This might be even tougher than last week…
Last week, as you may recall, I started this particular installment of The Series Project, fully intending to analyze all ten of the Star Wars feature films in episode order, trying to allow the series mete out information in its own time. As such, I had to review 1999’s The Phantom Menace (and its immediate ilk) as if I knew nothing about Star Wars going in. As such, going in, the name Darth Vader meant nothing to me, I didn’t know what The Force was, and Yoda was little more than a green troll who played the smallest of supporting roles.
It was difficult, but I feel I pulled it through. Be sure to read last week’s article before continuing here, as I will continue on the episode-by-episode tack, and try to watch these movies as if I don’t know how they turn out, and, more importantly for this week, possessing only the information given to me by the first four films (which includes the oft-uncounted Star Wars: The Clone Wars). This means now I know what The Force is, but only as it was presented in earlier movies; The Force is a microscopic life form.
I should also, perhaps, state again that I did not grow up with Star Wars movies, having been raised in a Star Trek household. I do not, as such, have Star Wars as well-memorized as many of my peers; It wasn’t until a friend explained him to me that I knew the significance of a minor character named Wedge Antilles (played by Dennis Lawson). To be fair, I had seen the first three theatrical Star Wars films in the past (that is: the ones made from 1977 to 1983), but I didn’t manage to catch up with them until I had already graduated high school in 1996, and I haven’t re-watched them many times since. The saddest part of all of this: I have seen Mel Brooks’ 1987 Star Wars spoof Spaceballs many, many more times than I have seen any of the original sci-fi epics. Chalk it up to a youth spent reading MAD Magazine; I was always more familiar with the parody than I was with the original.
The most galling and difficult part of this week’s article will be my (perhaps unfortunate) election to watch the much-maligned Special Editions of the Star Wars movies. To explain briefly to the three of you who don’t know about the Special Editions yet: when filmmaker and Star Wars creator George Lucas decided to start making The Phantom Menace in the late 1990s, he also decided to, in about 1997, re-release the original Star Wars features in theaters, digitally cleaned up for a new generation of fans. In addition to the usual visual improvement, though, Lucas also elected to delete many of the old-fashioned practical effects from his movie’s original production and replace them with brand new digital effects, as to “update” the look of the thing. In addition, he began altering small pieces of action, and even replaced certain ‘70s and ‘80s actors with the actors that matched the ‘00s prequel films. New sequences were added. Many fans feel these digital “improvements” were insults, and popular opinion seems to be one of utter bafflement at best and outright rage at worst. Why would Lucas – whose old Star Wars films are already meticulously obsessed over in their current form – feel the need to “improve” them?
Lucas, as the subsequent years would slowly reveal, was actually trying to change the ‘70s and ‘80s Star Wars films into what, he claims, he originally intended for them. All the recent tinkering and re-jiggering was all an attempt to give Star Wars (as we will find, a relatively shabby film when compared to all the others, visually speaking) a glossy sheen that Lucas felt was missing the first time around.
The hardest part of this essay, then, will be to accept the glossy sheen version as if it’s the only version I know. That means, dear Star Wars fans, that there was never a version of this film wherein Han Solo shot Greedo first. The hardest part for me, however, will be the obnoxious rebranding involved. Along with the digital rigmarole, Lucas also changed the title of his 1977 feature from Star Wars to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. This retitling is the only thing about the Special Editions, I have noticed, that has stuck positively in the minds of Star Wars fans. People now refer to Star Wars as A New Hope. This is done, I suppose, as referring to the 1977 film as merely “Star Wars” might have people confused as to whether or not you’re referring to one film or to the entire 10-film saga. Referring to it as “the first one,” likewise, might have people confused; do you mean Star Wars or The Phantom Menace, which is now "Episode I?" I have staunchly rejected the rebranding up to this point, and have always tried to refer to the 1977 film as Star Wars, and never as A New Hope. But since I’m trying to follow the Lucas vision, I must swallow my pride, and, for at least a few pages, get used to calling it A New Hope. I want it known that I grit my teeth and bristle a bit every time I have to do it.
I’m not a Star Wars person, but this detail turns me into yet another bitter Star Wars obsessive. Maybe, in a quiet and insidious fashion, the films are slowly converting me. Maybe I’ll become, as a friend once put it, “Sci-Bi”; a Sci-Fi boy who “goes both ways,” enjoying both Wars and Trek with equal fervor.
