Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Star Wars Subjectivities: The Empire Strikes Back

A film that breaks your heart and teaches you the meaning of a plot twist

The original Star Wars (Star Wars: A New Hope) was a gamechanger for me. Back in 1977, science fiction and fantasy movies and television shows existed, and many of them were very well done. But most required some imagination or a willing suspension of disbelief to fill the gaps between the intended story and the reality of the visual effects.Star Wars was revolutionary in terms of having both fully immersive special effects and an engaging story. Later generations take this for granted. But, back then, Star Wars was an astonishing achievement of narrative, visuals, sound, and music. And the story even had a very satisfying ending. It was hard to imagine a sequel that would live up to that. Then, in 1980, we got The Empire Strikes Back.

As a child, I remember seeing cars backed up on the highway exits, filled with people trying to get to theaters to watch the sequel. We were all looking forward to the new adventures of our Star Wars heroes. However, The Empire Strikes Back represented a profound shift in the tone of the narrative. As the title implies, the characters get an epic beating, including dismemberment, physical and emotional torture, abduction, deathlike freezing, and astonishing heartbreak. The story changes from upbeat to tragic, from adventure to introspection, from trust to betrayal. And when the credits roll, there is no happy ending. We should hate this movie, especially after the energy and optimism of the first film. Instead, The Empire Strikes Back is considered by many to be the best film of the franchise.

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, here is a quick synopsis: After destroying the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance moves its secret base to the ice planet Hoth. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo are fresh from their victory against Darth Vader and the Empire. While Luke is out on patrol, Han tells Leia he has to abandon the rebellion because there’s a bounty on his head. They argue about his leaving and Han teases that Leia is upset because she is in love with him. Meanwhile, Luke is violently attacked by a snow creature. He escapes by using his lightsaber but soon finds himself stranded and freezing to death. Obi Wan appears to him and tells him to find the Jedi master, Yoda. Han finds Luke in the snowstorm and brings him back, reminding Luke that this is the second time he’s saved his life. When the Empire attacks the base, the friends become separated in the ensuing battle. Luke goes to find Yoda on a swamp-like planet. Han and Leia end up in the cloud city of Bespin. Luke trains to become a Jedi but has a vision of his friends being tortured in a city in the clouds. Luke defies Yoda’s warning and abandons his training to try to save them.

Meanwhile, Han and Leia and the others meet up with Han’s rival Lando Calrissian, who is the leader of Bespin. Although friendly at first, Lando betrays Han and delivers them to Darth Vader who tortures them in a successful attempt to lure Luke to him. Han is frozen and given to a bounty hunter. Lando has a change of heart and helps Leia and the others escape, but they are too late to save Han. Luke confronts Vader, who overpowers him and cuts off his hand. Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father and pleads with him to join forces to defeat the emperor. Luke is devastated by the news but refuses to submit to Vader and instead chooses to fall into a chasm rather than stay under his intensifying psychological influence. Leia hears Luke’s voice through the Force and rescues him with the help of Lando and the others. But Han is gone.

The Empire Strikes Back stands out in all of the ways it is different from A New Hope. It ends on a cliffhanger and doesn't follow the traditional story beats normally seen in epic adventures. It's a Shakespearean tragedy complete with heroic fights, family drama, betrayals, and a plot twist that has influenced decades of future films.

We have two new major characters introduced in the film: Yoda and Lando. Yoda is amazing visually and spiritually. He is funny and terrifying, wise and deceitful, small, alien, familiar, strange, powerful, universal. Even the way he speaks—using reverse sentence structure—is hypnotic.

Lando is cynical, pragmatic, the scoundrel with a kind heart. Billy Dee Williams brought energy, irreverence, and charisma to the role. It meant a lot for me to see a person of color on the screen, especially in a role that wasn’t demeaning or tragic. Across the landscape of science fiction films, there are still very few such roles. It saddens me to think how slow the progress has been, even decades later. Even in Star Wars. Several years ago, I took my kids to see Billy Dee Williams at a very crowded Dragon Con in Atlanta. I’m not one for long lines, but we waited to meet him and get his autograph. It was important to me. Like Nichelle Nichols’s gift of Uhura, I just wanted to say thank you—thank you for saying yes to the role, even if it was imperfect.

