not in our stars, but in ourselves
41/52: A science-fiction movie
Let me start by admitting something: it is difficult (for me) to find any way to write critically or analytically about something as ingrained in popular culture and imagination as the Star Wars original trilogy. How would I write about the Mona Lisa? How would I write about The Great Gatsby? Some things have worked their way so thoroughly into our collective reptilian brain as to be beyond meaningful discussion. At least, that’s what I tend to think. (N.B. In cases where a particularly iconic piece is something held affectionately, or even contemptuously, it’s easier to find a way to approach as a critic. Emotion offers a foothold, whereas pure icon status offers nothing more than a smooth edifice.) This is all to excuse myself from crafting the kind of insightful writing you’ve all come to know and expect from me in these posts. Right? Right?! But anyway, here goes.
After a successful Rebel maneuver in Empire‘s previous installment, in which Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) blew up the Empire’s Death Star, Imperial forces have doubled down on squashing Rebel activities. Led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and ably assisted by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) – among a few dozen others – the Rebels have established a base on icy Hoth. Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones, embodied onscreen by David Prowse) is keen as mustard to capture the leading troika of Rebels, and he sends probes all over the galaxy to find them. He succeeds, and the Rebels are forced to abandon Hoth. Solo and Leia escape on the space jalopy that is the Millennium Falcon, along with Solo’s wookiee Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Leia’s droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). Luke, for his part, had a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) as he neared death in the snowy wasteland (long story, very little plot advancement). Obi-Wan told him to go to Dagobah and seek Jedi training from Yoda – so while everyone else is trying to figure out how to shake Imperial fighter pilots, Luke scoots off to swampy Dagobah with C-3PO’s fellow droid, R2D2 (Kenny Baker). He meets Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz), and begins his training. Before he can finish, he feels or sees (or both – the Force works in mysterious ways) that Leia and Han are in trouble. He abandons Dagobah – promising to return – to try to save his friends. It was all a trap set by Vader, who fights Luke, reveals that he’s actually his father, cuts off his hand, and generally ruins Luke’s day. Leia manages to rescue him, and they try to figure out how to save Han – who’s been carbon-frozen by the Empire.
If that isn’t Peak Sci-Fi, I don’t know what is.
Empire is the rare sequel that improves on the formula of its predecessor in the franchise. This is an especially impressive feat when you consider that George Lucas, the writer and director of Star Wars: A New Hope, had no idea he’d be able to make a sequel – let alone what that sequel would be about. He didn’t know that Vader was Luke’s father; he didn’t know that Luke and Leia were twins; he didn’t know a damn thing. It’s almost astonishing to consider this when you watch Star Wars after knowing the whole story: the signposts and possibilities all seem to be there. Lucas simply looked at the first movie, considered where they could find things to expand upon, and (with some other writers’ help) fleshed out the script from there.
It’s not just in the writing that Empire is surprisingly better than the first of the trilogy (and, I’d say, better than the third). I can’t remember the last time I watched Empire Strikes Back from beginning to end, so I was surprised to see that the director was not Lucas: it was Irvin Kershner. Kershner was one of Lucas’s professors at USC, and a seasoned director before his academic career. It shows. Not that the first movie is bad, but the difference between its ever-so-slightly amateurish performances and staging, and Empire‘s surer handling of actors, staging, and pacing, is pretty clear. (My boyfriend and I are gradually re-watching the original trilogy in preparation for The Force Awakens, so Star Wars is reasonably fresh in my mind.) Kershner encouraged Ford’s insouciant improvisation: it was Ford who devised the iconic “I know” in response to Leia’s impassioned “I love you.” He was clever enough to set one of Han and Leia’s not-yet-lovers’ quarrels in the middle of a busy hallway, where other Rebel fighters – apparently so accustomed to this Howard Hawks-style sexual tension – simply skirt around them as best they can, without bothering to gawk or interrupt. He found the humor and the humanity in this improbable world, and made sure to highlight those qualities in his cast. (I also think that Empire suffers the least from Lucas’s late-’90s meddling: there weren’t too many absurd digital effects added into this one, where Star Wars and Return of the Jedi are lousy with ’em.)
2001: A Space Odyssey was the sci-fi movie to show Serious Filmmakers how to explore outer space; the original Star Wars trilogy – and especially Empire Strikes Back – is sci-fi cinema for the masses. It’s populist, clearly defined, easy to digest, and (usually) fun. No ponderous questions of what it means to be human, or our place in a vast and unfeeling universe; nope, these are just fairy tales set in a fanciful galaxy. And I don’t mean that derisively, lest you worry that I’m throwing shade. Sometimes those Serious Filmmakers’ space operas are too weighty for their own good. (They must all be set on Jupiter.) Star Wars follows the model of Hollywood’s old serials: gripping, fast-paced, full of quips and fights and all kinds of other fun. (N.B. Steven Spielberg modeled Raiders of the Lost Ark on Hollywood serials as well, and that’s one of many reasons it’s an essentially perfect film.) Art can challenge, it can question, it can provoke – but it can also entertain, and in The Empire Strikes Back, it does so wonderfully.