But enough rambling, let’s pick up in 1977 with…
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (dir. George Lucas, 1977)
So when we last left the Star Wars movies, Anakin Skywalker, now knighted as Darth Vader, had lost his arms and legs in a laser sword fight, and was locked inside a special robot suit that gave him limbs and let him breathe. He thought he had killed his pregnant wife, and has, as such, joined up with the newly-appointed Emperor of the galaxy, Palpatine, also known as Darth Sidious. His wife, however, wasn’t actually killed, and managed to give birth to fraternal twins before she died in childbirth. One twin, Leia, was given to Jimmy Smits to be raised on a planet called Alderaan where she would be a princess. The other twin, Luke, was given to his uncle Owen to be raised on a remote desert planet called Arrakis. I mean Tatooine. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin’s mentor and Jedi master, decided to hide out on Tatooine as well. The troll-like Jedi Yoda is hiding in an unrevealed location.
Since those events, about 20 years have passed. The Empire is now an ever present fascist dictatorship. We never really see who they dictate over in this film though (the action is confined to a few space ships and a few planets), and the only way we really know this new Empire is wicked in any capacity is the evil music by John Williams. Well that, and they blow up a planet of billions in order to get information out of a prisoner. I guess they are an evil Empire, and the crumbled Republic became a Nazi-like regime really quickly. The Empire in this film is represented by a snippy older general named Tarkin (horror legend Peter Cushing) who is in charge of a massive moon-sized space station called the Death Star, which we saw, briefly, being built at the end of Revenge of the Sith. The way they talk about it, the Death Star was only recently completed, which makes sense; it would take about 20 years to build something that size.
Darth Vader is still around too, and is now played by David Prowse (from A Clockwork Orange), with the voice of James Earl Jones. Darth Vader is much taller now, and I’m guessing that, at some point along the line, he gave himself longer robot legs to make himself more imposing. Heck, if prosthetic limb technology is that advanced, I’d give myself longer legs as well. Darth Vader is now sort of an SS general, doing the dirty work for The Empire. He’s not really in charge of much, and many of the grey-clad Empire higher-ups don’t think much of him. Indeed, one general, early in the film, makes fun of his religion. No one seems to carry light sabers anymore, and talk of The Force is kept to a minimum. Darth Vader is chasing down Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), who has stolen the blueprints of the Death Star, hoping to hand them over to the French Resistance, I mean The Rebels, a tightly-knit group of separatists who aim to collapse The Empire. Funny that in the previous films, The Republic was the weak party that needed to be defended from separatists, and in these next few films, the separatists are the Good Guys.
Anyway, Leia is kidnapped and questioned by The Empire, but she manages to hide the Death Star blueprints inside two familiar robots, C3-PO and R2-D2. C3-PO had its memory wiped at the end of the last film, so none of the other characters will be familiar to him. R2-D2, however, may recognize people. Well, if it can; it doesn’t really speak. The story of hiding Death Star blueprints reminds me pleasantly of the hidden visas in Casablanca. Indeed, this film, way more than any of the others, has a wonderful old-fashioned feeling to it. It was based, as many people know, on the old sci-fi adventure serials that Lucas enjoyed as a kid, and it really does feel like one of those old serials writ large. The dialogue is cheesy, yes, but is a decided improvement over the stodgy and vacant political dialogue from the last films.
Indeed, the characters now feel more natural and, dare I say, a little bit cooler. It won’t be until The Empire Strikes Back that we’ll meet the coolest motherf*cker in the galaxy, but there seems to be less focus now on how “badass” a character should be. The fights are comparatively lower key. I guess because there aren’t armies of well-trained Jedi knights wandering around.
Speaking of Jedi knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi, now played by classy British actor Alec Guinness from Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, is living in the deserts of Tatooine under the alias of Ben Kenobi. The infant Luke has now grown up on Tatooine with his uncle Owen, and is now played by a dash handsome young bloke named Mark Hamill. Luke has been told that his last name is Skywalker, although he hasn’t been told who his father and mother really are. He doesn’t know Darth Vader is his father, and that Leia is his sister. This information won’t be given to him until later films. Luke will be the one to eventually find the robots… sorry droids… and find the Death Star blueprints, as well as an emergency message from Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi. How Leia grew up knowing about Obi-Wan is not explained.
