Saturday 28 June 2008

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

It's a bit hard to review The Empire Strikes Back, as we are insanely devotional towards it. It's like Francis of Assisi reviewing Jesus. How can you review that which you consider sacred? Especially when you're just downright crazy about it?!

But we'll try.

Away with your expectations, I mean you no harm!

The Empire Strikes Back is the fifth "episode", or second film, in what would become the kajillion-dollar pop culture monster, Star Wars. It is by far the best film in the series, achieving such heights of transcendental awe and sublime bliss that the PPCC is still moved to think about ice planets when we hear a sublime Hindi song. YES. YES. Our love of Empire Strikes Back (or, ESB) rewired our brain to the point that whatever synapses used to be marked "SUBLIME AESTHETICS" are now just marked "A LOT LIKE ESB!"

ESB was also the first Star Wars film a young, proto-PPCC ever saw, knowing nothing of Star Wars, and we think it's a far better introduction to the series than the relatively bubble gum first installment of the series. And we think the reason for that is clear: while the first film's hero and perspective is 100% Luke Skywalker, ESB is all about Han Solo. And Han Solo is a lot cooler (and hotter! all temperatures!), grittier, and dystopianer than Luke Skywalker. And who doesn't love a good awe-inspiring dystopia? WHO?!

Raah! Evil, British-accented Empire against plucky, American-accented Rebellion!

The plot, for the heathens that have yet to glorify themselves in ESBness: We begin in the best way, in media res. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was this huge, looming spaceship owned by an evil, galactic Empire who sent out probes looking for the plucky resistance fighters known as the Rebellion. Doo doo doo. Down on the ice planet of HOTH (we love that word, HOTH HOTH HOTH... it's so cold there it's HOTH), one of the probes lands, revealing the Rebellion's location. Meanwhile, we are introduced to bright-eyed and plucky Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, still bearing the scars of his car accident, according to urban legend), who is riding what appears to be a space llama. He buzzes his friend, the totally Hoth Han Solo (Harrison Ford), back at the base and then is promptly knocked off his llama by a yeti.

Back at the base, we meet the rest of the gang: Chewbacca (played by Peter Mayhew but voiced by a dog, or maybe a gorilla), a Wookiee from the planet of Kashyyyk and Han's right hand... Wookiee; Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), an ass-kicking, Danish bun-hairstyle-sporting, second wave feminist; C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels), a British-accented, camp droid, and R2D2 (Kenny Baker), a cute-as-a-button puppy droid. The first problem is getting Luke out of that yeti lair, which Luke helpfully does himself using the mystical powers of the Force. Yet, after lightsabering himself free of ice anklecuffs, he realizes he is alone in the big, wide blizzardy wilderness of Hoth. He promptly semi-expires in the snow, but not before receiving a message from the beyond: a shimmering, blue Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) insists that Luke must, "Go to Dagobah. There you will find Yoda and learn the ways of the Force." Dagobah, Yoda, Force. Check. Luke passes out, but thankfully the film's real hero - Han - finds him and stuffs him into the guts of a dead llama (for warmth). Han notes that llama guts smell bad (much jocularity, ho ho ho).

Whee, it's Wedge (Denis Lawson, uncle of Ewan McGregor)! The only rebel pilot who survives all three films!

And the base is under attack! The Empire has arrived, led by Darth Vader (played by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) and an assortment of British minions. After an extended and very cool battle scene between the Rebels (most of whom were played by the Norwegian ski rescue team, according to urban legend) and the Empire, our heroes finally escape, retreating up into the stars. Luke takes R2D2 in his supercool X-Wing fighter, while Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C3P0 kick it in the groovy Millennium Falcon. Goodbye, Hoth!

Here the film branches off: Luke heads to Dagobah and, indeed, meets Yoda, a philosophical muppet (literally, he was performed by Frank Oz) who makes the Force sound like the coolest, most mystical Zen Buddhist thing ever. It's like the philosophical stuff you hear in Chinese wuxia films... except it's in space! And everything's better in space. Luke then spends the rest of the film standing on his head and balancing Yoda on one foot and a microwave on the other.

The sweet romance of Han Solo and Princess Leia, part 1. "You're so unreconstructed!"

