Last night, searching for something to watch on TV while eating dinner, I happened upon The Empire Strikes Back running on cable. At first I wanted to turn the channel immediately, for fear of getting sucked in and watching long past dinner and dishes. But this was my des-tin-y. I decided to confront my fears and face the movie, alone.
The channel showing it, Spike TV, has the six films from the two combined Star Wars trilogies playing on constant rotation – one film each week. A few weeks ago, I’d caught the first half of Empire, savoring the battle on the ice planet Hoth between the rebels and the Empire with its gloriously gargantuan AT-AT walkers.
When I turned to Empire this time, though, it was during the climactic third act in the cloud city on Bespin. Luke abandons his Jedi training with Yoda on Dagobah to rush to the aid of Han, Leia & company after he experiences visions of their being in danger. But it’s all a trap so Darth Vader can capture Luke and bring him to the Emperor for re-assignment to the Sith and the dark side of The Force. After capturing Luke’s friends, Vader has Lando Calrissian freeze Han Solo in carbonite to test it before using it on Luke for transport to the Emperor.
Luke indeed is lured right into the trap but avoids the carbonite and, after dueling with Vader, getting his arm sliced off and then learning his opponent is his father, basically seems to commit suicide rather than joining the Dark Side. Of course Luke doesn't die, though, and instead falls through some kind of drainage system onto the very bottom-most antenna of the otherwise floating Cloud City. He could not look more totally screwed. But, in what is one of my favorite parts of the movie, he summons Leia with The Force—one of a couple foreshadowings that she is part of the same family—and she has the Millennium Falcon return for him. I love when she says, “Chewie, just do it!”, and then when Lando protests (because it’s basically insane to go ahead with the rescue) Chewbacca roars like the MGM lion. And Lando retires to have a Colt 45. However, once they do turn around and fly directly underneath where Luke is hanging from the antenna, I love the brief shot of Lando riding the Falcon's little elevator up to the ship's top hatch to get him. Lando effortlessly attaches a grappling hook to the ship while his small platform rises; it's a subtle reminder that now that he's joined up with the good guys, Lando's moves will be an asset. And while the Falcon is surely my hero Han Solo's ship, I do enjoy to this day how instantly comfortable Lando is in the ship after supposedly many years away from it.
Speaking of Lando, Valarie made what to me was an interesting observation: that as an adult she has more empathy for him as a kind of ambiguous grey-area kind of character, occupying different sides at different times, and being caught in the middle. That of course changes as Lando helps our heroes escape at the end of Empire and will eventually, in the next film, help rescue Han and leading another suicide mission: an attack on the under-construction new Death Star. The original trilogy is formed around these attacks, always against the odds in David-meets-Goliath fashion. There is hardly ever an evenly matched fight anywhere in the whole saga, except for maybe Obi-Wan Kenobi against Darth Maul in a duel from The Phantom Menace that is the silver lining of an otherwise very disappointing movie.
Empire is the most critically acclaimed of the original trilogy and, therefore, the whole saga. It always gets four stars whereas even the original Star Wars movie is often apt to get three. This is not to say such measuring sticks are gospel, of course. I have in some ways been less in love traditionally with Empire than the other movies, but it’s for the same reason other people hail the film as the saga’s best: that it isn’t a predictable good-guys win scenario. There is reason to be hopeful at the end of Empire, but really it’s a relief just to have all survived: even if one has been more or less frozen in concrete. Return of the Jedi isn’t a better film in a qualifiable, dramaturgical sense, but it’s more satisfying to me traditionally simply because the good guys, who were my most beloved fictional characters of any kind growing up (with apologies to “The Fonz”), finally won the whole thing and defeated the Empire. It’s very satisfying to watch your team win.
Even so, Empire Strikes Back is special for its very between-ness, if you’ll forgive my using a non-existent term. Darth Vader’s famous “I am your father” admission to Luke transforms the series from being merely a great popcorn series to something deeper, which is what ultimately allows, at least in my mind, for the silliness of the Ewoks in Jedi to be forgiven. It’s almost like after Luke resolves not to join Vader and the Emperor in Empire, it’s really all over right then. The Emperor and Vader, both in union and quietly mindful of the threat of each other, aren’t nearly as concerned with the rebellion and its military capabilities as they are with succession and leadership, in a way that recalls King Lear and of course hundreds of other legends, myths and stories following a similar template.
One other thought about Empire Strikes Back and the Star Wars saga: You could make a pretty legitimate argument that the real hero of this series is not Luke or Han or Leia, but R2-D2, who re-connects the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive in both of the first two movies, allowing the ship to escape, and then in Jedi vaults Luke’s light saber to him to save the day. This after R2 was also entrusted with the Death Star plans in the first film. C3PO is of course the bumbling idiot of the series, but R2 is arguably the real hero hiding behind all the blasters and light sabers. I also remember a recent online theory being bandied about, heightened by the characterization of the Wookie planet in Revenge of the Sith, that Chewie was much more a part of the rebellion's senior leadership than was ever let on. But somehow that kind of speculation also crosses a kind of invisible line of Star Wars geekdom. One wants to imagine a world that exists independently of the films, but to go too far in actually doing so takes part of the magic of the movie or movies away.
Needless to say, it's always enjoyable to have had the gift of a childhood favorite that holds up to an adult viewing. There's plenty of pop culture I loved as a kid that doesn't pass that test: The Dukes of Hazzard, anyone?