Luke is the film’s main character, which is kind of a change of pace from the previous films, which was more about organizations battling for power than it was about any one person. I suppose Anakin was kind of the main character of the previous films, although he wasn’t really a character until Episode II. Luke dreams of something more in life. He sees the emergency message from Leia and finds Ben Kenobi, who has links to the Rebel Alliance. The two of them are being pursued by the Empire, and white-clad soldiers are everywhere. The soldiers also kill Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, leaving Luke no choice but to leave Tatooine with Obi-Wan/Ben, and join the Rebellion.
In order to leave Tatooine, Obi-Wan and Luke team up with a roguish criminal named Han Solo (Harrison Ford from Lucas’ own American Graffiti) who owns a fast ship called The Millennium Falcon, which he co-pilots with a Latino Sasquatch named Chuy (Peter Mayhew). Okay, I know that he’s not a Sasquatch, but a Wookiee, and his name is not Chuy, but Chewbacca. But each time the characters called him “Chewie” for short, I could only hear “Chuy,” and began imagining his homelife back in Mexico with other Mexican sasquatches who call him Jesús. But I digress. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke manage to finagle their way onto Han Solo’s ship. Han is something of a tough guy, as he shoots a green monster named Greedo in a bar. But, to his credit, Greedo did shoot first. Han is also in debt to the slug-like gangster Jabba the Hutt, featured so heavily in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Our heroic human (?) trio eventually finds that The Empire has blown up Leia’s home-planet of Alderaan, and also discovers the Death Star. While this happens, Obi-Wan manages to teach Luke a little bit about The Force, and tells him about the Jedi, and how they used to be knights of The Republic. He tells Luke about Darth Vader, and about Luke’s father, conveniently failing to mention that the two of them are one and the same. Obi-Wan calls Anakin “a good friend,” although they didn’t seem like good friends from what I remember, and more like mere peers. Obi-Wan also teaches Luke to use a light saber, and even shows him how to tap into The Force; Luke has evidently inherited his father’s high level of Midichlorians.
The Millennium Falcon storms the Death Star, and there’s a long action scene wherein our heroes rescue Leia from Vader, Han falls in a tempestuous love with Leia, and they make their way back to the Rebels. There is also a confrontation between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, their first since the events of Revenge of the Sith. In the light saber fight, Obi-Wan closes his eyes and kind of vanishes into thin air right before Darth Vader slices his robe in half. I’m still not crystal clear as to whether or not Obi-Wan died in that moment, or if he sort of willed himself to ascend to a higher non-physical plane. Consensus seems to be that he died.
By all rights, the film should end here, with the triumph of getting the Death Star blueprints back to the Rebels, but then there’s another full 25 minutes of film where the Rebels attack the Death Star in what amounts to be one of the most visually impressive sequences from any action or sci-fi movie to date. Seriously, the special effects are amazing. It feels like a WWII dogfight, but with lasers and spaceships. Luke ends up using the Force to aim a bomb down a shaft to the center of the Death Star, blowing it up, killing Tarkin and all the Empire inside. The Empire is defeated. Darth Vader is on a personal ship floating in space somewhere. Luke, Han, and Chuy are given medals by Princess Leia.
Star Wars – excuse me, A New Hope – is a bit oddly paced, and feels episodic. But I’m sure that was intentional. Lucas was, after all, trying to capture the chintzy glory of older sci-fi serials with this film. So, in a way, its clunky pacing and extended action climax feel appropriate. A New Hope has a corniness that I really appreciate, and, through that corniness, a kind of old-school cinema classicism that I really glommed onto. Of all the Star Wars film, A New Hope is my favorite.
You know what’s my least favorite?
The Star Wars Holiday Special (dir. Steve Binder, 1978)
I’m lucky to be alive.
I watched this with two heroically strong friends of mine, and I feel like we survived something significant and tragic. Like the three of us were trapped in a collapsed mine together with our buddy Timothy. As the days passed, and the pain increased, and the food supplies painfully dwindled to nothing, we began discussing the obvious next step the four of us would have to take in order to survive. I don’t want to state outright what we had to do to survive, and what we needed to do to get some more food, but I can say that Timothy – poor, poor Timothy – drew the short straw. When we were finally rescued a week later, the three of us who survived now all shared a terrible, terrible secret. We made a promise right then that we would never, never discuss Timothy ever again. That exact sort of horrid, horrid shame is how the three of us felt when we turned off The Star Wars Holiday Special. Like we did something so bad, we just can’t ever discuss it.
