movies Uncategorized

Is ‘Empire Strikes Back’ the only good ‘Star Wars’ movie?

Those who denigrate the Star Wars prequels forget that the original trilogy had its problems, too.

Star Wars (i.e. “A New Hope”) was remarkable for its time: a rollicking sci-fi adventure with astonishing special effects. But that first film hasn’t aged particularly well. Or, rather, it was never particularly good, and the outdated special effects no longer mask its stilted dialogue and over-telegraphed plot twists. Mark Hamill’s performance as a petulant Luke Skywalker grates on the nerves. Alec Guinness seems disinterested (he was). The final battle lasts ten minutes too long.

Return of the Jedi isn’t great, either. It establishes the misguided trajectory that would eventually doom the prequels. As with Episodes I through III, in Jedi, storytelling takes a backseat to merchandising interests. The Ewoks are the original trilogy’s equivalent to Jar-Jar Binks: cute, fun characters who sell toys but do little to improve the film itself.

Also like the prequels, Jedi feels derivative; the filmmakers seem to run out of ideas. The Death Star superweapon threatens the galaxy again? Luke leaves his companions to visit Dagobah… another time? The film can’t even find anything interesting for several key characters to do; Han Solo’s character arc flatlines, and Harrison Ford sleepwalks through the picture.

That leaves Empire Strikes Back, easily the strongest film of the original trilogy.

What does Empire get right? In short, the movie makes bold gambles that pay off. For example, it skips past several years. That interval might have confused the audience; instead, it helps us believe that our heroes have developed some genuine camaraderie. Another Empire risk? It stakes the entire film on a puppeteer’s performance. Somehow, improbably, Yoda works. Finally, Empire gambles by scaling down the story. A New Hope and Jedi go big, depicting critical battles in a galaxy-wide fight for freedom. Empire goes small, focusing on individual relationships: the hero trio with each other, Luke with his new mentor, Luke with his dad.

Speaking of that paternal reveal, “I am your father” is the primary reason Empire’s climax works. Without that horrifying revelation, the Cloud City sequence would feel too small, almost mundane. “Han and Leia chatting in their hotel room” hardly feels like the build-up to a grand finale. But because Vader’s declaration is so delightfully shocking, it lends gravitas to Cloud City’s dinner parties and dull chase scenes.

Empire is the only great Star Wars film.[1] It retroactively redeems A New Hope, transforming that film into an essential preface. It redeems Jedi, in that Empire’s so good that it makes us curious to see the story shake out. It even nearly redeems the prequels; after all, we wouldn’t have cared about Anakin Skywalker if Empire hadn’t made Vader so enigmatic.

  1. Well, at least until now.  ↩
movies Uncategorized

Vicarious wonder

Late last week, there was a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in joy. Why? Disney unveiled a beautifully-edited, emotional, spoiler-light trailer for the upcoming Star Wars sequel, The Force Awakens. Unlike the first promo (which starred only unknown newcomers), this latest promo features several fan favorites, including Luke Skywalker and R2-D2. The trailer also boasts arresting visuals: a decayed, shipwrecked Star Destroyer. Darth Vader’s iconic mask, warped and scarred by his cremation. And, of course, a fleeting glimpse of Han Solo and Chewbacca (pictured above).

The franchise’s diehard fans lost their collective shit when the trailer hit the web. After all, they have a lot riding on The Force Awakens. The disastrous prequels broke nerds’ hearts; they’re relying on Episode VII to set things right. “Help us, J.J. Abrams,” geek fandom pleads. “You’re our only hope.” The trailer gives them reason to believe that Star Wars might be good again.

To understand the fans’ fervor, watch a few of the many live reactions published to YouTube since the trailer’s release. In each video, someone watches the teaser for the first time. Geeks’ eyes widen with wonder when Luke’s voiceover begins. Enthralled forty-year-olds pump their fists as the Millenium Falcon soars by. Enraptured fans weep when Han appears.

Fan Reactions
Fan reactions to Han Solo’s return, via ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer 2 Reaction Mashup’ on YouTube.

I love these reaction videos. Each offers an opportunity to relive the experience of watching the trailer for the very first time. The only way to recover that “trailer virgin” wonder is vicariously—through someone else’s eyes. Each viewer’s enthusiasm affirms and justifies my own, and the fanbase’s deep feelings remind me just how seminal this franchise is for geek culture.

