Why is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the first of the STAR WARS sequels/prequels, the best of the STAR WARS franchise? Why did it cause such a disturbance in our pants? I considered long and hard and watched it again to assure myself that it was not just our collective imagination. It’s not. Collective imagination, that is. And it is. The best, that is. A better movie than its predecessor (and successors) in every way – the acting, the story, the direction, the set design, the writing, and a vastly more mature interrelationship between the love triangle of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and C-3PO… (I know what you’re thinking, what about the triangle of Princess Leia Organa, Han Solo and Chewbacca?)
Watching youngsters Mark Hamill (as Luke), Harrison Ford (as Solo) and Carrie Fisher (as Leia) no less than three years after their cherry-popping in STAR WARS, it is hard to believe they haven’t done ten films each in the interim. (And due to a car accident that rearranged his face, Hamill even looked more mature – he’s grown from a girl-boy into a man-woman.)
Funnier (Solo getting all the best lines: “Laugh it up, fuzzball!”), flirtier (the sexual tension between Leia and Solo is almost as strong as that between Luke and Yoda), flamier (uh, C-3PO), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is the most “complete” of any STAR WARS effort, even though it is the only movie in the series with a beginning and a middle – but no end! Full credit to the film-makers for the bravura decision to complete the third act in the next movie! (I don’t perfunctorily credit hack director-writer George Lucas with this decision; about the most credit I’d give him after his atrocious track record of dumb-movies-that-look-slick is creating forward momentum for projects, ensuring they get greenlighted, and creating alien names which would be stupid if they weren’t so funny.)
Continuing where EPISODE IV left off, sometime after the death of the Death Star, EPISODE V (with a preceding text crawl that still bloatedly says absolutely nothing) finds the Rebel Alliance making time on the ice planet Hoth, for no reason other than to flex special effects muscle in the form of stop-motion Imperial “AT-AT Walkers” – probably the most poorly designed attack vehicles in the history of warfare – in any galaxy, a long time ago up to the present.
Supposedly “All Terrain Armored Transport” vehicles, yet resembling sick Indricotheriums, these lumbering behemoths move at the pace of a man running through snow – that’s an attack speed of about 5 mph – with 4 guns covering only their anterior plane, leaving their sides, flanks, tops and underbellies completely exposed to assault from any enemy craft that can travel faster than the average Earth tortoise; a strategic aspect which the Rebels either ignore or are too dumb to exploit, as they fly in hell-tilt from the front, instead of attacking from the rear, where the AT-AT Union wouldn’t pay to put gunners – probably due to new worker compensation laws pertaining to getting what you deserve if you ride in a horse’s ass. Anyway, it matters not that the AT-AT armor is “too strong for blasters” because when one falls over, the Rebels shoot it and it explodes anyway. (Armor provided by Donald Rumsfeld.)
The Empire Strikes Hack:
how george lucas made a great film by not making it
Forging ahead and making STAR WARS (excuse me – EPISODE IV) was a smart move by Lucas, even though he knew it would be impossible to fully realize his vision with the technology of the day; having to create pioneering techniques to tell his tale compellingly, he carved his name into filmic history as deeply as Yoda immersed himself in the Green Side of the Force. But by the time of this sequel, the technology had caught up with the vision (and the competition had caught up with the pioneer: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND 1977, ALIEN 1979), so EMPIRE needed substance to back its swagger. And thus George’s other smart move – hiring a real director – Irvin Kershner (one of Lucas’s teachers in film school). So even while the strategic lunacy of the AT-AT Walkers reeks of George’s padawan pawprints, the film’s other opening sequences compellingly show off the emotional ties between the love-hexagon of Han, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the ‘droids, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker).
All that good stuff in this movie – acting, writing, humor, maturity – that’s Kershner. Lucas thankfully didn’t even have a hand in the screenplay – that was Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Only the “story” is credited to Lucas. Han’s Millennium Falcon being under constant repair – that’s Lucas; harassed Han and screwy Chewie working on this hyperspace machine like a bucket-of-bolts 1976 Camaro (“No, that goes there and that goes there!”; banging on the dash to kick it into gear, “It’s not my fault!” etc.) – that’s Kershner, Brackett and Kasdan. Han wants C-3PO to stop talking – that’s Lucas; Han putting his hand over 3PO’s “mouth” (and 3PO stopping as if it affects him) – that’s Kershner. Solo tells 3PO to hurry – that’s Lucas; “Come on, Goldenrod, unless you wanna be a permanent resident!” – that’s Brackett and Kasdan. C-3PO has to diagnose the hyperdrive – that’s Lucas. “Chewie, take the professor in the back and plug him into the hyperdrive!” – that’s Brackett and Kasdan. You get the picture. Because George doesn’t; gaining renown for bringing in people to “punch up” his scripts, dialogue, storyline… reputation. Punch-up is a euphemism for RE-WRITE.