Some background: The Star Wars Holiday Special was a two-hour TV movie broadcast on network television in November of 1978. It is a notoriously bad piece of television that George Lucas, while having co-written it, disowns entirely. in interviews, Lucas has said that he would love to track down all the remaining copies and destroy them. Harrison Ford, who has a small role in it, claims to have never seen it, even when he watches it. Carrie Fisher, who has a musical number in it (!), says she likes to put on her bootleg copy of it whenever she wants party guests to leave in a hurry. It has been famously never released on home video, but thanks to a thriving bootleg market, resourceful Star Wars fans have been able to find it. And now, thanks to the internet, it’s actually somewhat easy to find online. According to everyone who has seen it, it’s just awful. Really, really awful. Really, really, REALLY awful. It has a toxic reputation for being the single most embarrassing thing to come from the Star Wars universe.
Dear readers, The Star Wars Holiday Special is just as bad as everyone says.
Internet geeks, you have probably noticed, have a tendency to exaggerate. No film is merely good or merely bad in current online discourse. They are either the best film ever made, and are to be defended against any detractors with a warlike fervor, or they are the worst film ever made, and cannot be defended under any circumstances. With all that hyperbole in place, one might assume that The Star Wars Holiday Special is actually not as bad as people say. Only in this case, it is. Oh dear Lord, it is.
Since this was a TV movie, the budget is very low, and the film takes place mostly in one room. Gone are the spectacular space battles and exotic aliens from the last film. Now we are focused almost entirely on the home of the Wookiee Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), where his family hangs out watching TV, cooking, and waiting for Chuy to show up for the Christmas-like Wookiee holiday "Life Day." Seriously, that’s pretty much the plot of this thing. We are watching bigfoots at home, who are, in turn, watching TV. There are a few plot asides with the characters we know from the last film (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford are all back in the same roles), but for the most part, we’re just watching Wookiee TV with Wookiees.
The three central Wookiees are Chuy’s wife Mala (Mickey Morton), Chuy’s father Itchy (Paul Gale), who we apparently saw a bit of in Revenge of the Sith, and Chuy’s young son Lumpy (Patty Maloney). These super furry animals all converse in their own language which is a series of grunts and roars that begin to grate on the ears after only about five minutes. Frustratingly, there are no subtitles. These bigfoots all take turns watching various TV programs, which we get to see with them. Lumpy watches a creepy Cirque du Soleil-like hologram with cavorting green contortionists. Mala watches a cooking program hosted by Harvey Korman (yes, Harvey Korman) in drag. Art Carney (yes, Art Carney) shows up and gives Itchy some sexy Wookiee pornography, which is actually a spacey New Age musical number performed by Diahann Carroll. The musical number seems to stretch into eternity, and the dreamy lyrics about interconnectedness invoke the spirit of Gene Roddenberry more than they do anything in Star Wars.
Occasionally Mala makes video telephone calls to people she knows. She calls Luke Skywalker (Hamill) to ask where Chuy is. It turns out Chuy is hiding from the Empire, and trying to flee secretly in order to get home in time for Life Day. Hamill, right before filming this, was involved in a really horrible auto accident which left scars on his face. He did eventually get cosmetic surgery, and has looked just as handsome ever since, but in The Star Wars Holiday Special they seemed to hide it with obscene amounts of flesh-colored pancake makeup. The result is that he looks less like himself and more like Sandy Duncan. Mala also calls Princess Leia (Fisher) to ask about Chewbacca. Fisher is very visibly drunk in this film, complete with the glassy eyes and slurred speech. She even has to keep her balance by grabbing nearby furniture. I know that Fisher had a pretty bad drinking problem, and has written some pretty insightful memoirs on the matter. She is sober now. So I felt bad giggling at her drunkenness. Which, I suppose, is just another way The Star Wars Holiday Special made me feel bad.
