Hi folks! It’s that time again. We all know I’m a fan of Memory Lane, so here’s another round of rumination for you. As I continue my exploration of what keeps me coming back to each Star Wars film individually, I’m taking a look at The Empire Strikes Back this month. As much as I talked about nostalgia last time, the second film in the saga may hold even more warm, fuzzy thoughts. It is the first movie I remember seeing in a movie theater. My brother took me to see it. I’ve mentioned before how funny I thought “Laugh it up, fuzzball” was to me at the time, so I won’t go into that again, but suffice it to say I laughed so much that my brother got annoyed. I’ve struggled with how much nostalgia should play a role in these discussions, and I think I’ve come to a conclusion.
Art does not exist in a vacuum. It is impossible to separate a work of art from the time in which it was created. This is not to say that some art does not transcend this, but for me, I’ve realized that the nostalgic feelings I carry with me about certain songs, films, books, etc. are just as valid a part of my opinion of them as any objective opinions on their artistic or intellectual merits. It’s not uncommon to hear someone (and especially me) say “I loved that when I was a kid, but it doesn’t hold up today.” It’s also not uncommon to hear “I loved that as a kid, so maybe that’s why I can overlook its flaws now.” This particular sentiment will come into play a few times as we dive deeper into the Star Wars saga, so let’s bookmark that thought to revisit. The bottom line is this: loving something as a young person should not diminish our appreciation for it as adults. More on that later.
Wow, that was some deep thought for what is usually a fairly unserious look at fandom, wasn’t it? What were we talking about? Oh yeah, The Empire Strikes Back. Ok, so yeah, saw this for the first time in 1980, I would have been 3 going on 4. Obviously I missed a lot of the nuance in the story. I hadn’t even seen Star Wars at this point, and yet I was as shocked as anyone at the end when (SPOILER ALERT) Vader revealed his relationship to Luke. It was several years before I could see it again, but I had all the toys to play with that helped keep the story fresh in my mind. Right around 1983-1984, it was the first VHS tape I rented to watch at home. We each got to pick 2. I chose Empire and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was another film my brother had taken me to see. I owe him a lot. Anyway, at the time, I only had fleeting glimpses of the film retained in my memory. The snow on Hoth, the Tauntauns, the AT-AT walkers, Yoda, Cloud City, “Luke, it’s a trap!” and Luke sliding down into a hole, stopping, and falling through another hole that opened up beneath him. It all seemed very dream-like, and I wondered if I had imagined some of it, or built it up in my mind to be more than it was. And do you know what? I hadn’t. This is a remarkable film. Even today, when I finish watching it, I think “Did all of that just really appear on the screen?” This is, to me, the film with the most impressive visuals. When I think of The Empire Strikes Back, there are 3 things that come to mind: The Hoth sequence, which is my favorite sequence of any film anywhere, the banter between Han and Leia, and the colors, specifically the colors on Bespin, and even MORE specifically, the reds, oranges, and blues of the carbon freeze chamber that begins the battle between Luke and Darth Vader. These are the elements that keep me coming back, so let’s discuss them separately.
First up is the opening of the film on Hoth. What a terrific location. The rebel base carved out of ice, everyone trying to stay warm, the tauntauns, the snowspeeders, the wampa, the probe droid, it’s all amazing. I suppose it makes sense that this would be my favorite segment from any of the films, since it was my very first exposure to the saga. It was just magical to me. Growing up in Texas, I had rarely ever seen snow, so it seemed even more like an alien world to me than it might have otherwise, but there’s more to it than that. The technology we see, the alien creatures, even the costumes have always captured my imagination. Tauntauns are such interesting-looking creatures, they’ve always been my favorite of the “beasts.” We even get a bit of horror-esque gore in this section, first when the Wampa catches Luke and Luke chops the monster’s arm off, and again when Han finds Luke and has to slice open his Tauntaun’s belly to keep him warm. Couple all of this with the introduction of the AT-AT walkers, the snowspeeders (another of my favorite vehicles), the Imperial Snowtroopers (my favorite of the troopers), and it’s really everything this kid could want. I mentioned the costumes earlier. Even as a kid, I was drawn to movies with strong characters and unique visuals. The Hoth winter wear is among my favorite “collections.” Again, growing up in Texas but preferring the cold weather, I always wanted one of those cool brown vests with the off-white hat and goggles, they just look REALLY COOL. We’ll talk more about costumes later, but suffice it to say, there are times when I JUST want to watch the Hoth section.