Another character who appears briefly in the film is Boba Fett. I mention him only because he later takes on a larger role in the expanded Star Wars universe. But in Empire, he is primarily there to show the cold, business-like pragmatism that goes with trading in the lives of people.

Besides the shift in tone and the new characters, Empire is special because of the ‘big’ scenes. Han Solo is tortured by Vader, then frozen in carbonite to be given to a bounty hunter. Just before he is lowered into the freezing chamber, he kisses Leia. As he is pulled away from her, she confesses something: I love you. Given their very contentious relationship, this is a big confession. Han looks back at her and gives her his last words: I know. After watching this iconic scene hundreds of times, I have realized it is more than a romantic exchange. Leia is saying I’m going to save you. And Han is saying I trust you.

But The Empire Strikes Back is best known for the climactic fight scene between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker—the violent, dismembering lightsaber duel where Luke Skywalker gets some really bad news about who he really is. I remember watching this scene in the theater, on a giant screen, as a child: the flash of the lightsabers, the darkness and smoke, the pounding of Darth Vader’s Theme as Vader crushes Luke with flying objects, and then finally severs Luke’s hand leaving him battered and virtually defenseless. Their epic lightsaber duel is my favorite part of the film. Luke is strong and clever, but Vader is a master. The battle takes on a poignancy when we realize Vader doesn’t want to kill him. Conversely, Luke finally gets the chance to take revenge on the monster who killed his father only to find out that his father is the monster—one who is very much alive and murdering people across the galaxy. It is the ultimate plot twist. When I watched Vader say the words “No, I am your father,” my heart raced, my jaw dropped. The revelation is not just stunning on its own; the larger implications are profound. Luke’s father has been mourned and referenced in the prior film but he’s actually alive and he’s the villain. This means that Luke’s allies, Ben and Yoda, have been deliberately lying to him and manipulating him. Everything we thought we knew from the first film has been upended. Decades later, it’s still such a great scene.

Although the big scenes define the film, the quiet moments also deliver a huge emotional payoff:

  • Leia makes the choice to close the shield doors, knowing she is stranding Han and Luke outside in the lethal cold. The camera slowly zooms in on her face as she watches the heavy metal doors closing.

  • As they prepare for the battle of Hoth, Han notices Luke and asks if he is okay. Luke quietly says “yeah” then looks at Han and starts to say something but he stops and remains silent. Han gives him a knowing look. The wordless communication quietly shows their deepening friendship.

  • When Luke gets frustrated with his training, Yoda tells Luke the story of the Force and the way it binds all things together. It is a beautiful soliloquy in the dreamlike swamp setting with the haunting musical score in the background. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

  • Leia and a recovered Luke stand together watching the stars. Luke puts his arm around Leia. It’s meant to seem cliché and optimistic but, in fact, it shows the two heroes looking small, vulnerable, and childlike. Two siblings holding a space for their grief.

  • Every scene with James Earl Jones as Darth Vader is delivered with grim calmness and control. Vader Force-chokes multiple characters in the film, but never lets his emotions rise above irritation. He is cold, quiet perfection in every violent encounter.

The Empire Strikes Back is too sad to be my favorite Star Wars film. That honor goes to The Return of the Jedi (despite the annoying Ewoks) because it has closure. The Empire Strikes Back is not perfect. After four decades, some of the visual effects (even with the CGI updates) and acting seem dated. However, The Empire Strikes Back remains anchored in my psyche as a defining film and a defining moment in my childhood. The story is a reminder that life isn't always fair, the good guys don't always win, friends will betray you, and sorrow and change are a painful but necessary part of growth. The scenery of Hoth, Dagobah, and Bespin are gorgeous. The new characters of Yoda, Lando, and Boba Fett are engaging. The revelations are deep and iconic: two very opposite people love each other; Jedi are not trustworthy; and Luke has very deep father issues. All of this makes The Empire Strikes Back a film for the ages and one of my all-time favorites.

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris - Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie and OG Star Wars fan, who still has the original Star Wars trading cards she bought in grade school.