Meanwhile, the Empire are still hot on the rest of the gang's trail. And while Han and Chewbacca are bad-ass pilots, the Millennium Falcon's hyperdrive is broken - so they're stuck, racing against the Imperial TIE fighters and using every dirty trick they know to outsmart them. After much fun in an asteroid field (one of our favorite sequences), they hit on the idea of taking refuge with Han's old friend, Lando Calrissian (an awesome Billy Dee Williams), on the cloud planet of Bespin. Lando is introduced as being much like Han - a smooth-talking player and "scoundrel" - and all seems well (if a bit sleazy), until they see Darth Vader sitting at the brunch table. Oh noes! Much drama and the dennouement ensue, ending up with Han Solo frozen in carbonite (woe), Luke Skywalker learning his real relationship with Darth Vader (double woe), and C3PO with his head on backwards (is nothing sacred?!). Come back in three years to see how our heroes get out of this pickle!

The romance subplot, Part 2. You could cut the sexual tension in this cockpit (ahem ahem ho ho ho) with a lightsaber.

There are several genius things about ESB. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, had an incredible grasp of narrative form and the heroic quest. Every twist and turn of the plot speaks to the PPCC on a core, primal level - it just Makes Sense. Part of this may have been Lucas' internalization of Joseph Campbell's work on comparative mythology. However, Lucas was wise to give up the directing and screenplay responsibilities to Irvin Kershner and the Lawrence Kasdan-Leigh Brackatt team, respectively, who knew how to present Lucas' great ideas in a great way (the same cannot be said for the second trilogy, where Lucas himself directed and wrote).

Kershner's palette is all muted blues and earth tones - matching the interiors of boggy Dagobah, icy Hoth, and the junkpile Falcon. This galaxy seems well lived-in, poor, and unfriendly. (This great, dystopiany vibe is partly undone in the next installment, Return of the Jedi, when we meet a bunch of talking teddy bears.) The Empire's sharp lines and jagged edges emphasize their remote morality; it is indeed revealing that we never learn, exactly, what is wrong with the Empire, per se, indicating perhaps that the film implies that all empires are by their nature immoral. How quasi-postcolonial! Interestingly, red is used only in sinister ways: the false warmth of Bespin is displayed in gentle pinks and oranges; the creepy torture scenes and creepier "Bespin underbelly" factory scenes are maroon; and, of course, Darth Vader's lightsaber is a big, phallic red.

We used to think the Star Wars parody Spaceballs was pretty tasteless for making phallic lightsaber jokes. That is, until we watched ESB again.

A YouTube commenter on the asteroid scene notes that the old trilogy's junky textures far outshine the sleek CGI of the new trilogy. We also think that the old trilogy's perspective - that of the common, struggling folk - works much more in Lucas' favor than when he started telling the story from the top-down - from the perspectives of the Jedi Council, the Senate, and various nobilities. Indeed, telling it top-down gave everything a boringly distant, cheesy space opera vibe, whereas telling the story from the bottom-up made everything feel vast, sinister, and real. Yeah! It's interesting that the great escapist film of Hollywood was made at the end of the 70s - not a good time, economically speaking, for most countries - and still retains a gritty, urban aesthetic, even in space!

Another thing we love about ESB is the ensemble fun. The PPCC loves a good ensemble. And in ESB, everyone fits together perfectly and is given equal weight. Especially fun is the unlikely romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia: he, a totally sexist, macho-head who never stops using his working class roots as moral leverage (all sarcastic "Princess" this and "your Highness" that); she, an empowered, humorless ex-monarch who constantly shows that the last thing she needs is to be taken care of. When these two hit it off - which you know they will, from the early scenes of sexual tension - it's so sweet!

Romance subplot, Part 3. Nothing like torture and impending death to bring a couple revolutionaries together.

It goes without saying that John Williams' music is as great and archetypal as the film is overall, and the sound effects - especially the low hum of the lightsabers - are cool.

Welcome to Bespin! Please enjoy our beautiful sunsets, our comfortable hotels, and our sudden but inevitable betrayal!