The Empire has decided to stop by the Chewbacca household and wait for Rebels. Oh yeah, The Empire, it turns out, has not been destroyed, but is alive and well, even after the destruction of their Death Star, and the death of thousands of their people. Well, I assume thousands died. Maybe there weren’t many people on the Death Star. It’s never made clear. Anyway, Saundan (Carney) is actually a Rebel spy and has hidden Rebel messages in Lumpy’s toys. But don’t let the presence of room-trashing Empire soldiers stop you from enjoying your videos, Lumpy! Lumpy watches another short, this time a computer instructional video hosted, again, by Harvey Korman, who sputters like a malfunctioning droid. Lumpy also watches an animated sequence of events, which is probably the only entertaining thing to come out of this special. I assume the animated sequence was a dramatization of something that happened earlier. In the sequence, we see Luke Skywalker trying to rescue Han Solo from an evil bounty hunter named Boba Fett (voiced by Don Francks). Boba Fett was, if you recall, the name of Jango Fett’s son in Attack of the Clones. Jango Fett was the bounty hunter after whom all the clone soldiers were fashioned. I’m guessing all the Empire soldiers in helmets still look like Jango Fett, even 20 years later. Anyway, the sequence shows Luke and Boba Fett freeing Han Solo, but Boba Fett had been working for Darth Vader the entire time. There’s a big mean dinosaur, and the animation style is stylized and cool looking. It’s not complex or anything, but it’s such a welcome relief to see something so interesting in the sea of awful.
What else? Oh yeah, the Wookiees show another video to the Empire guys, and it’s a rock number performed by Jefferson Starship. If you can’t see this number too well, just know that it’s the blood seeping from your forehead, left by the wound you unknowingly inflicted on yourself just moments before. There’s also a scene that takes place in the Mos Eisley cantina, the bar seen in A New Hope. The proprietress of this bar is Ackmena, played by Bea Arthur. Yes, Bea Arthur. Harvey Korman shows up as a smitten alien with a large orifice on the top of his head who wants to charm Ackmena. She pours booze down his head hole. Call me weird, but I found that head hole to be immensely disturbing. I could only picture what it would feel like to reach my hand down into it and feel that guy’s gooey brains. When The Empire shows up in the cantina to impose a curfew, Bea Arthur sings a bittersweet song about closing up shop for good.
Eventually Chuy does make it home, and all is well. Harrison Ford looks into the eyes of his Wookiee sidekick and tearily announces that he’s family, and the sight of Harrison Ford declaring his familial love for a Latino bigfoot will leave you on the floor howling in painful fits of laughter. The Wookiees all assemble at their local place of worship, and Carrie Fisher sings a Life Day hymn. ENOUGH! If you’ve made it this far, you deserve some sort of reward. Have a quart of whiskey. You deserve it. The Star Wars Holiday Special is just as rotten as it reputation. I learned that it pre-empted an episode of "The Incredible Hulk" and an episode of "Wonder Woman." Who here would have rather seen those reruns?
There has been some debate as to whether or not The Star Wars Holiday Special should be considered canonical with the other Star Wars movies. It most definitely is. I will make the following proclamation: Unless you’ve seen The Star Wars Holiday Special, then you are not yet a complete Star Wars fan. This, my friends, is the way you prove your loyalty to Star Wars. By plunging your bare hands into the flames.
I don’t want to think about this TV special anymore. I hurt. I’m in pain. Thinking about it is a chore. Writing about it is a warning. Let’s get back to the theatrical features with the final film I will be covering this week. Let’s talk about…
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (dir. Irvin Kershner, 1980)
And now I have to tread extra lightly. The Empire Strikes Back is considered by just about everyone to be the best of the Star Wars movies. I agree with that statement, although I have to openly admit that A New Hope is still my favorite. The Empire Strikes Back has the best action, the best drama, and the best overall filmmaking. What it lacks, though, is that chintzy, corny, old-fashioned quality that made A New Hope so appealing.
