Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, November 13, 2015

Recent Watches: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

George Lucas has given conflicting statements about how much of the “Star Wars” saga he planned out. Sometimes, he says the entire series was planned out from the beginning. Other times, he admits he made everything up as he went along. There’s far more evidence to support that latter statement. It wasn’t until he was writing the second draft of “The Empire Strikes Back” that it became Episode V, the groundwork for a six part cycle being laid then. The same draft is when Darth Vader became Luke’s father. Nobody knew the first “Star Wars” would become such a phenomenon. Nobody knew that the public would demand a sequel. The enormous success of the original obviously showed that people wanted to see more of this galaxy. Predictably, “The Empire Strikes Back” became a massive success. Today, many consider the middle chapter the best part of the trilogy. Some go even further, considering it the greatest movie ever made.

Since the destruction of the Death Star, the Empire has increased its efforts to stomp out the rebel forces. Darth Vader, in particular, has become obsessed with finding Luke Skywalker. The Imperial army locates the new rebel base on the ice planet Hoth. Following the battle, the heroes of the rebellion split in two different direction. Han, Leia, and Chewbacca try to avoid the Empire despite the Millennium Falcon’s broken warp drive. Luke, taking instructions from Obi Wan’s ghost, seeks out the Jedi master Yoda on the swamp world Dagobah. Eventually, the splintered team come back together at Cloud City, where Vader confronts Luke and Han faces the bounty on his head.

Normally, when writing a screenplay, it’s advised not to split the story into halves. That’s screenwriting 101. Keep things orderly and simple. Somehow though, the middle sections of trilogies like to tell two-fold stories during their second entries. “Star Wars” did it. “Lord of the Rings” did the same. Astonishingly, it worked. “The Empire Strikes Back” has Luke and the Han/Leia team existing in separate plot lines for most of its run time. The story of half of the players running from the Empire keeps the pacing speedy and exciting. Cutting back to Luke’s training on Dagobah allows the story some breathing room. When the heroes are reunited in the final act, it feels satisfying and exciting. Unlike the simple A-to-B progression of the first film, “The Empire Strikes Back” feels more interesting and daring.

A criticism I had of “Star Wars” is that few of the characters struck me as emotionally complex or compelling. Luke, the story’s hero, seemed especially dry. The sequel sets out to correct this. “The Empire Strikes Back” is all about Luke’s growth as a character. From the first scene, it’s apparent he has matured. The fresh-faced boy of the first movie is now a war veteran, hardened by the battles he survived. Yet he retains a certain rebellious spontaneity, driven by his emotions. Once he seeks out Yoda, he learns how easy it is to fall to the Dark Side. “Empire” strives to make the struggle of the Jedi clear. The Force brings immense power. Using that power for anything but pure intentions is a slippery slope. Darth Vader is said to have fallen to the Dark Side because he wanted things to be easy and simple. It’s a very human struggle and one that makes the concept of the Force more interesting to think about. Luke’s journey, meanwhile, has him confronting the darkness inside him, that’s inside all of us.

My favorite part of the first movie was the droids and the Wookie. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I think Yoda is a great addition to the “Star Wars” universe. Today, we’re so used to seeing Jedis that aren’t human. In 1980, the idea of a wrinkly, green muppet being the greatest Jedi master of all must have come as a shock. And let’s talk about Yoda being a muppet. Like Jim Henson’s iconic creations, we never think of Yoda as a puppet. He’s a fully formed character, with an incredibly expressive face and a full range of motion. The puppeteers truly give a great performance. Frank Oz provides a voice for Yoda that is not totally dissimilar to Grover’s or Miss Piggy’s. Mostly, I just love the gimmick of Yoda. He’s such an unlikely character. His appearance and introduction are misleading. His wisdom is tempered by an oddball streak. His style of speaking has been widely parodied. Yet it shows an alien organism wouldn’t necessary think or speak like you or I do. Yoda’s just great, right? We can all agree on that.

“Star Wars” teased romantic relationships between Leia and both of the male leads. The Princess seemed to have an interest in the fresh-faced boy hero. The space smuggler, meanwhile, shared some spicy sexual tension with her. “The Empire Strikes Back” runs with the Han/Leia relationship almost immediately. From the beginning, he’s trying to get her to admit that she likes him. Though she denies it at first, she easily falls to his charms. Two scenes come to mind. Han confronts Leia in the hallways of the Hoth base, debating leaving with her. Secondly, while working inside the Millennium Falcon, the two have another encounter. Both times they lock lips. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher’s chemistry helps things along considerably. The interplay between the actors and the film taking its time with the relationship earns the events of the last act. When Leia tells Han she loves him, and he admits he knows, it feels believable. The romance provides even more personality to the sequel, making it a richer emotional experience then its predecessor.

