Star Wars countdown – The Empire Strikes Back

As part of my countdown to the release of The Force Awakens, this week it was time for The Empire Strikes Back. (We’ve tickets to see the new film on Sun 20th, so will be timing our countdown to watch ROTJ on the Saturday night before that.)

ESB is many people’s favourite Star Wars film… I prefer the narrative clarity of A New Hope over this. ESB just doesn’t work as a stand-alone story, despite all the (many) things in its favour.

So, some random thoughts/questions, and then I’ll get onto that structural point.

– Why does the opening scroll say that it’s a dark time for the Rebellion? They’ve just won a major victory. I have to doubt the quality of their strategic leadership… Plus, have you seen this? http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/35008095/star-wars-experts-calculate-cost-of-death-star-and-its-destruction The universe should be in an economic depression of galactic proportions at this stage.

– How does a massive, hairy Wampa sneak up on a Jedi wannabe? There is a lack of natural cover on Hoth… Then, when Luke does free himself and he chops off the Wampa’s arm, why does he not finish the job, and stay in the relative warmth and comfort of its icy home, rather than fleeing out into the (supposed night) cold?

– Where does the Wampa buy his Jedi-foot-glue? That stuff’s amazing! Is there a little corner shop/ general store somewhere outside the Rebel base?

– This is sci-fi world building at its best… Hoth, Dagobah, asteroid fields, a city literally in the clouds…

– We are introduced into this film via Han Solo, and some great action scenes. Straight into the action, without too much boring exposition this time ‘round. Han does a lot of the heavy lifting in this film, and his charisma is one of the reasons why this is many people’s favourite.

AT-ATs can only fire forwards, and lumber around at a glacial pace… So why do the Rebels keep circling and putting themselves in harm’s way? (Just fly behind them and blow their legs away!) What are these Rebel shields that can resist bombardment from space, but are vulnerable from the ground? There are massive inconsistencies in the use of shield technology throughout this scene – both in when it works, and when it fails…

– Ever been tempted to go off the grid and live in the wilderness on your own for years? Yoda may put you off that idea. He’s like an old cat lady who’s lost her cats…

– The training scenes with Luke and Yoda are amazing… possibly my third favourite example of the training montage. Imagine how much my other two favourites – Rocky training on a Siberian mountainside in Rocky IV; Nic Cage doing handstand push-ups as he narrates a letter to his young daughter in Con Air – would be improved by having a Yoda-in-a-bag upon their back…

– (In fact, Nic Cage’s character in Con Air was Cameron Poe. There is a character in Force Awakens called Poe Dameron. Coincidence?)

– Does that asteroid have an atmosphere, comfortable temperature, and gravity? How does the asteroid creature feed? Breathe? Reproduce? It must be so lonely and hungry…

– Am I not giving Luke enough credit in these films? He can fly an X-wing with literally no training, and a couple of days with Yoda and he can take on Vader… Imagine how strong he’d be with, ooh, a full week of training. This does beg the question: what exactly did the Jedis do with the younglings for all their years of teaching?

– Does the Empire have a fast-track recruitment and promotion scheme to replace all the senior officers killed by Vader?

– When Yoda says to Obi Wan, “there is another” – is this evidence of

(a) Obi-Wan having forgotten all about the second of the Skywalker twins, despite having been present at the birth;
(b) Obi-Wan being a massive misogynist;
(c) Obi-Wan fearing that there was insufficient time to train Leia to face the growing threat posed by Vader (really?);
(d) George Lucas making this stuff up as he goes along.

– This is by some distance the most quotable Star Wars film, between Han’s put-downs and romantic replies (“I love you” – “I know”), Yoda’s wisdom (“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”), Vader’s polite barbarism (“Apology accepted“) and Boba’s minimalism (“He’s no good to me dead.”)

– The inconsistency of Han being bound when put into carbonite, then being frozen with his hands held up in front of him, irks me every time…

– Why the theme park funride of death in Cloud City? What possible purpose does that serve? And another health and safety nightmare walkway (see my comments on A New Hope)

– Oh look, the Falcon’s engines have failed… Again. Yawn.

