Thursday, March 22, 2007

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

I think there's a tendency to view the Star Wars trilogy as more than just films. They're not analyzed as constructions, they're looked at more as a universe that's always been there. Certainly that's the way I approached the films when I was younger, the plot couldn't have gone any other way, this is what happened. I'm not sure if this will be true of the current generation, but it seems like whatever films were already made when you became a fan are above reproach. I know a lot of the people who saw ANH and Empire in the theater have major issues with Jedi, I never did, and I still love the film, but I'm also more aware of some of the flaws therein. Certainly Lucas hasn't done anything to help the films' reputation in the critical community, with his endless, generally negative tinkering, and uneven prequel films. But, put that all aside, and take a look at Empire Strikes Back.

When someone asks me what my favorite movie is, I usually respond Empire Strikes Back and Magnolia. I need to get some indie cred in there, because Empire isn't representative of my general taste. However, if I had to pick one film as my favorite, it would be this one. I sometimes wonder if it's really that good, then I watch the film again, and realize that it is an unparalleled achievement in cinema. This is the pinnacle of narrative cinema.

The film works wonderfully on so many levels. I still love the original Star Wars, A New Hope, but compared to Empire and Jedi, it feels like the universe is still finding itself. The film has more ties to the 70s, in both the look and language. Empire feels timeless, another world that is completely familiar and believable. It's probably not a coincidence that the film Lucas had the least direct involvement in has the most naturalistic characters and believable dialogue. The banter between Han and Leia in particular is really sharp and funny, like the best of classical Hollywood cinema, and throughout, the emotion is running high.

The film that Empire reminds me of the most is Casablanca. In each case, we see a small group of rebels acting against a massive force out to destroy them. I love that dynamic, largely because I feel like victories only have meaning if the characters go through really bad stuff on the way to that victory. It's why I loved the New Caprica arc on Battlestar Galactica, why I loved Buffy season six and why this film is so good. Right from the beginning we're in a desolate place, the triumph of ANH's finale long forgotten. Every moment of this film is submerged in a foreboding darkness, due to the unrelenting nature of the Imperial threat. There's no exhale moment, we never think that everything will be fine, and the intercutting maximizes the tension at all points.

I think this film deserves respect as a piece of art cinema for its visual aesthetic alone. All the Star Wars films are full of visual wonder, but in the prequels, Lucas seemed to just throw in a bunch of random stuff. That also plagues parts of ANH and Jedi, the best design moments in the trilogy are those with a stark minimalism. We see that in the Emperor's throne room in Jedi, echoed again in the opening rescue of Palpatine in Sith. In both cases, the design draws our attention to the focus of the scene, the Emperor. Aesthetically, the colorless Imperial ships are great, and more believable than the ornate design work of the prequels. One of the great innovations of Star Wars was the idea of the lived in future, and that just didn't come across in the prequels. Part of it was the nature ofthe story, that was a more civilized age, but it also meant we didn't get anything with the character of the Millenium Falcon.

Every environment in this film is designed to mirror what the characters are feeling at that point. Hoth is oppressively cold, and you can see that in the costuming. There is no retreat from that cold, even their shelter is an ice cave. The outside is even more bleak, total nothingness at first, then broken by the approaching Imperial walkers. The snow battle is innovative and fun, while still being dark. Here, the Rebels aren't fighting to win, they're fighting to get away, and that feeling is conveyed in the desperation of everyone involved. I love the way the base collapses around them, Leia still not wanting to leave.

This is the film where Vader really comes into his own. In ANH, he's subject to Tarkin, just the muscle, not a leader. Looked at in the context of the six films, I would argue that Vader retreated into this intimidating persona after believing that he had killed Padme. What he wanted in Sith was the power to rule the galaxy with the woman he loved. He did what he did to save her and give her the chance to make the world she wanted. Without her, he has no particular drive and is willing to do whatever the Emperor wants him to. It's not until he learns of Luke's existence that he is reborn, tapping into some of his humanity and rediscovering his dream, of ruling the galaxy with someone he loves.

That is why he is so driven throughout the film, right from the incredible entrance. After the discovery of the Imperial probe droid, we cut to space, and the first entrance of the Imperial March. This song is one of the all time great film music compositions, and it scores a ballet of Star Destroyers, moving through the sky, leading up to Vader on his command ship. Most of the moments people think of when they talk about Vader as a villain are from this film, the legendary 'forgiveness' of Captain Needa, as well as the choke over the video monitor of Admiral Ozzel. This is the only film where he's in total control, and reaching fanatical heights as leader of his troops. Just on an aesthetic level, the character is fantastic, that suit the ultimate representation of evil and menace.