Anyway, it was the gloriousness of ESB which led the PPCC to sit through all the other Star Wars installments many, many times, to buy Star Wars posters and t-shirts and video games, to read the Star Wars books (even the awful ones), and to basically become a cultural slave of the series. We were vastly forgiving of the most recent film, Revenge of the Sith, and we are very much looking forward to the upcoming animated Clone Wars film. If you too, dear reader, would like to Star Warsify yourself, we recommend the following course of action:
    1. Watch ESB. 2. Watch Return of the Jedi, next, since you'll want to know how Han Solo gets out of that carbonite, and finish with bubble gum Star Wars, purely for completism. 3. Proceed apace to Revenge of the Sith, skipping the abysmal Episode 1 and the plodding Episode 2. 4. Watch ALL of Genndy Tartakovsky's excellent Clone Wars animated series - which manages to capture the snarky, fun vibe of good Star Wars, and is endlessly impressive animation-speaking (like all of Tartakovsky's work, actually). 5. Watch Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, which is the inspiration for much of the first Star Wars film - especially C3PO and R2D2. 6. The Star Wars Tales comics are a lot of fun, featuring diverse and irreverent takes on the series. 7. "OMG! The fat guy totally just blew up." - the hilarious fan film about a Valley girl in the pilot's seat, Pink Five. 8. We often judge people by whether they respond to Admiral Ackbar quotes. "It's a trap!" Get it? No?! Hmmm. Anyway, this faux commercial by Robot Chicken made us laugh and laugh and laugh. 9. Another divinely bizarre fan film: Walk in a Bamboo Bush reimagines the trench scene from the first Star Wars using feudal Japanese family crests and trendy music. 10. The equally zany Run Leia Run combines ESB with that ultra-cool, punky German film, Lola rennt (Run Lola Run). 11. Or enjoy the the continuing adventures of Han Solo.

Ahhh. So much Star Warsy goodness.


Sanket Vyas said...

Ahhh PPCC - I see it's not just Bollywood & M*A*S*H episodes that we seem to agree on but that oft-neglected red headed stepchild of Hollywood, sci-fi movies. 'The Empire Strikes Back' is not just best movie in the trilogy (I like to pretend the last 3 movies never existed except for that magnificent light saber duel between the Darth Maul, Obi-Wan & Qui-Gon but I digress) but one of the best movies of all time.

I will always revere the original 'Star Wars' as I did see it first and it changed movie watching for me forever. But this one is a true masterpiece for all the reasons you mention and more - a true filmlover's movie that has one of the most memorable lines ever uttered... "Luke - I am your father!".

I usually seek out the work of directors whose movies I love but in this case I was sorely disappointed. Interestingly, Irvin Kershner chased down 2 more opportunities to direct sequels after this one but 'Robocop 2' & 'Never Say Never Again' are not as well loved as their predecessors. Never you mind that Mr. Kershner - you gave us the most memorable movie in this storied trilogy and if one is going to be remembered for just one thing in life - one could do ALOT worse.

Anonymous said...

Agreed (CA)...the best of the Star Wars movies combined.

Han Solo: Afraid I was gonna leave without giving you a goodbye kiss?
Princess Leia: I'd just as soon kiss a Wookiee.
Han Solo: I can arrange that. You could use a good kiss...

ajnabi said...

I think TESB is the best of all the six films too! Did you see the parody cartoon, "If George Lucas had done Lord of the Rings?" It does such a good job of showing where the whole thing derailed.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

I love the 4,5,6, but I also like the revenge of the sith, as crap as 1 and 2 are. I wish one day someone would make movies (GOOD ones) of Asimov's foundation series as well...aah that'd b bliss!

a ppcc representative said...

Sanket - Maybe we were separated at birth! Do you also enjoy banana smoothies with peanut butter for breakfast? If you do, then I think we might be TWINS.

I think most people who see Star Wars first tend to revere it, as you say, and maybe it's just that any of the first three movies - being excellent introductions to the series - change the viewer so fundamentally that they gain a special place in the viewer's heart. Thanks for the interesting tidbits about Kershner! I'm a little sad to hear his later work wasn't as transcendent as ESB, but I guess you can't be perfect ALL the time.

Anonymous - Well, well, we meet again.

Ajnabi - Ah, no! I'm curious. Is it online?

Shweta - I too forgave a lot of sins in Sith, just because it finally became "OK" again, after a lot of horribleness in Phantom Menace and Clones. Glad to see we share sci-fi tastes!

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