Well done!