The Rebels escape the Empire by providing cover-fire from Hoth with guns so powerful they shoot laser blobs into space, crippling star-destroyer spaceships. (How the laser blobs retain their discrete form or why the guns recoil from shooting light (which has no mass) is a question for Einstein – thank The Force he wasn’t born yet.) Now I’m no wartime strategist, but considering these guns possess a lethality range that reaches into the planet’s orbital plane, how about aiming at least one of them at the AT-AT Walkers, General Petraeus?…
The Millennium Falcon – with its cargo of Han, Chewie, C-3PO and Leia – dives into an asteroid field to evade the notoriously inept TIE fighters of Darth Vader’s posse. And when we had the minds of eight-year-olds we did not realize that asteroids don’t fly around arbitrarily like that – they follow an orbit and travel in the same direction, and are usually hundreds, if not thousands of miles apart. (If you travel the clustered Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, you’d be hard pressed to see two asteroids sharing your field of vision; space is called space because it’s full of… space.)
George was 36. But only the mind of an eight-year-old would write a space sequence no better than all those 1950’s movies where popcorn-shaped swishing space-boulders would fly at the heroes from no particular direction as if attacking them. Now that’s science! If only Lucas and his writers would actually insert some science – that would really be something. Suddenly – a miracle! We see the Millennium Falcon actually using retro-thrusters to land at Cloud City – and nearly choke on the “science.” Why bother using them now, after all this time of flying around like a rattling Spitfire? But why use thrusters anyway when you’ve got anti-gravity devices? (From land-speeders to Han’s carbonite slab – even the Falcon “rises” rather than “lifts off.”) So even showing us he is aware of physics, Lucas does it as pointlessly as he does everything – without any thought to the rules of the universe he has already created.
The Empire Strikes Lackeys:
how imperial troop turnover is tragic – but fun-nee
With the Falcon’s hyperdrive disabled by the Empire, Han uses his piloting skills to evade the already-flustered star-destroyer captains; so flustered that when Han’s tiny ship dodges between two star-destroyers (each star-destroyer measuring 1,600 meters in length – nearly 18 football fields) they close in to within twenty feet of each other before one of the captains thinks to shout orders to miss the other one. No wonder Vader psychically strangles these captains left and right – they so incompetently endanger the lives of thousands of crewmen, they deserve to die.
Incompetent? Let me count the ways: in disabling the Falcon’s hyperdrive, the Empire knows full well the two pilots are grease-monkeys, they know there are droids onboard that can talk with computers, they know the Falcon is easier to fix than a 1976 Camaro, so why don’t they just rip out the whole hyperdrive mechanism instead of disconnecting two wires? Another psychic strangling coming up…
The Pimpmaster Strikes Back:
how yoda promotes war through peace
Meanwhile Luke has flown to Dagobah – through deep space – in a tiny fighter craft that never needs re-fueling. Even in EPISODE IV, the logic of “A fighter that size couldn’t get this deep into space on its own” implied that George understood the concept of finite fuel supply, yet Luke can fly from planets Hoth to Dagobah to Bespin without re-fueling once – AND – with his engines clogged with swamp muck from Yoda’s backyard. A normal atmospheric craft – like your car – is completely disabled when water gets in the engine, but all Luke has to do for his intergalactic SPACE-craft is remove one snake from the engine port and he’s good to go. That’s “science” for ya: don’t need fuel, don’t need thrusters, don’t need atmosphere to propagate sound, don’t need snakes on a plane, don’t need oxygen (I’m sure the scant amount in his cockpit will suffice for the galaxy-spanning trips)… don’t need logic.
