Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter: Watching the Empire Strikes Back with Lily

We continued our Star Wars viewing with the Empire Strikes Back. As with Star Wars, I hadn't seen it in ages. I had watched it once since Lily was born, but before that, I hadn't seen it since the Special Editions were released in theaters. It was always my favorite, but I found myself wondering if it was as good as I remembered or if that was just rose-colored nostalgia. So we watched it...

...and it was better than I remembered. I think it may be one of the very best science fiction movie ever made.

I don't want to say that this is the best of the series because it was the movie in which George Lucas was the least involved, but rather because he stuck to his strengths. He's credited with the story, and even his detractors admit that he's a great idea man, and here he delegated the screenplay and the directing to those who would do a better job. I don't want to rag on the man, so let me say that he still had perspective when he was producing Empire.  And it's awesome because of it.

Seeing the movie again reminds me of how influential it was on my childhood. On some level, I think of each costume change as a different person. When Han puts on his fur lined coat to look for Luke, in some way I perceive him as a different character entirely. And I know exactly why this is, because they were separate characters in the toy line. Funny how this lingers with me, though.

Speaking of the toys, I was huge into Star Wars, like every other boy in the 1980s. (Maybe girls were too, but I thought they were icky back then) I remember reading about Mnemonic devices around the time of the movie and I saw a toy called Cap 2 and I told my Grammy that the way she could remember was to visualize two bottle caps. I can't remember if I got the toy, but I still remember that mnemonic device twenty years later.

Vader orders Julian Glover to destroy the shield generators on Hoth. Though he was thwarted by the Doctor at the tail end of the 1970s, this time he remembers to bring his AT-AT.

Man, Scaroth really was scattered all over the place.

To digress for a moment, I've always like the AT-AT. (Here's a link to one made out of Legos!) Like so many things in Star Wars, they're striking and instantly recognizable. They're referred to as "Imperial Walkers" in the movie, which I think is a better name, because AT-AT just sounds silly if you say it out loud.

It's not the most practical weapon (AT-AT stands for All Terrain Armored Transport, which is clearly bullshit, because in a race up the stairs, it's coming in third after ED-209 and a Dalek), but my understanding is that they're intended as terror weapons to demoralize opposing armies/civilian populations, and it's no stretch at all to believe that.

NPR put together some radio plays adapting the movies, and I want you to remember that next time somebody talks about cutting NPR's funding.  For some basic details on the plays, go to this link: Star Wars Radio Plays.

I was listening to the radio play for Empire, and it's a lot of fun. Brian Daley did the work on them and I think he did an outstanding job adapting a series renowned for its visuals to a medium where he couldn't depend on those visuals at all.

In Echo base on Hoth, a nameless Lieutenant tries to convince Han not to go out after Luke.

    Han: It's cold out there.

    Lieutenant: (Deadpan) I'm aware of that, sir. I joined with the Rebels because I notice things.

    Han: If Luke dies out there, Chewie's going to get mad. Do you think General Rieekan wants a quarter ton of Wookiee rampaging through his base?

    Lieutenant: (Deadpan) I'm reasonably certain he doesn't, sir.

It's not that funny on its own, but the delivery made me laugh.

The scene with the tauntaun was as gross as I remembered. "And I thought they smelled bad on the outside."

As an aside, the Video Game based on this (Star Wars Trilogy) was awesome and the Hoth levels were the best. My college had a copy in the lounge and always set it to free play during finals week. Also, the old Atari game was a lot of fun, and we got a huge amount of play time out of it back in the day.

I didn't notice this during the game, but the bridge of the Ravager from KOTOR II was clearly modeled on the bridge of Vader's star destroyer. I don't mind, because it's an awesome design.

Yoda worked much better than I had been fearing. I mean he's a Muppet with the voice of Grover, neither of which is a recipe for gravitas. The lighting on Dagobah helped, but I think the thing that really made him work is that he really does sound wise. Too often, what passes for wisdom in the movies are simply Sphinx-like aphorisms "When you doubt your powers, you give power to your doubts", but Yoda really seems ancient and sad.