Next up is the Han and Leia story. This is sort of a microcosm of all the relationship work in the film, but it is really what holds the middle section together for me. I mentioned above that I was always drawn to characters in films, and I’ve also always been appreciative of great dialogue. Even as a kid, I loved wordplay, and Han and Leia have some of the best back-and-forth of any film, and certainly the best of the franchise, in my opinion. Even at 3 and a half years old, I could tell that their bickering came from a place of affection that they didn’t want to admit to one another. That’s a testament to the quality of the writing as well as the astounding performances of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. I am of the opinion that Ford deserved an Oscar nomination for both Star Wars and this film, and the more I watch Carrie Fisher, the more I’m convinced that she should have received one as well. They do SO much for their section of the story. Empire is basically two films edited as one: Han and Leia’s story and Luke’s journey to learn from Yoda and face Darth Vader. Of the two, I’ve always found Han and Leia far more interesting. That isn’t because there’s anything wrong with Luke’s story, I’ve just always been drawn to stories about relationships, and this is truly one of the best love stories ever put on film. The fact that it plays out in the background of a larger story just proves how rich the Star Wars saga really is. I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic, and whereas most people wanted the fairy tale, I’ve always wanted Han and Leia.
I’ve discussed the environment of Hoth, and the relationship between Han and Lea, so now it’s time to talk about the colors of Bespin. If you listen to Comics with Kenobi, you’ll know that I talk a lot about color on that show. A LOT. I’m drawn to color, especially in film. I respond to color in much the same way I respond to music, so the work that Irvin Kershner and the art director and cinematographer did on the film as a whole is remarkable, and the scenes on Bespin are my favorites from this standpoint. It begins with the air around Cloud City. The pink and orange hues set against the clouds and the orange color of the Twin Pod Cloud Cars just seems so otherworldly and exotic. It’s as lush as Tatooine seemed barren. On a side note, the Twin Pod Cloud Car is one of my favorite vehicles in the films. I own several plastic versions, and I’m always on the lookout for new ones. Once the Millennium Falcon lands, we are taken inside where everything is a pristine white. It’s so white that it’s difficult to see much detail, but I like that, because it’s a stylistic quirk, and also because it allows to behold Lando Calrissian’s costuming in all its glory. The dark pants with the light blue shirt set him apart from everyone, and the fact that it ALMOST looks like an Imperial uniform should clue us in that he may not be on the side of our heroes. However, we don’t notice that because LOOK AT THAT CAPE!!!! It’s the same color blue as his shirt, except the inside is paisley! The Galaxy Far, Far Away has PAISLEY!! That, my friends, is awesome. This man has style to spare. His costume coupled with Leia’s almost wine-red gown just makes everything seem a bit more elegant here in the clouds. The real color bonanza for me is yet to come, however. When Lando’s betrayal is revealed and the action moves to the carbon freezing chamber, we get my favorite interior environment in the entire trilogy. The deep red-orange lights, the dark blue backlighting behind everyone, the steam and smoke escaping, it all makes it seem like we’ve descended into hell. It just FEELS evil. When Vader and Luke begin their battle in this location, it feels like we’ve been thrust into an expressionistic nightmare. We started out on Hoth, which entranced me because of all the white and the cold. We end here, in this red-orange and blue vision of menace and dread. These bookends are what The Empire Strikes Back have always been to me. When I don’t stop it after the battle of Hoth, I’m sometimes just biding my time through the rest of the film to get to this point so that I can just soak it all in. Kershner did an amazing job with the lighting in this sequence. The images stayed seared into my mind from the time I saw it in the theater until I was able to watch it again on VHS. I remember thinking when I rented the tape that it couldn’t possibly have been as magical as I remembered. I’ve been wrong once or twice in my life, and that was one of those times. These colors are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any other film and I come back to it often just to see them again.
I realize I’ve made almost no mention of Dagobah, and that isn’t to say that I have no appreciation for it. As an environment, it is on-par with anything in the Star Wars universe for creativity and production design. The fact that I gloss over it to discuss what happens on either side is more a comment on the sway that the bookend sequences hold over me than it is a comment on the quality of the middle portion. The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite of the Star Wars films, and that would not be the case if the entire film was not amazing, so please don’t walk away thinking I dislike Dagobah. I just REALLY love Hoth and Bespin.
So, now you know what brings me back to watch The Empire Strikes Back over and over again. Sadly, it is the one I’ve seen the least in a cinema, so I hope that the powers that be decide to re-release it theatrically sometime in the near future. I’m honestly amazed that it isn’t an annual event. Until then, I have my blu-ray disc, which I will watch repeatedly until the NEXT blu-ray release that has some recently unearthed screen test of Richard Pryor reading for the part of Lando. That actually might have worked, I can’t believe nobody has ever mentioned it before.
I’ll be back next month with my ruminations on The Return of the Jedi. I know you can’t wait.
May the Force of Others Be With Us all.
Margot and Archie both say hi.
Jeff can be heard weekly on Assembly of Geeks (www.assemblyofgeeks.com) and on his own podcast network, MarvinDog Media (www.MarvinDogMedia.com) where he hosts The Pilot Episode, Talking Toys with Taylor and Jeff, and Bantha Banter: A Star Wars Chat Show. He is also co-host of Comics With Kenobi with fellow CWK blogger Matt Moore, on CoffeeWithKenobi.com, which you have already found if you’re reading this blog. You can contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org.