One of Lucas's favorite storytelling tricks is intercutting. This comes to a fore in the brilliant final battle of Return of the Jedi, balancing three narrative strands, but that film, and ANH, are generally linear in their progression. In Empire, the entire film is structured around intercutting, jumping between Luke's story and the Falcon's story. The intercutting allows for easier narrative elipsis. On one level, the entire film makes no sense, the Falcon story appears to be taking place in real time, while the Dagobah stuff is at least a week of storytelling time. Was there ever an explanation for this? Ultimately, it doesn't really matter, the intercutting makes it work because we just accept coming back whever they choose to put us back.

I prefer the stuff on the Falcon, but both story strands are great here. Harrison Ford is really charismatic as Han Solo, a perfect roguish, but ultimately good guy. Him and Leia have a fantastic rapport, which is well developed across their scenes together. The dialogue is fantastic, the two of them speaking that 40s Hollywood coded rapport way. One of the major reasons the prequels suffered next to the originals is that they didn't have any of this energy. Everyone bought into the mission, and played by the rules. There was a serious need for a Han Solo style character.

In general, the characters in this film feel very real. I don't think any of the other films have the emotional relatability of what's going on here. The acting is fantastic too, with everyone going to a raw place by the end of the film. You can see so much sadness and wear on Leia and Luke by the end of the film, such that just getting the chance to stand there together, away from the fight for a moment, is a happy ending.

The Yoda scenes are justifiably legendary. While I really liked the CG version of the character in Sith, I think this puppet version is an even better actor. Watching him go from crazy food stealing nut to Jedi master in a moment is a transition that would be tough for a flesh and blood actor, but Frank Oz totally pulls it off. I thoroughly enjoy the training sequences, particularly the odd slow motion dream sequence. This planet is another example of the visuals mimicking the narrative content. Luke is exploring the mysteries of the force, something so vast you can only see a small piece at a time. So, we've got a planet with so much mist and swamp, you can barely see in front of you.

When I originally watched these films, I assumed that everything Yoda was saying was correct, and that everything the Emperor said was wrong. One of the best things that Sith did was to call into question that binary view of things. The prophecy said that Anakin would bring balance to the force, but it's ultimately Luke who does that because Luke is able to successfully fuse the intellectual power of the Jedi with the emotional power of the dark side. In Sith, Yoda sends Anakin to the dark side when he basically tells him if Padme dies, she dies, it's a part of life. What awful advice to someone who's in an emotionally bad place, and he gives it again to Luke here, saying that his friends might die, and he just has to accept that. Both Luke and Anakin are unwilling to play by the typical Jedi rules, and that leads to a paradigm shift in Jedi, when Luke forces Vader to use his emotion to defeat the Emperor. It's reminiscent of Buffy, where she decides that her emotions are an advantage in fighting, not a hindrance. It's also reminiscent of the Vorlon/Shadow conflict in Babylon 5, the need to find a third path.

The Dagobah sequences end with one of the film's visual highlights, Luke's takeoff followed by the "There is another speech." This is a moment that works on all levels, visually dazzling, with the shifting light and shadow on Yoda, narratively revelatory and wonderfully performed by Oz.

The entire Cloud City sequence is basically a tutorial in how to successfully execute the climax of your film. Rather than just having a bunch of explosions, they narrow the focus, creating emotionally apocalyptic moments that push everyone to the absolute edge. Having C-3PO get shot right after they walk in creates an instant tension surrounding things. Throughout, there is no respite for our heroes. When they first see Lando, he's backed by a whole bunch of troops, and even when he embraces Han, the tension isn't quite gone. The attack on 3PO keeps it there. It would have been interesting to play Lando's betrayal as more of a shock, make it seem like they really got away, then break things down, but it wouldn't have fit with the film. The whole point of the movie is that there is no escape from the Empire. I really love the moment when Lando sees the broken parts of 3PO sitting in a box and asks Han "Having trouble with your droid," and he says "Nope."

If I could see an extended version of any scene in any movie, it'd have to be what happens after Vader asks them to sit down to eat. The moment when they open the door and see him is just incredibly badass, Vader pulling the gun across the table. Plus, he really stands out agains the white interiors. When the stormtroopers show up behind them, you just know they're fucked. Do they actually eat? What do they talk about at the meal? These are all things I'd love to know, but alas, I never shall.

From here on, the Cloud City scenes have a desperate energy, Lando trying to salvage things, but getting shut down at every turn. Vader has no scruples, but Lando has no choice but to go along with things. Han is tortured for no reason, on a nasty sparking device, and then led to the carbon chamber. That scene has always been one of my favorites, and for good reason. It is a beautiful piece of cinema, working on so many levels.

One of its greatest assets is the visual. For all you can criticize Lucas for, I don't think anyone can say he's not a visual filmmaker. The man knows how to make an arresting image, and for that reason alone, he deserves respect. I can think of very few environments in cinema as vividly realized as the carbon freezing chamber. An orange-red glow covers everything, steam hanging in the air, blue light corridors stretching off in a seemingly endless distance. Below them, light peeks out of metal grates. Vader loses any definition here, becoming just a silhouette, a menace.