If I may digress for a second from by episode-by-episode rules, I would like to make the following observation of The Empire Strikes Back: it essentially took the characters from an enjoyably flimsy and visually amazing flick like Star Wars (which I am treating like the “first” film only in this paragraph), and started to treat them like more dramatic, hefty, complex characters. Some would say that this is an improvement, but I would call it a mere change, and feel that something vital was lost in this translation. A New Hope, I think, gained much of its strength from how lightweight it was. The Empire Strikes Back is a thrilling drama, but I question the need to make Star Wars into a “serious” and “dark” sci-fi epic. But so many fans reacted so strongly to this film that it has been effectively influencing all sci-fi and fantasy movies since. I believe it was in 1980, then, that the current geek-loved notion of making a series better by making it “darker” and “more serious” really began. It was also the start of the notion of the “sad” ending as a means of making sure the drama is at its height. Whatever I feel about the film, The Empire Strikes Back was what really turned Star Was fandom into true religious Star Wars devotion.
Personally I find The Empire Strikes Back to be structured a little strangely. Not badly, mind you, but strangely. Like A New Hope, The Empire Strike Back devotes the first three-quarters of its runtime to a really excellent and tense chase sequence, while Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) learns more about what a Jedi is and what The Force is. Then, in the last 30 minutes or so, the film becomes a drama dump, where all the action comes to a head very, very quickly. In A New Hope, there was a catharsis when Luke manages to blow up the Death Star. In The Empire Strikes Back, there’s so much drama all at once right at the very end that the film doesn’t really conclude in any sort of meaningful way. Yes, it’s intended to be a cliffhanger for the eventual Star Wars VI, but I would have appreciated something more concrete than a mildly melancholy “I guess that’s it” sort of ending.
I’ll breeze through the story, which should be easy to do, as The Empire Strikes back has the trimmest story of any Star Wars film yet (The Star Wars holiday Special notwithstanding). The Rebels are hiding out on a snowy planet, and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Luke are all active members in Rebel movements. The Rebels, we now see, have an impressive armament beyond the spaceships seen in A New Hope. There is an introductory sequence wherein Luke has a run-in with a yeti. That means this movie has a yeti and a sasquatch. This is no bad thing. The yeti attack was included, I think, to explain the changes in Mark Hamill’s face after his cosmetic surgery.
There is a scene where Leia, to make Han Solo jealous, smooches Luke right on the mouth. I know they don’t know that they are twin siblings, but the sexual tension between the two is just creepy. R2-D2 was present at their birth. You’d think the little robot would reveal that they are siblings, and who Senator Amidala was, and that Anakin Skywalker is also Darth Vader. Well, R2-D2 may not know about the Darth Vader thing. But it knows for sure that Luke and Leia are twins. R2-D2 is either absent minded or a secret pervert who likes incest fantasies.
The Empire, still alive and well, has been looking for the criminals who blew up their Death Star, and finds the Rebels pretty easily. The Empire now seems to be headed up by Darth Vader himself (still played by David Prowse and James Earl Jones), and Darth Vader has been possessed of a hatred and tenacity unseen in the last film. I think Darth Vader was scarier when he was just an evil SS officer like in A New Hope, doing the bidding of the Empire, and not using his psychic powers to choke every single one of his underlings. Darth Vader is more a comic book supervillain this time around, and strongly resembles another sci-fi supervillain from another sci-fi epic that was released the same year: Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon. You’d think Darth Vader would have been reprimanded and demoted after losing the Death Star two films ago. I guess he blamed all the failings on Peter Cushing.
The Empire blows up the Rebel base, and the Rebels scatter. We follow Han Solo and Princess Leia as they flee on the malfunctioning Millennium Falcon, and stay just barely ahead of Darth Vader. Luke, meanwhile, flees to a swamp planet at the behest of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ghost (!). There, Luke finds Yoda, not seen since Revenge of the Sith. Yoda (a puppet operated by Frank Oz) has clearly gone a little crazy, and is far more comical this time around. But then he switches gears and becomes very stern when he reveals to Luke who he is. Luke wants Jedi training, even though most Jedi start their training when they’re children. Over the course of about a week – maybe two – Yoda teaches Luke all about The Force, and we finally get a good idea as to what The Force really is. It only took seven movies. The Force is essentially God. It’s the life force of the universe that binds everything together. It is fueled by calm, patience, and inner peace. The Jedi way of life is very Buddhist. If a Jedi concentrates and meditates, they can levitate like a proper swami, and float objects. They can also see the future. We saw this in all the previous movies, but it was kind of thrown at us. Here we finally get a sense as to the large spiritual connection people must have to The Force. We also finally learn a little bit more about The Dark Side, which Palpatine mentioned in Revenge of the Sith. The Dark Side is essentially the same as The Force, only it is fueled by impatience, hate, and anger. Yoda is constantly commenting that Luke’s impatience will turn him to The Dark Side.