On Dagobah, Luke is accosted by Yoda: Jedi Master of 900 years and Fozzy Bear for the last four (a small green Muppet that Frank Oz operates and voices), who teaches Luke the Ways of The Force as pertaining to levitating rocks while doing handstands so that if he fails Jedi School, he could fall back on Cirque du Soleil. Yoda’s most excellent piece of profundity comes when Luke, astonished at Yoda’s mental might in raising his X-Wing from the mire, croaks, “I don’t believe it!” Yoda’s response: “That… is why you fail.”
There is something to be said about the constant EVIDENCE of The Force in the STAR WARS series. Kenobi, Yoda, Vader and even Luke himself utilize the mind-powers of the force in myriad ways, thereby proving something which all other religions on Earth cannot – that The Force is not as hokey a religion as first thought. It has utility. The above exchange usually takes place on modern Earth on a metaphysical basis, someone saying they don’t believe in virgin births and an ersatz “reverend” telling them, “That is why you fail at being a christian” – so though it sounds profound when Yoda spanks Luke with it, this exchange would not be necessary if we lived in a world smart enough to realize that belief and failure to believe should not be based on “faith” but evidence in the first place. “I don’t believe it” should always be followed by “because you provide no evidence for it,” which shows up “That is why you fail” as the self-righteous, impotent posturing that it is. In Luke’s case, this exchange becomes obtuse as his dubiety is hard to fathom in the face of the glaring EVIDENCE Yoda provides. He “doesn’t believe it” when he was levitating rocks himself just five minutes ago? – Luke really is just a dumb pilot.
Yoda’s presence in this film counterpoints the frantic situations of the other characters. Amidst the furor of star wars (whether Lucas intended it or not), here was the Jesus character endorsing peace, tranquility, balance; a far cry from the scrapping avenger that Yoda would be turned into in the Prequel Trilogy; for the sake of flexing effects muscle, poor peacenik Yoda was lost forever. Becoming more unbalanced with every Episode, by EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH, Yoda is lightsabering the Emperor with nary a thought about peaceable options, let alone knocking over kajillion dollar lamps and decimating quinzullion dollar conference room stadium boxes. In the Original Trilogy, both Yoda and Kenobi entreat everyone “search your feelings – you know it to be true,” but in the Prequels, first thing Yoda searches for is his little light sword.
Yet maybe the seeds of Yoda’s (and by association, humanity’s) downfall are sown in this episode: why study to be a Jedi Knight, a keeper of “peace,” by learning how to battle? If the Force informs all things (“Life creates it, makes it grow; its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we – not this crude matter… You must feel the force around you; between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere…”) and if the Jedi have tapped into that Force with their mind powers, why wield lightsabers at all? Approach anyone with a lightsaber dangling from your belt and that sends a pretty clear message in the opposite direction. Use The Force – that is, use your mind powers to convince antagonists of your peaceful intent. (Using mind power opens up another can regarding “free will” and morals for the sake of penalties and threats – but we really must go; we have a date with a Dark Father…)
As Yoda tells it, he has been pimping Jedi Knights into the galaxy under the pretense of religious harmony for nearly a millennium. Any wonder the Empire is so FUBAR?
In the “war for peace,” few have gotten it right – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Barney the Dinosaur – but alas, these guys wouldn’t be born for centuries yet, leaving Yoda and his religious nuts free reign to wield religion by the glowing sword.
The Empire Strikes Black:
how a black man is undone by a blacker man
Sensing that Han and Leia are in dire straits (Luke attributes his feeling to The Force, but how prescient does a person have to be to realize that Han, Leia and himself are pretty much in the Empire’s black books and would – at any given moment – more likely be IN dire straits than out?), Luke abandons his laughable “training” regimen with Yoda and flies headlong to their aid on Bespin, his trip made all the more expedient by not having to stop along the way for fuel.
On Bespin, Lando Calrissian (an oversexed Billy Dee Williams) has taken in Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO as refugees in his floating metropolis, Cloud City, coming onto Leia like a 1970’s pimp, before betraying them all to Darth Vader, who tortures them to lure Luke to the party.
Before Luke’s arrival, we get the best line in a script full of good lines: after all the sensual banter and mock insults between Han and Leia, Han’s imminent snap-freezing by the Empire wrenches Leia to urgently declare, “I love you.” He replies, “I know” – and is silenced by carbonite. Talk about Pimpmaster.
