Over on the wonderful website, Metafilter, I’ve been participating in a series of discussions on the six main Star Wars films. While I try to carry on here with a more generalized editorial “we,” I figured I would share a comment here that I made over there. It’s incomplete because talking about Empire could extend to so much, but here’s a “brief” start to such a conversation, at least. It’s a free flow of thoughts on a variety of topics within the film, from the characters to the settings and so on. Hope you enjoy!
Very few sequel titles reverberate across the cinematic spectrum as much as this one, which has in its own way become a guiding light to what a lot of people expect of the second movie of an expected trilogy. It has defined the second movie in a way that few if any other films have done. “This will be the Empire of the trilogy….” And further, there’s the expectation that Empire means a darker tone and a path that will not necessarily be kind to the heroes of the story. Empire.
I don’t remember when I first saw Empire, nor even my first reaction when I learned that Vader was Luke’s father, those memories are lost in the myriad of times I have sat down and watched and watched and watched the movie. The movie excels, because so much of everything that is laid down in the first movie is built upon and explored. Our characters grow, the struggles of the Galactic Civil War continue for the Rebel Alliance, and the namesake Empire manages to become even more threatening, on a personal level, than in the first film. Instead of the characters fearing a planet destroying space station, we the viewers get to experience the chills of a promise fulfilled, when Vader force chokes another and there is no Tarkin to order him to stop. Tarkin is dead, but Vader grows even more immense and ominous in his quest to end the rebellion and to capture someone by the name of Skywalker.
The film opens in space with a Star Destroyer, but instead of pursuing a vehicle and pulling it inside its belly, it instead ejects multiple vehicles, probes, out into the wider space. Somewhat parallel to the escape pod that carried R2 and C-3PO, one such probe descends down toward a planet, a mirror opposite of Tatooine, the ice planet Hoth. The probe isn’t concealing plans that will lead to the defeat of the empire, but a droid which will possibly spell the end of the Rebels. Shortly thereafter, we see Luke, almost knight-like on the back of his tauntaun, and hear Han’s familiar voice. Time has passed, our heroes still seem to be together, and everything’s okay, and then the wampa attack. Immediately, one of our heroes is attacked and his fate, a mystery. What an opening.
I won’t recap the entire film, but it’s a movie that is easy to recap, with one fun scene after another, flowing smoothly because of the chemistry of the actors and their characters, and the beauty of the world that Lucasfilm and ILM has created for them to inhabit.
All our characters grow in this film, even Vader. Luke is immediately shown to have grown in his ability to use the force by his ability to pull his lightsaber to him in the wampa cave, and then obviously, through his training with Yoda. The farm boy impatience is still there, much to Yoda’s irritation, and it’s an impatience that will give Luke a costly lesson by the end of the film (compare Empire Luke to JediLuke and there’s a remarkable difference). Han continues his shift from scoundrel, first by reluctantly leaving the Rebels with a mind to go take care off his problem with Jabba, compared against his departure at the end of the last film (before his last second return to save Luke), and of course, his relationship with Leia.
Leia, herself, beyond her emotional relationship with Han, is allowed to flesh out her place of authority and command within the Rebel Alliance. She’s a leader and the only other person whom the general at the Hoth base truly discusses their situation with. Her leadership is undermined some by Han’s insistent “rescue” but even in front of the flattering Lando Calrissian, she stands firm as her own person and takes an active role in escaping at the end. She’s the one in control when the Falcon is fleeing Bespin and under her orders does it turn around to find Luke.
One reason, among many, the romance between Anakin and Padme failed to satisfy viewers in Attack of the Clones was because it was held up against the only other romance in the Star Wars cinematic universe – Leia’s and Han’s. One is chockfull of syrup and something perhaps best defined as if written by young teens, the other, is subtle and built upon the briefest moments of intimacy and the superb acting of the two actors involved. It’s two sets of hands touching the other, lingering gazes, and two of the most powerful words in the cinematic history of romance, “I know.”
