CHRIS: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, US, 1980)

I was twelve years old when EMPIRE… was released. Months and months of insidious immersion in novel tie-ins, comic strips, Starburst features, Look-in posters (Han Solo and Princess Leia, in a clench!) and the appearance of Boba Fett at the local toy shop worked its magic; a laser guided missile aimed at my pre-teen brain. It made a direct hit.

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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that this is the best episode within the series, but it is necessary to transport yourself to the point of the original release in order to understand why it is so good. Regressive hypnosis is needed so that what comes after (and before) is erased from your memory. Back to a time when the tag-line “The Saga Continues” didn’t fill you with a sense of dread. Back to a time when Darth Vader was an intriguing mystery and the unambiguous embodiment of graceful evil.

Back to a time when the films were all about Luke Skywalker. I assumed at the beginning of the film that he was a fully fledged Jedi. He looked different (thanks to Mark Hamill reconstructive surgery following an accident). He sounded different, less shrill (thanks to ‘acting’ and proper direction). There was a thrill when Luke managed to free himself from the Wampa by using telekinesis to pull his light sabre into his hands.

The Hoth sequence is one of the best use of miniature effects in film history as there is a real sense of the weight and terror of the elephantine AT-AT walkers. Phil Tippet, who took his inspiration from Ray Harryhausen, supervised the sequence with such meticulous invention that it still looks extraordinary. When they approach the rebel base, they seem invincible. The snow-speeders swooping in an exhilarating movement over the snow drifts, between the legs of the walkers, bringing them clattering down to the ground is breath-taking.

When they leave Hoth, the action slowed down as Luke set off in a different direction to Han and Leia, to finish his training with a Jedi master. The Millennium Falcon’s adventure went off in an exciting twists and turns involving asteroids, shady Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, C3-PO in bits, extreme-freezing and lurve. Luke on the other hand wades through the narrative swamp of Dagobah with only the whistle-pop, wail of R2-D2 to keep him company.

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Although the force was strong in him, he wasn’t a Jedi yet, so he needed to have additional training. It turns out that the Jedi master that he was sent to look for, by the ghost of Obi Wan, is a little goblin. When I was 12 I held no truck with Yoda. I found him annoying. A conversation between my conscious self and my ‘hypnotically regressed’ version of myself, might so something like this:

 Chris (12): The middle bit is sooo boring – Yoda bickering with a dustbin – there should have been more fighting and battles.

Chris (45): It is a peaceful interlude that depicts of the struggle to do the right thing; a rite of passage that all great people need to confront their fears so that they can be overcome…

 Chris (12): It’s a joke. He’s a cantankerous muppet who was getting in the way of Luke whooping Darth Vader’s arse.

 Chris (45): The moment when he faces Vader only to see his own face beneath the helmet is chilling. He has the latent capacity for evil …

 Chris (12): Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if he wasn’t being admonished by Fozzie Bear every 5 minutes. What was Lucas thinking? He ruined the faith of the fans due to having a really stupid character in it.

 Chris (45): Brace yourself my padawan. Its going to get much worse.

There’s been a collective revisionism towards Yoda as he was as divisive as Jar Jar on its release. As the years have gone by, he has grown in stature. He grew and developed outside of the films, through merchandise. My 45 year-old self has grown to love the character, to such an extent I actually cheered when he faced Dooku (maybe because I knew the end of ATTACK OF THE CLONES was approaching).

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At the end of the film, when the Luke’s paternity is revealed, it messed with my mind. I knew it was coming, but it was still an interesting conundrum. I genuinely believed that it was a bluff, a conspiracy cooked up by the Empire to destabilise the emerging confidence of the rebel alliance. Darth Vader was such a great, mysterious and chilling figure that anything was possible. I remember talking for hours about his sausage-head that we glimpse briefly in this film: what did he look like from the other-side? I loved his casual violence towards those who got in his way. I didn’t care about his motivation or back story, I knew he was really bad.

Nothing is really resolved, its a thrilling cliff-hanger with such tantalising promise that I feel sorry for modern audiences. I’m thankful that I was at the right age to see the film on its release and it is a fitting film to mark number 50 in my list as it hits all the marks: it proves that the second film is always the best; in a small way it was re-writing the rules of film production in a vertically integrated system as it was an independent film entirely financed by Lucas (distributed by 20th Century Fox); it has infiltrated popular culture and everyday idiom; and, it was a personally very significant film in my own developing interest and love of films

My only regret is the inability to watch it again from those 12 year old eyes (and that I was so judgmental about Yoda). The impatience of youth.

9 responses to “CHRIS: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, US, 1980)

  1. I was the same age when “Empire” came out, and I still remember the thrill of seeing it for the first time in the theater. I also recall when the poster was released that it featured Han and Leia dead center preparing for a kiss–and I was horrified. After all, Luke was supposed to end up with Leia, not Han! Oh, what little I knew…

    I don’t remember Yoda being divisive at all. It seems to me that everyone loved him from the start (I know I did), but maybe that was a regional thing.

    • Yes. Seeing Han and Leia getting it on was a shocker!

      Maybe I have over-egged the Yoda thing, but it was certainly the case that there was a mixed reaction amongst me and my friends.

  2. What’s astonishing about Empire is how bleak it is, Han frozen in carbonite, Luke’s severed hand, the sinister threat of Ewoks on the horizon. Revenge of the Sith is comic book stuff by comparison.

    • Han being frozen was jaw-dropping and the extraordinary rendition of Chewie still sets my teeth on edge.

      Were we too quick to forgive Lando? Its brave helping to put a fire out, but does it count if you started it in the first place?

  3. Well said, and I love your description of Vader as “the unambiguous embodiment of graceful evil.”

    My favorite part of the movie as a kid was the Hoth sequence, of course. My favorite part today is Luke’s slow, quiet descent into Vader’s trap, although Hoth is a close second.

    About that wampa cave scene: why doesn’t Luke just kill the damn thing and stay in the cave until the storm is over? Sadly, these are the kinds of things my 41-year-old self notices.

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