This is the second in a three part series about watching the original pre-special editions of Star Wars. The first part covered A New Hope. The third and final will deal with Return of the Jedi.
It used to be that whenever I was asked the “desert island” question about movies, I would hem and haw about not being able to pick five, ten, or whatever arbitrary number of favorites—I’ve seen hundreds of movies after all; how can I be expected to pick some finite number to watch for the rest of my life? But in recent years, I’ve realized that there are movies that, for whatever reason, I can watch over and over again, and still find something new every time. Lawrence of Arabia is one—luckily, nothing distracts you from the pain and thirst of being trapped on a desert island more than a movie set entirely in a desert.
The Empire Strikes Back is another. It is also quite possibly about as close as a film can get to perfection, as well as probably my favorite movie of all time. Still, as was the case with Episode IV, it has been probably close to ten years since I’ve watched the original release. It remains one of the most tonally consistent, immersive movies that I have ever seen. Tonal consistence is something I often go on about at length, especially when it comes to movies. It means, to my mind, that nothing in the movie feels out of place; characters behave as expected; there are no major plot holes; there’s nothing that brings you out of the experience to remind you that you’re watching a movie. In a movie like Empire, which is largely escapist, this is crucial.
Once again, my friend Brian joined me to sit down and watch the Laserdisc, and, as last time, he offered his own brand of incisive commentary, starting with the opening crawl itself (“How can it be said that Luke is any way in charge of Hoth base?”). I’ve seen Empire so many times that there are always things I laugh at; the inside jokes my friends and I used to make. Like when Luke asks his gunner, Dack, how he’s feeling, right before they take off to fight the AT-ATs. Says the intrepid Dack: “Right now I feel like I could take on the whole Empire myself” at which point Brian and I both turn to each other to remark: “He dies.” Or commenting how lucky Boba Fett is that the Millennium Falcon doesn’t appear to have a rearview mirror. And the fact that, in the last scene, Lando appears to have totally raided Han’s closet aboard the Falcon. My favorite, though, is still the most awkward dinner party ever. The jokes are practically part of the experience now, as is the familiar feeling of filling in a lot of the gaps in the stories with what I knew from the radio dramas, and comparing the movie with its 1997 rerelease.
Fewer changes were made to Empire than either of the others, I believe, though the report on DVD Answers does list plenty. For the most part, they are more subtle than the changes to Episodes IV and VI, but as with IV, there is not a single one that is really necessary. Again, I haven’t watched the new DVD releases of the original trilogy, but a lot of the changes are significant: Temeura Morrison, who played Jango Fett and voiced the clones, redubs all of Boba Fett’s lines; Ian McDiarmid is inserted as the Emperor (I realize it fixes continuity with the rest of the movies, but, well, it irks me); they’ve even gone back and put the Imperial officers’ insignias on the correct side in one scene. Thank God.
The most inexplicable change is from the ’97 rerelease: a long scene where Vader goes up to his Star Destroyer on a shuttle towards the film’s end. This alteration bothers me, mainly because it completely throws off the pacing of the scene (to my ears, it even sounds like they have to retrack the music a bit to cover for the extended sequence). They pulled an unused take from Jedi, which I noticed the first time I watched it. As DVD Answers points out, you can see the Death Star commander start saying his lines as Vader approaches. Just prior to this, as Vader is departing Cloud City, there is another small change: the scene there has been extended, and the dialogue/music changed. When we first heard this, my friends and I argued whether or not it was actually James Earl Jones doing the new line (“Alert my Star Destroyer to prepare for my arrival” versus the old “Bring my shuttle”). DVD Answers, however, says that it is Jones, and the IMDB trivia page for Empire reports that Ben Burtt (sound designer for the original trilogy) has confirmed the line was originally recorded for A New Hope, which clicks for me.