By this time, C-3PO has turned completely into LOST IN SPACE’s Dr. Smith and we’re just waiting for him to call Darth Vader a bubble-headed booby. The freezing scene also features the character Boba Fett, a bounty hunter who attained a cult following due to that sexy helmet and a sensible cape that comes to just below his pantyline.
Vader (once again fleshed out to seven feet by David Prowse and voiced by the grandiloquent James Earl Jones) betrays Lando by reneging on their deals – oh, big surprise! – with his smooth criminal insouciance, “Perhaps you think you’re being treated unfairly?” his velvet voice thrumming with menace, “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” So Lando, in turn, betrays Vader, flees Cloud City (non-computerized laser guns blazing) with Leia and the Wookiee, and the stage is set for a young Jedi to meet his maker – literally.
The Empire’s Tyke’s Back:
how a darth dad is a terrible thing to waste
The grand encounter between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in EMPIRE is arguably the crux of the STAR WARS saga. This is it! It doesn’t get more pertinent, more urgent, more compelling. It is not so much the fencing – we’ve seen better; it is not the acting, we’ve definitely seen better. It is the cape. We’re not talking a dinky thing like Boba Fett’s dishrag – we’re talking full-blown, black-as-pitch, cultural icon of a cape. How heavy do you think that thing is?
I kid the Empire, of course. The confrontation scene is not about the cape (does he dry-clean it or put it in with his black gloves and pants?); it is about coming-of-age, ready or not; it is the eternal struggle between fathers and sons, mentors and menials; it is the passing of the torch; it is facing up to facing down fear; it is the Dark warring with the Light in each of us – and realizing that sometimes… Dark is Better; a thematic juggernaut that spans eons and topples kingdoms.
The story of STAR WARS is crystallized in these moments, featuring one of the greatest revelations in motion picture history, and also probably one of the most misquoted lines since, “Play it again, Sam.” Vader does not say, “Luke, I am your father,” but rather, in answer to Luke screaming, “You killed my father!,” Vader thooms, “No! I… am your father!” Mein Gott! But it still sends chills up my spine.
“Impressive! Most impressive!”
While Vader behaves like his prodigal offspring has returned to the Empire’s bosom (“…we will rule the galaxy side by side as father and son!”), Luke pules like every spoiled child that he’s afraid of The Dark and that he’ll “NEVER” join Vader. But what’s so bad about Ruling The Galaxy? Well, you’d have to be responsible for one thing – seems Luke would rather be a pissant pilot playing at being a knight, taking orders from do-gooders who don’t want an Empire, yet allow themselves to be ruled by a “princess.”
It’s easy to cause chaos like the Rebels; much harder to restore order. We thought Luke was a child before – now we know he is.
But let’s face it – we were glad it was Vader, weren’t we? Better than that killjoy, Kenobi, or that self-righteous prig, Yoda. We all wish Vader were our father – that’s a resounding Yes!, dear dad Darth: take me to Rule The Galaxy, collecting tithes and tributes and slavegirls; teach me the ways of Big, Black, Smooth and Cool like your bad self!
There is such magnetic resonance in the figure of Darth Vader beseeching his son, that even though he had already been elevated to the pantheon of Great Screen Villains whom we are geared to distrust, yet we are caressed by his sincerity in being a sympathetic ruler and longing to reunite his family – or is that just the Dark Side drawing us in?
When I first viewed EMPIRE, I truly thought Vader was trying to deceive Luke and did not buy for an instant that he was blood. But then I searched my feelings and knew it to be true – actually, I searched the logic and knew that only George Lucas could write such illogic with a straight face: in trying to hide young Luke from Darth Vader (aka Anakin Skywalker), Luke’s minders did a great job in endowing him with the one name that only Vader would know – his own: Skywalker. In essence, hiding him from everyone but Vader.
In STAR WARS, characters are constantly invoking completeness, “The circle is now complete,” “His failure is complete,” “Your training is complete,” yet here, in EMPIRE, the circle, the failure and the training was all completed in one fell swoop, and the scene in which Luke is being spirited away by the Falcon and mind-links with Vader (through poignant 30-frame dissolves: “Son…” “Father…”) almost tore my heart out.
The series would never again scale these lofty heights of grand dramatic slam. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, brimming with hilarity, humanity and paternity, is the best of the STAR WARS series.
Search your feelings. You know it to be true.