Emotionally, this scene imprinted deep on me. It's similar to the farewell speech in Casablanca, two people who love each other, with no choice but to be seperated. As Han is led on to the platform, Chewbacca loses it. Han calms him, and in that moment, Leia sees how much he's grown. He is a hero, and he'll take his fate if it means keeping them safe. This leads to the classic "I love you," "I know" exchange. This moment says everything about the two characters, he doesn't even have to say "I love you," she knows he does, and just to hear her say how she feels means everything to him. They steal a kiss before he descends, and that moment is just so on, so good. One day I hope to make a film with a moment that powerful, two people finding solace in each other against this massive approaching threat.

On top of that, we've got arguably the greatest film score of all time. I read that Williams record 109 minutes of music for this 129 minute film, there's virtually no moments that aren't punctuated by score, and unlike a lot of recent scores, this one really helps take the film to another level. In recent years, we've seen a retreat from theme songs. Could anyone say what the X-Men or Spider-Man theme were? No, but how many memorable themes are there from this film alone? Easily five or six, all of them brilliant, enhancing the film. Through the use of leitmotif, associating specific musical cues with the characters, Williams is able to tell us exactly what the characters are feeling through the music. When Han and Leia's theme plays at the end, we know what both she and Luke are thinking about. In the carbon chamber scene, Han and Leia's theme bleeds into a pounding version of the Imperial March as Vader's triumph becomes clear. The best film moments are those where music and visual fuse together into something beyond either one, and virtually this entire film works on that level. This is the greatest film score of all time.

Seldom have I seen a film in which our hero takes as much punishment and loses so resoundly as Luke does when facing Vader. The entire sequence consists of him being thrown through a variety of environments, continuously under assault. I love the network of tunnels and hallways they pass through, particularly the big room with the window that Luke is thrown out of.

Intercut with this, we've got the high energy of Leia's escape from the city. They're under fire from all directions, such that when they do finally escape, it's an intensely satisfying moment. I love R2 struggling with the door, stormtroopers pressing on them, then opening it to a soaring orchestral cue. He emerges from the steam in another fantastic image.

The "I am your father" scene is another one that's been parodied so much, is such a part of our cultural landscape, it can be hard to go back to the original and view it fresh, but after going through this entire film, I'm in the same place that Luke is, completely beaten down, with nowhere left to go. After an entire film of chasing Luke, Vader finally has a captive audience. Here, he makes his pitch, the same pitch he made to Padme back in Sith. He's always been willing to turn on the Emperor, he just needs an ally to do it, and his son is the perfect candidate. Having seen Sith, Vader's motives are a bit clearer, an he's more sympathetic. This all builds to Luke's leap off the tower. He will not give in to the dark side, and unlike his father, he turns down this offer of power, willing to sacrifice himself if necessary.

Following this, we get a scene that has a really odd power, Luke calling to Leia. There are certain moments in cinema that reach a supernatural place, Lynch does this a lot, and this does too. Leia's facial expression as she hears him, Luke's pain as he calls out to her. He is pushed literally to the edge of things, there is nowhere left to go, and he hangs there, waiting. As they rescue him, the two sides of our story are finally brought back together, and they move off to escape.

But, before that there's another scene with that odd power, Luke's dialogue with Vader. We can tell that he's already accepted Vader as his father, and if their ship had been pulled in, he very well may have agreed to join him. The characters are all completely broken at this point, they have nothing left, except for R2, who finally, after an entire film, fixes the hyperdrive, and the Falcon jets off, safe at last. From the moment where Luke went after the meteorite, two minutes in, to this moment, this is no letup, it is a constant pursuit constant danger, and no victories for our heroes. That is a triumph of screenwriting, to sustain that intensity for an entire movie. It's a large part of why it's such a special film.

In the end, we finally get to rest. Lando and Chewbacca are off to rescue Han, but for Luke, Leia and the droids, it s a chance to recover. I love this scene, all the films, including the prequels, have really strong final moments, and I'd hesitate to say one is best, but there's a lot to be said for the emotion we get here. Luke and Leia stand at the window, watching the Falcon leave, as Han and Leia's theme soars on the soundtrack. It builds as we pull back, the entire fleet together, a bit of hope for the future. Continue back as the music builds and then cut on a swell to the theme song and credits. It's a perfectly executed finale, and I'd imagine it was incredibly frustratng back in 1980.