Speaking of The Dark Side, and of Palpatine, we see Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) for the first time since Episode III. He is the one who reveals to Darth Vader that Luke is the son of Anakin Skywalker, i.e. Darth Vader. Why they talk about Anakin in the third person is beyond me. Palpatine declares that Luke might be a powerful Jedi, and that he would make a powerful Empire ally. Darth Vader later says that he and Luke should rule the Empire together, implying that Darth Vader wants to overthrow the Empire. When Palpatine gets involved in Empire, the film strikes a similar tone to the first four features (i.e. the prequels) a bit.
There is also a scene where we see Darth Vader briefly without his helmet. He has gone through no plastic surgery, and is still burned up from the lava planet.
Dig this: eventually Han Solo & co. make it to a hidden sky-bound city run by an ex-gambler (and previous owner of The Millennium Falcon) named Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams. A lot of people like to talk about how badass Han Solo is, or how cool Darth Vader is, but I would like to argue that Billy Dee Williams blows them both our of the water. He flounces onto screen wearing a blue cape, looks at Leia, and says, in his best bedroom, Come-F*ck-Me voice “Hello. What have we here?” His eyes can melt the elastic lining in anyone’s panties. It might occur to you that he’s the first black person to appear in these movies since Samuel L. Jackson. That he’s the coolest character makes up for the lack of racial balance.
Also where are the women? Princess Leia is the only woman we’ve seen since the death of Senator Amidala other than Aunt Beru, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman in drag. Oh and Mala. There seem to be few women in this universe. Maybe this galaxy has fewer women in general.
Anyway, eventually Luke has a premonition of the future, seeing Han and Leia being tortured. Against Yoda’s wishes, and the wishes of Obi-Wan’s ghost (Alec Guinness comes back as a wispy apparition), he flies to them to rescue them.
Then there’s that hurried climax where Lando sells out Han to the Empire, Boba Fett the bounty hunter shows up to take Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt, Leia announces that she loves Han, C3-PO is dismembered and rebuilt, there’s a shootout, everyone escapes but Han who is frozen in stone (!), Lando has a change of heart and helps Leia flee, and Luke has a confrontation with Darth Vader. During the confrontation, Darth Vader reveals that the reason he’s been so dogged in his pursuit is because he is indeed Luke’s father. The first time I saw The Empire Strikes Back, back in the late 1990s, I thought he was lying to Luke. I now know he is telling the truth. Darth Vader has never met his son, and only recently learned from Palpatine that his son is alive. Whether or not he knows about his daughter is up for debate. Darth Vader is so evil now, though, that when he meets his son for the first time, he severs the kid’s hand within the first 20 minutes. I guess this is not a big deal, though, coming from a man who has robot limbs, and from a universe where limbs can be replaced in an afternoon.
But then nothing comes of the revelation. It’s a big dramatic moment, and then the film ends. Many people like the ending of Empire, citing its tragedy. As I have stated, I feel it’s rushed.
I don’t want to give the impression that I dislike The Empire Strikes Back, which is a visually impressive movie, and an awesome chase movie. But, as with other “tentpole” movies like Aliens and The Lord of the Rings, it’s just not exactly to my somewhat calmer (and admittedly offbeat) tastes. I will very readily concede, though, that The Empire Strikes Back is, openly and assuredly, the best of the Star Wars movies. But A New Hope is my favorite. Niggling over such details is churlish, though. Like I said above, maybe the series is converting me.
We’ll see where this story takes us. Will Luke learn that Leia is his twin sister? Will Luke ever complete his Jedi training with Yoda? Is Luke really the Kwisatz Haderach? Is Han Solo gone for the series? Tune in next week to find out.
Of course I know the answers to these questions, and so do you, but I’m still trying to remain objective. Be sure to come back next week for The Series Project: Star Wars (Part 3), which will be a three-film journey into the phenomenon known as Ewoks. What is an Ewok? Well, we’ll have three movies to find out. Three. Join me for the teddy bear picnic.
Witney Seibold has a special secret codename on the website called "The Twitter." His special secret codename is @WitneySeibold. If you follow him, he'll give you a footrub and $5. That last part may not be true.