Unfortunately, Ben and Yoda are part of where the problems begin to creep in. Spinning a bunch of lies in order to get a kid to kill his dad is a pretty shitty thing to do, regardless of your "point of view".

When Luke is taking off for Cloud City and Obi Wan says "That boy is our last hope", and Yoda is illuminated by the light of the engines (love that part) and says, "No. There is another."

Jen asked me if fandom knew at this point that Luke and Leia were siblings. I said that I'm pretty sure that Lucas didn't know it either. He was clearly making up portions as he was going along. Otherwise, the bit where Leia sticks her tongue down her brother's throat would have been handled differently, and Ben would have left a lot more ambiguity in his statements about Vader. I don't think there was any specific person attached to Yoda's line. It's cool and it's deliberately vague, so they could plug in the appropriate character when they figured out who it was going to be.

Jen thought that Han was being a jerk when Leia tells him that she loves him and he replies, "I know," but I still like that line.

There's a weird transition in Cloud City that gets me every time. Luke walks in, a door drops down and cuts him off from R2 and then it immediately cuts to a platform rising up beneath Luke. He walked in, then rose up and it's like there's some intermediate step missing there.

Vader was a beast in this fight. I didn't appreciate until this viewing, but Vader is just slapping the shit out of Luke. It was like watching Mike Tyson go ten rounds with some guy at the gym. I remembered the battles in the original trilogy being kind of lackluster compared the wuxia spectacles of the prequels, but this one was tremendous. Pay special attention next time you watch. Luke has both hands on his lightsaber and he's swinging for the fences and Vader is parrying these ferocious cuts one-handed. He smacks Luke around a couple times just because he can and when he knocks him into the carbon freezing chamber and says, "All too easy," it really seems like it was.

I can't think of a time when I didn't know that Vader was Luke's father, but I probably didn't know it going in the first time. Lily did, unfortunately. She had been at summer camp and one of the other kids there had spoiled it for her. When I mentioned this on Facebook, my friend Dave asked if I were considering legal action.

I'm glad we got to show the trilogy to Lily, but there was no way she could have the same experience I did as a kid.  The gap between movies worked. It allowed the mythology to build. That was part of the reason why the early Dark Tower books worked and the later ones didn't. With the Dark Tower, there was an average of five years between installments for the first four books then bang-bang-bang (I'd say no pun intended, but that's a lie) all three of them come out within months. There was no time for the concepts inside them to build up resonance.

With Star Wars, kids spent three years (and a year is longer for a kid than an adult) debating if Vader was really Luke's father and why they would be going back to Tatooine. I love the internet, but it was different back then. Even if we had waited for a couple weeks or even months between movies, it wouldn't have been the same experience. I mean Lily had a t-shirt with Yoda on it for a good year before she ever saw the movie.

I enjoyed watching the first two movies, but I don't know how I can continue this with Jedi. There's a line from an excited nerd in one Simpsons comic, "This will make the Empire Strikes Back look like Return of the Jedi!" One or two things looked fake to an adult living in 2013, but this was still one of the best movies ever made. And sure, it's not unusual for a series to undergo a little bit of a decline. Return of the King won Best Picture, but I'm inclined to believe that this was awarded for the trilogy as a whole. (I happen to think Two Towers was better but not leaps and bounds better as was Empire over Jedi.) I mean, I guess I'll watch it and I'll try to appreciate the good parts.

Ultimately, I love it because the movie is full of real people doing real things, an element lacking in the prequels. Rogue 2 breaks into a smiles when he hears Han respond to his call, and that's exactly like what a real person would do there. Or when Chewbacca is flipping out on Cloud City and Boba Fett goes to shoot him and Darth Vader, who is standing next to him, just pushes the barrel of his gun down. He seems to be saying, "Relax, it's just a Wookiee." Or Han, butting it and offering his arm to Leia when he sees Lando offering his.

Okay, stay tuned for the recap of Jedi, whenever I get around to it. And may the Force be with you, always.

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