Remember the last time you saw the original cut of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in the theater? Bet it was a long, long time ago (if ever). For a fortunate few, it was as recent as last Thursday, December 3rd, 2015. Since it’s so fresh in my mind, I thought it would be interesting to do a little review.
We’re lucky to have so many awesome ways for geeks to pass the time here in Portlandia. One of our local theaters is the Hollywood Theatre. At one time, it was a normal for-profit theater that fell on hard times, but nowadays it’s a non-profit, run by an avid group of true film-lovers who have spent the last decade or so renovating it and upgrading it. It’s not just a place to go see movies, but the source of all kinds of interesting events, and the organization is committed to giving back to the community with educational programs. Because it’s non-profit, additional funding comes from membership dues.
I’ve been a “Director” level member at the Hollywood for a couple of years now. One of the benefits is that the theater will sometimes do member-only events as a way to say thanks. Last week I received an email that there would be a secret, free, members-only screening of a sci-fi classic; a 35mm print from the archives.
Naturally, I couldn’t resist. I’ve seen so much classic science fiction at the Hollywood: Alien, Aliens, 2001: A Space Odyssey (in 70mm I might add), Blade Runner, etc, etc. The place was buzzing with anticipation as I sat among one hundred die-hard sci-fi film fans, all of whom love the theater enough to pay for the membership. We all wondered what it might be, but the theater had not played a Star Wars film in decades. When the program manager announced we’d be seeing The Empire Strikes Back, I got a little misty.
On to the “review”. I put that in quotes because I’m reviewing a film that came out in 1980, a film I’ve seen a few dozen times before. But to be honest, it’s been a really long time since I’ve watched it. I watched the re-mastered version when it came out in ’97, but that may have been the last time I watched it in full. My view of films and of science fiction has evolved. It was interesting to see The Empire Strikes Back with older eyes.
Science Fiction! Kind of!
Probably the biggest change that’s happened for me in the 35 years since the film’s original release is the knowledge of how borderline the “science” is. In fact, some people don’t even consider it science fiction by modern definitions of the genre; in many ways, it’s closer to fantasy. I’ve gone down that road myself, and ultimately I have to say that anything with spaceships central to the storyline is conceptually science fiction.
Obviously it’s not hard sci-fi: FTL (faster-than-light) travel happens without explanation, atmospheric pressure (or lackthereof) is never a question, gravity is always a steady one gee, and when the heroes inside the Millennium Falcon want the location of a nearby Star Destroyer or the layout of an asteroid field, they look out the window.
That stuff doesn’t bother me much. Don’t get me wrong: I love hard sci-fi. But if a story wants to focus on characters, politics, and conflict over science, I’m into that too. One of these days I’m going to go on a rant on the term “soft SF”, because it’s possible for SF that lacks hard science to still be challenging and deep … but today is not that day.
Since the science of Empire is not much to dive into, let’s look at the characters. Many people – myself included – consider this film to be best of the original trilogy, and I think part of the reason is that the characters arcs are really at their heights.
Luke starts the movie in his usual form: complete lack of fear getting him into trouble. This time he’s left hung by his feet in the icy cave of the Abominable Snow Monster. Fortunately, he’s a low-level Jedi and force-gets his lightsaber so he can hack his way out. While wandering across the desolate surface, he has a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who tells him to go to Dagobah and find a Jedi named Yoda.
And so he does. I thought seeing this movie in the theater, the Dagobah scenes would be the time when I could dash out to the counter and grab a fresh beer. But instead, I found myself sticking around, lapping up every bit of dialog. Phrases like “There is no try, only do or do not” have become so much of a joke that I forgot how powerful they were in the moment. My favorite exchange?
Luke: “I don’t believe it.”
Yoda: “That is why you fail.”
Yeah, Luke, stop sulking and man up! But seriously, it’s a way of saying that we are our own worst enemy. Whether you’re using the Force or trying to accomplish a real world goal, if you don’t believe it’s possible to succeed, you’re going to sink yourself.