These videos also make me excited to share my pop culture addictions with my daughter. She’s six weeks old right now, so it’ll be a while. But someday she’ll watch Star Wars for the very first time. When she does, I’ll be watching her. Will she gasp in horror when she learns Darth Vader’s true identity—like these adorable kids?[1] Will she cry when Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise? Will reading The Hobbit inspire sketches of Bag End and Rivendell? I can’t wait to find out. I’ll never visit Middle-Earth or Hogwarts or Tatooine again for the first time. But she will, and I get to escort her.

We love watching others—family, friends, or strangers—learn to love what we love.[2]

Finally, here’s a parody of these fan reaction videos, featuring cut-in footage of Matthew McConaughey from Interstellar:

  1. For more kids’ reaction to the climactic Empire reveal, see this compilation.  ↩
  2. Maybe, just maybe, this will keep home theaters from killing the multiplex. The shared experience is what makes the cinema magical—not screen size or comfy chairs or artery-clogging butter. We relish being surrounded by others encountering the same intoxicating story. Hearing them gasp and laugh and cry enhances and augments our own wonder.  ↩
movies Uncategorized

“It is your destiny.”

Geekdom is abuzz; Star Wars will be reborn. Out of nowhere, Disney snatched up the rights from Lucasfilm, simultaneously announcing sequels to Return of the Jedi. After the disastrous prequel trilogy, a new director and proven screenwriter will attempt to jump-start the stalled franchise.

Fans are already speculating wildly about the new trilogy’s likely story. What conflict will drive the films? How long after Return of the Jedi will the movies take place? Will we re-join familiar characters—Luke, Leia, and Han—or will a new cadre of adventurers steal the spotlight?

To me, one question looms largest of all. How do you tell a good story when the main character is dead? According to Lucas, Star Wars (Episodes I-VI) centered around Anakin Skywalker: his mysterious origins, his fall from grace, his ruthless rule, his ultimate redemption, and his tragic death.[1] With Vader gone, what’s left to tell?

Of course, you could simply shift the focus from Vader to the characters who survived Return of the Jedi. What are our old friends up to? Luke likely spends his time scouting wunderkinds for a Jedi Academy. Leia wades through Galactic Senate bureaucracy. Han Solo gives up smuggling and starts his own shipping company.

Hardly spellbinding stuff. In fact, a Vaderless Star Wars sounds insufferably boring. Who wants to eavesdrop on Leia’s interminable Galactic Senate hearings? Or watch Han Solo chair Kessel Transport board meetings? Or look over Professor Skywalker’s shoulder as he revises the syllabus for Jedi Mindtricks 101? “Happily ever after” reads well on paper, but in practice proves sadly dull.

Even introducing some replacement villain seems fraught with downsides. How do you top Vader’s menace? All due respect to Darth Whoever or Admiral Thrawn, but Ol’ Helmet Head automatically trumps any newcomer. The Dark Lord of the Sith is a tough act to follow.

So what can you do? ROTJ painted the franchise into a corner. Lucas killed off the lead, burned him on a pyre, and turned him into a ghost. Everything revolved around Vader—the prophecy, the conflict, the heartbreak, and the biggest stakes. How do you move on from that?

Simple. You don’t move on. You stay with Anakin Skywalker; you make his legacy the central conflict. Focus your films on the one character who can’t shake Vader’s shadow.

In short, Luke Skywalker must turn to the Dark Side.

In fact, we’ve already seen Luke start down that path. Watch his Return of the Jedi entrance again. Skywalker strides menacingly into Jabba’s palace, cloaked in black and brooding. He chokes Jabba’s guards (to death?), then threatens to destroy Jabba himself should the Hutt fail to acknowledge Luke’s power. The transformation takes us by surprise; these aren’t behaviors we expect from the blasé Jedi.

We begin to wonder if the Emperor might have been right about Luke. “I have foreseen it,” Palpatine crows, predicting Luke’s downfall. “It is your destiny,” he insists later. And Luke does eventually give in. When Vader threatens to corrupt Leia, Luke lets love crowd out the detached, Zen-Jedi mindset. Hatred flares up, and Luke rages against his father, the machine. For a while, at least, Luke indulges the Dark Side of the Force, before that same compassionate streak prevents him from finishing off Vader.