You see, although Empire is incredibly consistent with itself, it is at the same time incredibly inconsistent in many ways from A New Hope. Some of these differences are unavoidable: Mark Hamill’s car accident after Episode IV, for example, left him with a surgically reconstructed face (before and after). And, of course, Lucas made great strides in special effects work after Episode IV, challenging the Industrial Light & Magic staff by insisting the Hoth battle be on the ground, because filming against the black backdrop of space was too easy. Some things, though, make for interesting disparities between the first two films.
On the whole, Empire is vastly more polished than its predecessor. Take Darth Vader. As I alluded to above, the fact that his voice sounds different in that one line made sense to me. That’s because if you listen to Vader in Hope and Empire, he actually sounds different. A large part of it is whatever effect they’re using: in Hope, he actually sounds muffled, as though he’s talking in a tin-can telephone; in Empire, his voice sounds more like it’s amplified, with a bit of reverberation. There’s also a difference in the way Jones delivers the lines; in Episode IV he sounds more harried and rushed (the line that always comes to mind is from his opening scene: “You are part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor! Take her away!”) whereas in Episode V, he sounds much more menacing and deliberate (“If he could be turned, he could be a powerful ally.”). This extends to his movement too; he looks a little clumsier in Episode IV, and he walks much faster; in Episode V, he has this ponderous, foreboding stride. He even looks different, to an extent: the helmet in Hope has tinted, slightly translucent eyes that, in certain scenes, you can actually see through (it’s easier to see on film, but this was the best picture I could find). He also looks broader in the shoulders—no doubt a result of working out (or the 80s proclivity for shoulder pads)—and the helmet and the rest of his armor is a bit glossier. We also see for the first time a different side of Vader in the scene where Veers disturbs him in his little meditation chamber; he has a horribly scarred head. We learn that he’s presumably human, and vulnerable.
And of course, the very story line of the movie is different, darker. As Lucas himself said, this was the second act of a three act story, and in the second act, you put the characters in the worst predicament they will ever find themselves, the deepest hole they could possibly get in, so that in the third act, they can get out. The Death Star, which you would think was about as bad as it can get, is mentioned only in the movie’s opening crawl, and indeed, the fact that its gigantic McGuffin presence isn’t needed says something about where the drama really is. Empire is the only episode of the six Star Wars films not to feature any action on Tatooine (though the planet is mentioned by name in the last scene). Instead of the blinding heat of the desert, we have the intense cold of Hoth; the change in wardrobe alone gives it an entirely different feel. Luke wears mostly grays and earth tones throughout the movie, reflecting his transition phase; he is neither the white-clad innocent farmboy of A New Hope nor the black-swathed Jedi Knight on the brink of good and evil of Return of the Jedi.
Along with new settings and wardrobes, Empire introduces a number of new characters, who immediately set about carving out their own space in the Star Wars universe. In A New Hope, Peter Mayhew managed to imbue a surprising amount of personality in Chewbacca with body language alone, but if there’s one performance in the trilogy that manages to surpass Mayhew’s, it’s Frank Oz as Yoda. Lucas reputedly spent a fair amount of money on a campaign to have Oz nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but this was ultimately unfruitful, as it was thought that puppeteers were not actors (Oz, of course, is not only an accomplished director, but has appeared in several movies—among them, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places—and is the genius behind many a muppet, including Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Bert, Grover, and Cookie Monster; though the guy may not have won an Oscar, he’s certainly earned his place in cultural history). But Oz’s is the ultimate performance: bringing to life an innately lifeless hunk of rubber and plastic and making the audience believe that it was a living, breathing being. Despite the heavy use of computer-generated imagery in the new trilogy and other contemporary movies, it has never managed, in my mind, to make something as truly lifelike as the original Yoda—not even his computer-generated equivalent comes close. Credit, too, must be given to Mark Hamill; the fact that he converses with Yoda so earnestly makes it easier for the rest of us to believe.
But as good as the performances are, they would be nothing without good writing. The dialogue is sparse in Empire; there are only 40 odd minutes of speaking in the two and a half hour film. Consider the final exchange between Han and Luke, which takes place just before the battle on Hoth.