Anyway, with all Yoda’s pseudo-zenism – and Obi-Wan’s ghost shows up again to reinforce this Way of the Force – Luke resists. It’s the bit where the elder Jedi insist that individual lives are less important than the balance of the Force, that’s the stuff Luke just can’t swallow. Instead, he insists on taking off because goddammit his friends are being tortured, hello! While the Jedi shake their heads at his recklessness, I applaud him. Actually caring about people, this is what redeems Luke for me.
Han Solo has his ups and downs along the character arc as well. He starts out risking his life to save Luke in the icy wastes of Hoth. Then he tries to split before everyone else, giving Leia a bunch of shit about her hidden feelings in the process, but due to the Millennium Falcon’s malfunctioning warp drive, he’s forced to stick around. He finally gets it working during the ground assault and “rescues” Leia when she can’t get to one of her own ships.
Naturally, he’s a hero whenever he’s behind the stick of the Falcon. But his flying heroics are interwoven with acts of extremely uncomfortable pressuring of Leia into admitting her feelings for him. Despite his obnoxious remarks, she eventually succumbs to emotions she’d apparently been masking. Though I find this dynamic uncomfortable, if we want to give Han the benefit of the doubt, it seems that his radar was on point and there’s kind of a growth in him in that he wants to push for a serious relationship between them.
And then in the end, Han willingly sacrifices himself to save the lives of Leia and Chewbacca. He accepts the frozen-in-carbonite fate with an amazing amount of dignity and poise, especially for the unpredictable rogue that he is.
As is typical when breaking a story down and examining its pieces, interesting things come to light. After this viewing, I’ve come to realize that Leia’s story is very different than the other heroes. Luke has a rough time on Hoth, then goes off to Dagobah for introspection time, then comes back to “save his friends”, but doesn’t really, and ends up needing saving himself (once again). Han seems to spend the whole movie being “good” at escaping, only to be captured eventually.
And then there’s Leia. She’s the one truly fighting the war against the Empire, leading war room activities and doing whatever it takes to save the people of the Rebel Alliance. Though she’s young, she comes off as strong, willful, and even a little unforgiving; when Lando uncuffs Chewie and the Wookie begins to strangle him, Leia is right there with him. She’s not quick to stop the assault, in fact she might as well be the one doing the strangling.
More important than that, Leia’s story is the driver for the whole plot. She’s a rebel leader, not Luke or Han. And as much as the Jedi are important to the war effort, they are not the entire war effort, not by far. Leia and the rest of the military leaders do a whole lot more to protect their people in Empire than Luke does.
One of the other reasons I think The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the trilogy is that it’s darker than the other two. Everyone knows the joke about how Stormtroopers are the worst shots in the galaxy; they seem to never hit anyone in A New Hope. But in Empire, the stakes are raised. The bad guys are wasting rebels left and right on Hoth, tromping through their lines with their elephantine Imperial AT-AT Walkers. At one point, a walker does this little leg-splay move to get at an angle where he can smoke a speeder trying to whip past him. It’s a display of Imperial competence, and I’m happy to see it to be there in Empire.
Likewise, though Stormtroopers still can’t hit our plucky heroes in the hallways of Cloud City, they manage to waste quite a few of Lando’s people. Meanwhile, Darth Vader is dominating Luke, slapping him around and ultimately loping his hand off without breaking a sweat. Throughout Cloud City there is a sense of panic, as what we’re witnessing – albeit off to the side of the main storyline – is an occupation in progress. No blowing up the planet from a distance here – the Cloud people are about to meet their oppressors face to face.
All in all, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back stands the test of time. (You: Obviously.) It has its warts of course, but the story structure is solid. It’s a hard road with some sacrifices, but at the end, the remaining rebels are safe. Empire‘s real win is in the fact that deep and interesting central characters are something that hold up over time, more so than special effects and action sequences. The question is: will The Force Awakens deliver? Here’s hoping!