That brings us to the end of Jedi. In the wake of Vader’s death (and his own flirtation with the Dark Side), Luke must face serious questions about the Force. “How can the Light Side be truly good,” he must wonder, “when it demands that I ignore my deepest feelings, my love for family and friends?” Kenobi and Yoda endorsed a sterile, calculated approach to the Force. Meanwhile, the Sith embraced the full breadth of human experience: desire, yes, but also compassion and love.

As the decades pass, Luke attempts to forge a middle way—to “bring balance to the Force,” as his father did. To check cold logic with compassion. Skywalker’s syncretism slowly corrupts the Jedi way. Eventually, some impossible scenario pits his heart and head against one another. Maybe Leia is put in harm’s way, and Luke vows to protect her—by any means necessary.

Whatever the particular details, Luke falls. The filmmakers would probably save the big reveal for Film Two—echoing the original trilogy’s major revelation in Empire Strikes Back. Just imagine the gasps when the audience sees Luke Skywalker, that archetypal movie hero, finally turn. How heartbreaking would it be to watch a bewildered, elderly Han Solo die at Luke’s hands? And think of the conflict in Film Three, as Leia must plot to end her brother’s life.

The story would be deliciously controversial. Fans would debate, berate, and celebrate the plot twist, just as they did when Vader declared himself Luke’s father. Hopefully, J.J. Abrams and Co. have the guts to take such a risk—to sully the reputation of Star Wars’ golden boy. Handled well, it would do more than just pay homage to the early films’ central character. It would rescue Star Wars from years of neglect.

  1. Perhaps Lucas was not being entirely truthful. A New Hope doesn’t seem to focus squarely on Vader. Grand Moff Tarkin share the top villain billing. Did Lucas really always intend to elevate Vader in the later films?  ↩
movies Uncategorized

Salvaging Star Wars, Episode III: show some character

Recently, I’ve been outlining ways that the Star Wars prequels might have been improved. First, I suggested that the whole ‘prequel’ concept is irredeemably flawed. Then I complained about how real-world analogues cheapen the Star Wars universe.

Today’s complaint? The Star Wars prequels spoil some of cinema’s best-known, most beloved characters.

Take Obi-Wan Kenobi, that quintessential space wizard. Now, if we’re honest, the Jedi Master comes across a bit static—even in A New Hope. In that original film, Obi-Wan learns nothing and can’t be rattled; he’s more like Luke’s Jedi Encyclopedia than an actual character. Even Alec Guinness himself despised the character and cursed the film’s “rubbish dialogue”.

In fairness, though, it made sense that Obi-Wan wouldn’t change much in Episode IV. The film depicts only the very last chapter of a much longer life story. Obi-Wan’s defining moments happened decades earlier, we learn: Clone Wars heroics and a tortured falling-out with Vader.

That’s where the prequels’ potential lay; we’d finally get to see how it all happened. How did Obi-Wan become the cool, unflappable mentor of A New Hope? What flaws did he overcome? What conflict shaped his elderly personality? One idea: maybe Obi-Wan’s inability to save his mentor’s life haunts him. Maybe it makes him overprotective. Maybe that control-freak behavior pushes Anakin towards reckless power grabs. In any case, regardless of the arc’s specifics, Lucas shouldn’t have hesitated to rough up the golden boy a bit.

Instead, Lucas extends Obi-Wan’s milquetoast personality all the way back to day one. He was (we learn) always incorruptible. Always steady. He’s always been the beige palette against which more colorful characters are painted: Luke, Qui-Gon, Vader.

Speaking of Vader… there’s another great character squandered. The prequels inherit the greatest villain of all time—then manage to spoil him. To Lucas’s credit, Anakin does has an arc (unlike Kenobi); he journeys from adorable, pod-racing wunderkind to moody teenager to malevolent cyborg. But if Obi-Wan’s statis bores us to tears, Anakin’s metamorphosis confuses us. We never quite believe the reasons we’re given for his downfall. Why can’t Anakin handle his mother’s untimely death? Why does he snap. After all, his son faced nearly-identical tragedy (his family’s horrific immolation) with courageous determination.

How might the prequels have better explained Anakin’s degradation? Show us how childhood wounds fester into adult corruption. Make the Skywalkers’ slavery unpleasant to witness. Make Anakin damaged and powerless as a boy, so that his hell-bent power quest makes sense. Show us the hurt; don’t rely on Hayden Christiansen to emote it with furrowed eyebrows and a whiny delivery.

Next time, we’ll wrap up the “Salvaging Star Wars” series. In our crosshairs? The prequels’ over-reliance on CGI, to the detriment of story.