Han: Hi, kid. [...] You all right?
Han: Take care of yourself.
Luke: You, too.
In the words of another great sci-fi story, “She’s terse. I can be terse. Once, in flight school, I was laconic.” Han and Luke’s interactions were part of the fun that drove the first movie; here, their time together involves only one major scene in which Luke is not unconscious. The writers take a risk splitting up the pair of dynamic heroes; it’s no longer the friction between them that gives the story momentum, but the experiences they have separately: Luke with Yoda and Han with Leia. And for all that Yoda and Luke’s scenes are important to their characters’ development and the story itself, the movie is frankly stolen by the Han Solo-Princess Leia romance. Their dialogue fairly crackles, from the first exchange in the corridor of Hoth (“Afraid I was going to leave without giving you a goodbye kiss?” “I’d sooner kiss a Wookie!”) to the famous last lines before Han is put into carbonite: “I love you.” “I know.” Incidentally, never ever say that to a girl when she utters those words unless you are actually about to be frozen in carbonite.
The two credited writers are Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. Kasdan would later move to writing and directing his own works (The Big Chill, Grand Canyon, Body Heat); he would also contribute to the script on Jedi and write Raiders of the Lost Ark. But if you listen carefully, especially to the Solo/Leia ripostes, you will detect a note of film noir; that, I would guess, is Leigh Brackett’s handiwork. Brackett wrote the signature Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall film The Big Sleep and did uncredited work on their first pairing, To Have and Have Not, both of which sizzle with the sexual tension that also lies under Empire‘s sci-fi veneer. Tragically, she died shortly after her first draft was turned in, but I firmly believe that her distinctive touch is what helps tonally shift the saga from the adventure serial that was A New Hope into the full-fledged drama of The Empire Strikes Back. Would that she had lived long enough to lend a hand on the new trilogy.
Poor writing is my main criticism of the new trilogy in general. As a case in point, take one of the single most complex and thoughtful moments in Empire, and perhaps the whole trilogy: Luke’s experience in the cave. Told by Yoda that the cave is strong with the Dark Side, but contains “only what you take with you,” he ignores the Jedi Master’s advice to leave behind his weapons. Inside, he confronts Vader and defeats him, only to find his own face behind Vader’s mask. There is a subtext in that scene, a use of layering, metaphor and imagery that is notably absent in the prequels.
If it were only that the prequels were ruined by subpar writing, I would be okay. Disappointed, but hardly inconsolable. Maybe Lucas had just caught lightning in a bottle with the originals. But unfortunately, the nature of the prequels seems to spoil the originals merely by occupying shelf space near them, via some sort of heinous osmosis. Now, if you watch the prequels before the original trilogy (in chronological order), the ending of Empire is completely without weight. The biggest reveal in the history of cinema is ruined. Sure, there’s the dramatic irony of watching Episode IV and V knowing Luke and Leia are siblings and Vader is their father, but it’s not played for dramatic irony; for that you need suspense, and the climax of Empire is dependent on surprise, not suspense. It is the reason I will ensure that my children not watch the prequels until they’ve seen the original trilogy (in whatever form it exists by that point).
I’m not sure why Empire resonates with me so much, though I wonder if it’s because the movie and I were released, so to speak, in the same year, Episode V debuting less than a month after I was born. I think it has more to do with the fact that it is the second act of the Star Wars saga. The middle is, for me, a comfortable place to be; it’s where all the action of the story really happens. You’ve already been introduced to the characters, so there’s the familiarity that comes with seeing old friends. At the same time, with Empire‘s cliffhanger ending, there’s the reassurance that the story is not over, that there is more to come. One of my cousins once told me that she could remember worrying, as a kid, that she would die before Return of the Jedi came out and she would never find out what happened to Han Solo. Even though the story has long been completed, as long as I can keep watching the middle, I can pretend it isn’t over yet and feel assured there will always be more to see.