– Why does Leia kiss Luke and Han so much? Is she French?

– Leia definitely kisses Luke on the lips this time, despite the “there is another” hint to her parentage. Ew. Also, ew to everything Lando says when they first arrive, the sleazy little man.

The structure thing

As I said at the outset, this film does not stand alone. You can watch, and enjoy, this without having seen A New Hope, but to see the resolution you have to watch Return of the Jedi. I do not like any film that refuses to give me closure in such a blatant way, and the ending of this film is a definite anti-climax. It starts so energetically with drama on Hoth, has an interesting mid-section on Dagobah, then fizzles out at the end in Cloud City, with the heroes scattered, and the battle lost.

(For me, the film takes a noticeable downward turn once Han is on Cloud City, despite the Luke-Vader showdown.)

The midpoint of the film is Luke’s vision in the dark side cave, which holds up a mirror to his greatest (as yet unspoken) fear – that he will become the thing he is battling against, and give in to the power of the dark side. This resonates with the end of the Vader-Luke showdown, with Luke literally throwing himself to this potential death rather than joining Vader, and also foreshadows that great “I am your Father” revelation… BUT as a midpoint it doesn’t actually change Luke’s behaviour in the second half of the film.

The ever-whingey, “it can’t be done” proto-Jedi decides to bail on his training, against the advice of his mentor, to rush to aid his friends, even though he’s not ready to really help them, ie by defeating Vader. He is again taking the easy path. He hasn’t changed at all.

How much more daring would it have been for him to have stayed on Dagobah, and really knuckle down in a focused way, knowing that the clock was ticking against him, rather than rushing off at the first hint of trouble. Imagine the increase in tension that could have been built in by this. Sure, rushing off makes him a great friend. But it also makes him an idiot, and not someone worthy of the label “Jedi”. I’ve spent longer writing this post than he’s spent learning the ways of the Force!

Overall, ESB is a compilation of “scenes we’d like to see” from the Star Wars universe, rather than a film /story in its own right.

  • Space battles? Check.
  • Lightsabres? Check.
  • Revelations about parentage? Check.
  • Training montage? Check.
  • Quotable dialogue? Check.

And yet…

Still, at least it doesn’t have little furry Ewoks in it, solely to shift some merchandise. Next week, Return of the Jedi!

 

Photo: flickr.com/photos/randar/14430050919

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Star Wars Countdown – A New Hope

As part of my family’s weekly countdown to seeing The Force Awakens, I’ve been blogging about each episode of Star Wars. This week, it was the turn of Star Wars itself, or A New Hope as revisionists would call it (wrongly 🙂 ).

This is a film that has defined so much of my life, that I grew up with (I still have the original pillow case from my childhood, although sadly not the toys)… it’s impossible to write anything about it objectively. It is not a perfect film, but I would still place it in my favourite “Top 5” of all time (alongside Goodfellas, Godfather Pt 1, Shaun of the Dead, and Finding Nemo seeing as you asked). That list may change a little over time, but Star Wars has been a constant. Hey, even the revised header for my blog (“A Certain Point of View”) is based on a Star Wars quote.

So… what are the best of the best bits for me?

1 – Universe-building
From the opening scene, giving us the scale of the Imperial Star Destroyer as it takes an age to scroll across the screen, to the twin suns on Tattooine, to the Cantina scene in Mos Eisley, to the wonderful names (Grand Moff Tarkin, Death Star, Darth Vader, Wookiee) that stay just the right side of silliness (Porkins excepted), to the scruffy charm of the Millennium Falcon (down to the dice hanging in the cockpit), to the sterile, mechanical interior of the Death Star… this is a rich, immersive, fantasy experience, set a long time ago and far, far away, but utterly recognisable at the same time.

2 – The action
The second half of the film is pretty much action-packed, squeezing in lightsabre fights and space dog-fights that have set the template for the space/fantasy genre.