It baffes me how people could criticize this film because everything is working so well. The effects team does astonishing work, which both tells the story and is aesthetically beautiful on its. I love the Falcon's diving, spiralling escape from the Star Destroyers, and few shots in the trilogy can match the serene power of the Falcon drifting off with the garbage as the Star Destroyers blast away. The production design is also wonderful, creating alien, yet familiar environments, all wonderful to look at. The editing is another major strength, keeping things moving, but giving us time for character moments. I've already mentioned the score, and I'll also hail director Irvin Kirshner for getting great performances out of everyone involved.

I absolutely love this movie, it was my favorite film back in 1989 and it still is, and unlike some other movies, it's not because of lingering childhood affection. Watching this, I was wowed by just how good it was. My mental memory of the film is on an old VHS I got in the 80s, watching it on DVD it looked so clean, and I saw new parts of the movie with the wider aspect ratio. I'd seen the film in widescreen before, but only a couple of times compared to the twenty or thirty times I saw it on VHS.

If you haven't watched this in a while, pull it out again and give it a look. It really holds up. Tonight I'm going to be rewatching Return of the Jedi, and I'll probably write that one up tomorrow.

8 comments:

David Golding said...

There's a classic funny moment to look out for in widescreen. We're shown an external shot of the Star Destroyer fleet, and a meteor hits the command deck of one of them. Then we're shown an internal shot of Darth Vader in holo-conference with his commanders. Only in widescreen can you see one of them cringe and then blink out!

Seeing the films as a universe rather than films hides one of the chief accomplishments of The Empire Strikes Back: it turns the impossible (Vader is Luke's father) into the inevitable. This is the greatest retcon of all time. Lucas tries to repeat this trick with Leia in Return of the Jedi, even seeding the kissing the scene in Empire as misdirection, but it doesn't work as well.

Patrick said...

That Vader retcon is brilliant. It's conceivable he knew when ANH started, but then it would make no sense why Luke would have the last name Skywalker. That's one of the major things against the idea that Lucas had it all planned out from the start. But, it generally fits well with what we see in ANH, particularly the Uncle Owen/Aunt Beru scene.

The Leia thing doesn't work because Luke's entire motivation in the first film seems to be that he's attracted to Leia, goes into space to save her, and keeps trying to impress her. It's conceivable Lucas had thought of the sister twist by ESB, but Luke's reaction to the kiss just kills that. And yet, there is the "there is another" line and Leia's force power at the end when Luke's hanging off the tower. So, it's conceivable that the kiss really was meant to be misdirection, in which case it's just creepy.

jolinn said...

...I stood in line for over seven hours to see this film when it first came out. Then I had to sit on the floor in the aisle. It was worth it, even though--okay, the whole seventies Lando get-up bothered me even back then. It was so horribly disco, and I was pretty p'd at the whole Luke and Leia is your sister thing. Star Wars was a pretty contained piece of film. Good beginning, solid middle and a nice fat HEA (happy ever after).

I think Lucas was seduced by the dark side.


It's weird how you made me think back on Empire Strikes Back.

RAB said...

Anakin did bring balance to the Force. Unfortunately for the Jedi, they didn't realize they were the ones who had put it out of balance, and their decimation was what would restore it.

Patrick said...

That balancing was pretty clever. You'd think the Jedi would have considered that balance would mean losing a lot of their power, but the way they're depicted in the prequels, they seem pretty clueless. It's somewhat implicit, but I think we're meant to take issue with a lot of the Jedi practices, whereas the original trilogy presented them as pure good, against the pure evil of the Sith. There's a lot of complexity there, I just wish Lucas could have executed just a little better.

And a seven hour line for ESB? That's crazy. As for Lando's disco-ness, check this out: http://youtube.com/watch?v=GfP-SDM7lkY

David Golding said...

I think the biggest strike against Luke-as-Vader's-son-in-Star-Wars is Obi-Wan's "Vader betrayed and killed your father" bit (pretty clear!) which leads to the "point of view" speech in ROTJ (outrageously insane!).

Patrick said...

That's true, I'd be curious to see how people who've watched the prequels first read the OT. I've talked to some younger people who say the originals are too slow and have bad effects, which surprised me. I could see the slow comment on ANH, which does take a while to get going, but the effects hold up, and I'd hope people would have the attention span to appreciate it.

But, there's a lot of weird inconsistencies, the Luke/Leia kiss and that Obi-Wan speech most notably. I suppose you could read it as Obi-Wan lying to protect Luke, but it's a stretch. I guess we can be happy that Lucas didn't try to digitally alter the speech to make it fit better when he did the DVDs.

David Golding said...

I don't care for special editions aesthetically, the dialogue tweaks bother me less. However, what I love about the new trilogy is that it doesn't try to rid us of inconsistencies - instead it blows them wide open: Anakin is "already a great pilot" in Episode I, but in a way that makes Obi-Wan's statement more crazy, not less; Leia somehow remembers Padme's looks from birth; etc. Fans had long written versions that would have made everything run like clockwork and I'm glad Lucas took the undermining path instead.