The movie also earns points for focusing more on the criminal underworld of this far away galaxy. Han’s status as a wanted man, for continuing to deny Jabba the Hut what he’s owed, is repeatedly brought up. While running from the Empire, Han settles in Cloud City. While Cloud City is a compelling location – a Jetson’s style structure suspended in the atmosphere of a gas giant – its residents are the most important part. Lando Calrissian is a rogue like Solo. He’s a gambler, a free spirit, and a bit of a hustler. However, Billy Dee Williams’ brings an entirely different style to the part. Williams’ smooth-as-silk romantic style should need no introduction. He nearly charms Leia away from Han. Williams is immediately appealing and brings a further burst of energy to the sometimes overly square “Star Wars" universe. That Lando can’t entirely be trusted is interesting too. It shows that there’s more grey in this war between the Rebels and the Empire then previously thought. Good people compromise their morals to survive sometimes but selfish acts doesn’t make someone evil.

In an odd way, “The Empire Strikes Back” is less of an action film then “Star Wars.” Nothing that happens among the stars could truthfully be considered a war. The most military action happens on Hoth. The snow-covered ice world is certainly interesting to look at. The movie introduces some exciting new vehicles as well. The AT-AT walkers have rightfully become iconic. Lumbering across the tundra like giant elephants, they’re suitably intimidating while still looking cool. The action that follows, like the Rebels’ lassoing the AT-AT’s feet or Luke tossing grenades into the vehicle, works well on-screen. “The Empire Strikes Back” is more character-oriented. This is probably why most of the big action set-pieces occur in the first half-hour. The only space-centric action we get is the Falcon dodging a fleet of Star Destroyers, eventually heading into a scientifically inaccurate asteroid field.

While lacking spaceship battles, “Empire” does make time for more dynamic light saber duels. During his training with Yoda, the film realizes the Force’s potential a little more. It’s strong enough to lift an X-Wing from the swamp muck but focused enough for Luke to levitate small rocks. The light saber battles in “Star Wars” were stiff, short-lived affairs. Vader and Obi Wan’s duel didn’t feature any dynamic sword swinging. When Luke and Vader fight, it’s far more exciting. The duel is shot gorgeously, the fighters silhouetted against the interior engines of Cloud City. The swinging light sabers collide, producing sparks. We feel the weight and power of the weapons for the first time, such as when Luke dings Vader’s armor or the villain slices off Skywalker’s hand. The duel also shows that the Force can be both a tool and a weapon, as Vader tosses Luke through a window with it.

The sequel’s most iconic contribution to pop culture is its dramatic reveal. Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. Though the twist is foreshadowed throughout – like during Darth’s conversation with the Emperor – it still left jaws on the floor back in 1980. Luke’s most hated enemy being his father speaks to the sequel’s theme, that darkness is a part of all of us. As a dramatic moment, it’s hard to top. Vader’s adamant statement that “You know it to be true,” followed by Luke’s blood-curdling scream, dissolves all doubt in the viewer’s mind. Though “Empire” continues for a while afterwards, this is clearly the movie’s dramatic climax. Skillfully combining the story’s themes while being beautifully orchestrated, there’s a reason the scene is so famous and beloved.

We tend to think of all the “Star Wars’” movies as George Lucas’ projects. However, we can’t overlook that George did not direct “The Empire Strikes Back.” Instead, he handed the keys off to Irvin Kershner, his former film professor. Kershner’s style is more intimate. He doesn’t focus as much on the serial-style wipes or symmetrical wide shots as Lucas did. Instead, he seems to delight in putting viewers in tight places with the character. Whether it’s Yoda’s cramped hut or the tight corridors of the Falcon, he seems more concerned with the character’s emotions than the epic battles. Maybe this is why “The Empire Strikes Back” is a more mature, complex film then the first one. The sequel would get Kershner, a more dramatically minded director, a few sci-fi/action jobs he was ill-suited to, like “Never Say Never Again” or “RoboCop 2.”

There’s more to discuss with “The Empire Strikes Back.” What about John Williams’ iconic Imperial March, music nearly as beloved as the original’s classic opening theme? Or the huge asteroid worm that puts in an appearance, one of my favorite gags in the film? How about how much surprising emotion Chewbacca gets out of several strangled groans and growls? Or the appearance of Boba Fett, a character fans adore despite him not doing anything? While I still can’t call myself a “Star Wars” devotee, there’s little doubt in my mind that “The Empire Strikes Back” is the most accessible of the trilogy. It’s beautifully structured and written. Kershner finds the human heart inside this alien-filled sci-fi epic, making a more nuanced and developed picture. [9/10]

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