3 – The music and sound effects
John Williams has given us so many amazing film scores in his time… scoring Jaws or ET alone may have been enough for an ordinary mortal… but his work on Star Wars is incredible. It papers over the cracks in the clunky dialogue, and keeps raising the tension throughout. And all this without the Imperial March yet (which comes in with Empire Strikes Back).

The sound effects deserve mention too. This is all part of the world building, but the thrum of the lightsabre is so embedded in culture now that it’s hard to remember that there was a time before. Plus, some of the sound effects of things as simple as Obi Wan shutting down the tractor beam… in one of my early jobs, whenever I turned the power on in the backroom, I would try and imitate that exact sound effect… I still do now from time to time…

Now, in the interests of at least attempting objectivity, here are the three worst facets of the film (NB – I watched the special edition, and simply skipped over the pointless added Jabba scene… as should you):

1 – Luke
Are we really supposed to be rooting for this whiny farm boy? Give me the piratical charm of Han Solo (who definitely shot first, and would do it again in a heartbeat) anyday! “It just isn’t fair!”… give me strength. Also, why is he more upset about Obi Wan’s death than the death of his adopted parents? Not that he really grieves for either. I’m not getting into that incestuous business of fancying his sister, either. Lucas clearly made up the story as he went along…

2 – Plot holes
These are legion, and tend to be forgiven as “part of its charm”, but as a writer setting out on my path, given numerous pieces of advice about how to structure a story, and checking for logical consistency… it’s tough to swallow this sometimes when you can see how successful some have been without paying any heed to those demands.

– “Only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise.” Really? There is no evidence of this elsewhere in the film…
– “Execute her immediately”… and yet there Leia is, distinctly not executed, when Luke and Han eventually get to her, some time later…
– Why did the Stormtroopers not simply lob down a grenade into the garbage masher, once they knew all the heroes were down there? They just ignore them, and assume that activating the mashing mechanism will do it. Sloppy.
– “I’ve already tried that, it’s magnetically sealed”… when did this happen? There was a gap of about three seconds between you each diving down…
– Why are there so many platforms and unguarded walkways around the Death Star? I appreciate the Evil Empire may not be big on health and safety, but it still seems needlessly dangerous, especially when the Death Star’s planet-killing death ray fires straight past some workers in a side tunnel, making them cower for their own safety…
– Why do they not separate their waste on the Death Star? Surely some of that metal could have been recycled…
– “They’re coming through!” Er, they’re not. Well, not when this was said anyway.
– If Leia believed that their escape from the Death Star in the Falcon was too easy, and that the Empire let them go, then why fly immediately to the hidden base that she’s been resisting attempts to unveil throughout?
– Is it really possible to fly an X-Wing into a planetary life or death situation without so much as 5 minutes instruction? (And is it appropriate to compare making an all-or-nothing shot on the Death Star with TIE fighters trying to kill you with “bulls-eyeing wamp rats in your T-16″… what is a wamp rat anyway? why do the young people of Tattooine fly around taking potshots at them? poor wamp rats…)

3 – Characterisation
The central characters are based on tropes, rather than rounded people. The wizard, the princess, the pirate… When we first meet each of them, they can be described as “spiky” (Leia), “cocky” (Han), and “whingey” (Luke)… they are the same at the end. Sure, Luke shows some ability with the Force (and I will allow that he is slightly less whingey), and Han shows he’s not just about the money, but would it be too much to ask for a proper character arc? Or even more rounded characters, with flaws and competing motivations? I think this is why Star Wars obsessives like me cling to the “Han Shot First” theme, because this is the only hint we get of any of our central trio having a hint of a darker side, or something “non-linear” about their character. The fact that George Lucas tried to airbrush this out of history in the special edition speaks volumes for the way that he lost the plot after Return of the Jedi…

So, on to Empire Strikes Back next week – many people’s favourite instalment in the franchise. I’ll be casting my critical eye over that in similar fashion. I’d love it if you’d join me 🙂

 

Previous instalments:
https://altheauthor.wordpress.com/2015/11/15/star-wars-countdown-the-phantom-menace/
https://altheauthor.wordpress.com/2015/11/28/star-wars-countdown-the-revenge-of-the-sith/

 

 

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