Our other characters also grow. Chewbacca who in the first film is delegated more to roars and being the giant, tough character, is given the opportunity to show off his mechanical skills, be it attempting to fix the Falcon or gently attempting to put back into one piece, C-3PO. Our droids are given more time to be themselves, with C-3PO being terrified of mynocks and asteroids, and R2 fighting back and forth with Yoda. Speaking of small green Jedi Masters, Yoda fulfills the promise of puppetry in film, in part through the voicing of Frank Oz. His initial introduction, a curious and almost child-like inhabitant of Dagobah, to his reveal by his conversation with Obi-Wan is genius. It’s a throwback to the mythic idea of one never knows who they will encounter on their journeys and travels, the god hidden as man, the spirit playing a fool. This Yoda is wise, and he speaks much better than the caricature of him in the Prequel Trilogy. Through him we learn much more of the Force, how it connects all living things, and most importantly, size matters not. The moment when he pinches Luke’s shoulder and tells him that they are luminous beings pushes the Force deeper into the mysticism that made it an elegant background upon which the adventures of our heroes are woven.
On Cloud City, we find Lando, our first major African-American character, played exquisitely by Billy Dee Williams, who deftly slips from flatterer to leader trying to save his people against the worse odds. Capes rarely look good, but Lando makes them look like the next best accessory. There are the bounty hunters, namely Boba Fett, who is allowed the opportunity to display a genius of hunting his prey and the privilege of talking back to Darth Vader (Here’s my defense of Fett for anyone curious! Lately, thanks to Lucas, he’s gotten a bit of a bad rap.) And of course, there’s Vader.
At a glance, Darth Vader doesn’t look or feel like a character who will grow much, if at all. His villainous seems designed to trap him into a ruthless set of rules, but in Empire he displays a willingness to seek alternative methods to find Luke (bounty hunters) and lulls Lando in his capacity as Bespin city administrator into working with him in exchange for the Empire staying out of the city permanently. His callous disregard for life is heightened, given the dismissive deaths he grants officers of the Imperial Navy, and at the same time, his ability to threaten grows exponentially. Likewise, he ceases to be just the servant of the Emperor, when he tries to recruit Luke to join him, as opposed to killing him. But, perhaps the most impressive moment of Vader’s development comes at the very end of the film, as he watches the Falcon inexplicably jump to hyperspace. The moment on the bridge of the super star destroyer is tense with expectation that Admiral Piett will soon join Ozzel in the craft’s morgue, but instead, Vader remains quiet. It’s a sign that something has changed, when the Sith Lord should have lashed out in anger at his underlings failing him once again. Instead, the father of Skywalker simply watched his son disappear.
The settings helped to make the movie. Hoth. Dagobah. Bespin. The asteroid field, they all represented beautiful and stark opposites to each other, granting a feeling of truly traveling through a larger galaxy. Hoth gifted us with a land battle between Rebels and the Empire and the introduction of snow speeders and AT-ATs (sorry Dak). Dagobah, incredibly built on a sound stage, complete with running water, felt like an immense jungle full of slithering and flying things. It felt like an alien Amazon, where everything seemed in constant struggle to either devour or avoid being devoured. It made Luke appear as small as Yoda. Bespin and Cloud City, a beautiful floating metropolis that felt as if it were the Utopian city in another science fiction film – and perhaps, like most Utopias, destined to fall. And then the Asteroid Field, which highlighted Han’s true flying skills and inventive problem solving (the problem solving also appears in cutting open his tauntaun for Luke). They’re all diverse and assist the story as it moves through those moments in the film.
Again, John Williams brings it home, be it the soaring crescendos of the Asteroid Field to the meditative and powerful theme of Yoda demonstrating the power of the Force. The gentleness of the music accompanying the romance to the bittersweet conclusion, unwilling to offer something tragic, but not quite victorious, as the rebel fleet pulls away moments before the screen goes to black at the end of the film.
There’s just too much to talk about without threatening a thesis length paper. So many scenes visually compelling and scenes where theFalcon lives up to its namesake and soars through atmosphere and space. I know I have just really scratched the surface of so many things, and not having even talked about the specific scenes which are so iconic, such as Vader proposing an alliance with his son, offering his hand forward to Luke, who just lost his own. The lightsaber duel which lives in dreamy silhouettes at its start, as a Jedi to be faces off a Jedi who has fallen. There’s the giant claw descending into the mist of the carbonite freezing pit to pull up the frozen Solo, his face frozen in agony. The peaceful eye of the storm moment, when the Rebels have lost on Hoth, but everyone knows exactly what they’re doing and retreat is not a defeat, but a victory that they will survive to fight another day. So much of Empire rests on this premise that everything is unfinished, Luke’s training, rescuing Han, and even the struggle of the Rebel Alliance. It’s yearning crafted into celluloid.
Poster image from Star Wars.com.