Comics Ate My Brain

May 24, 2007

Who’s Your Daddy? Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Filed under: star wars — Tom Bondurant @ 1:36 am
There’s an odd moment early in The Empire Strikes Back that encapsulates the halting pace of its opening scenes. It’s the last shot of Leia in the “scruffy-looking nerf-herder” exchange, right after Han gets the last word. She really looks angry, like Han’s just kicked her dog. It gives the scene a tension that probably wasn’t intended, because the exchange moves just slower than it should and Leia’s Look of Death is the capper. She seems madder there than she will later on when she lets Chewie strangle Lando.

The opening scenes play out mostly against blurry white backgrounds, giving them a kind of abstract unreality and not really grounding them. The exception is the sequence with Luke in the cave, which is dreamlike on purpose.

Everything kicks into high gear at the 20-minute mark, when Vader is introduced in a great little “big, bigger, biggest” progression. Vader was the henchman of evil bureaucrats in the previous movie, but Empire rightly capitalized on his popularity. His costume has been tweaked slightly and shined-up, so he appears even bigger and more imposing, and he is totally superbad. He wasn’t exactly middle-management last time, but here he’s the senior VP.

Han is Empire‘s other star. I don’t know whether director Irvin Kershner made a big difference, Ford was just more accustomed to the role, or some combination thereof; but Han owns every scene he’s in. He gets to do a lot, too: slapstick, seduction, swashbuckling, and points in between.

Not to say that the scenes with Luke and Yoda are somehow inferior; although prequel viewers might well think Yoda’s gone off his nut when he first appears. Yoda questioning Luke’s dedication also rings a bit hollow, considering that the Jedi are clearly best served training him. The Dagobah scenes build on the Wampa escape and transform Luke into the serene, somewhat scary character of Return of the Jedi. Whiny Luke was fun, but Spooky Luke seems more appropriate.

The raise-the-X-wing scene particularly illustrates why the Jedi recruited their padawans so young: kids don’t know that things can’t work. There are religious overtones in that too, of course, and also in the “I don’t believe it”/”That is why you fail” bit that closes the scene. However, Luke’s — I hesitate to call it “insecurity,” but there doesn’t seem to be a better word — gives him a strength of character that Anakin lacked. Anakin knew he was operating from a position of strength, and Luke’s similar chosen-one status is similar, but Luke has the advantage of not knowing how powerful he can become, and not being cocky as a result. In fact, Vader gets progressively more angry as the climactic lightsaber battle goes on. At the beginning he’s parrying Luke’s swings one-handed, but by the end he’s almost in berserker mode. Luke might be on the edge of panic, but he never gives in, and ultimately he sacrifices himself rather than join Vader.

As for Leia, aside from the aforementioned Look of Death, she has a pleasant Gillian Anderson-like quality in this movie that makes her appealing to this nerd even without the gold bikini. I keep thinking she doesn’t have any chemistry with Han, but it’s there; he’s not the only one trying to make the relationship convincing.

The movie itself does the most with its raw footage. It’s beautifully lit (by director of photography Peter Suskitzchy), with rich, warm, vibrant colors. The armor of Vader and the stormtroopers is sleek and glossy. The overall effect isn’t as immersive as the previous film, although with the small spaces of the Falcon, Yoda’s hut, and the carbon-freeze chamber, it’s almost claustrophobic at times. Its characters and vehicles really move more too, and while that might sound hard to reconcile with the “non-immersive” and “claustrophobic” comments, that’s how I see it.

For me it all comes together when Luke realizes Obi-Wan truly can’t help him, and reaches out to Leia. It’s the payoff for the end of Episode III, uniting both twins through the Force. It’s a shame the Special Edition breaks up the flow of the sequence with its shuttle landing. The Falcon moves like a ballet dancer, rolling and juking away from TIE fighters and Star Destroyers, and you just don’t interrupt that kind of thing.

But I digress. Luke spent a lot of the previous movie, and the first part of this one, being saved by other people. Although he has to call Leia to pick him off the bottom of Cloud City, he’s still being proactive. He doesn’t know (and apparently neither did Lucas, at this point) that Leia’s potentially as strong in the Force as he is, so he has no idea whether he’s broadcasting enough for her to hear. In other words, just like at the end of the last movie, he’s taking a risk and trusting the Force.

I forgot to mention in my discussion of Attack of the Clones that Anakin is perfectly willing to stay on Tatooine and not try to rescue Obi-Wan. He might not be happy about it, but he’s bound to follow orders. Instead, it’s Padme who finds the “loophole” by “forcing” Anakin to “follow” her to Geonosis. Similarly, in Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan begs Yoda not to send him to kill Anakin, but Yoda rebuffs him: Sidious is too powerful for Obi-Wan. Empire offers a combination that appears to have inspired both prequel scenes: Luke chooses for himself, despite Yoda’s protests about Vader’s power level. For me, this raises the issue of “attachments,” which I think is at the heart of the entire cycle, and about which I have already written at length. Luke’s battle with Vader doesn’t end well, but he’s still not punished for his attachments as much as Anakin was for his. Arguably, Luke’s attachments aren’t as strong as Anakin’s, but that may be splitting hairs.

Really, what can you say about Empire that hasn’t already been said? It opened up Star Wars in new and different ways, it showed that the characters and situations could flourish outside of George Lucas’ direct control, and it gave everything a new polish. Episode VI would have a lot to live up to….

Next: the big finish!

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