Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Why Star Wars is better than Empire Strikes Back

By Star Wars of course I mean the original film that screened in 1977, which is now known as 'Star Wars: A New Hope'.

I saw it long before the colon and second clause. My dad drove me around the city to see it, over and over again when I was little, God bless him. I don't think there's any film I've seen as many times as the original Star Wars.

Now, just about everyone out there believes Empire is a superior film to Star Wars. They've been saying this for, oh, decades.

It's simply taken as objective fact.

Well, I'd like to offer an opposing viewpoint, one that rejects popular opinion and opposes reality as you know it.

I assert that Star Wars is the better film. It isn't perfect (nothing is), but it's better than all the other films in the series.

Here's why:

1) Relatable characters

Mark Hamill has been endlessly mocked for his "But I wanted to pick up some power conveeerters!"line, and general whiny demeanor in Star Wars in general, but I think he played the part perfectly.

Look at his performance with the Biggs character in the cut footage: Hamill is his character, while Biggs is stiff and artificial. Hamill inhabits the role in every scene. Think about it: do you think Hayden Christiansen would have been able to pull it off? I don't think so: he'd have been whiny and artificial and I wouldn't buy into his character for a second.

Not so with Hamill, whose performance in Star Wars I bought into completely. His acting choices were spot on, either because that's who he was, or because he was able to find and identify with the character of Luke Skywalker. Maybe he'd worked in a dead end job as a teenager and had dreams of seeing the world… talk about material young people (the target audience) can relate to!

In Empire, as the aspiring Jedi Knight, he's just not as good. At the film's climax, when he delivers the line, "That's not true. That's impossible!" it comes across as (ahem) forced, as scenery chewing. I didn't believe it. Now, there's no question it was a very difficult scene to pull off. The actor and the director might have had conflicting ideas how to deliver the lines.

Speaking of which, some of the dialogue in Return of the Jedi is so hackneyed it'd tax the most accomplished thespian.

Don't get me started on his preposterously convoluted scheme to rescue Han from Jabba. That has to be the most unnecessarily ad hoc, messed up, badly planned rescue in cinema history. Honestly, did he consult Inspector Clouseau or Mr. Bean? And this guy is supposed to save the galaxy? Seriously? He can't competently plan a simple rescue operation!

But back to the relatable characters: we've got the feisty Princess Leia, who won't take no crap from nobody, and the lovable rogue, Han Solo, who everyone wants to either be or be with. People aren't identifying with their jobs (princess and smuggler), of course, but with their personality types.

Can you identify a personality type in the prequels?


Didn't think so.

See Red Letter Media's famed take down for more.

As for Empire, Lando Calrissian is fun and entertaining, but just a mirror image of Han (and maybe a little more of a lothario), so nothing really new.

Yoda's a great character, but even with all the Frank Oz wizardry behind him, is not relatable. He's just not. I'll bet you know some whiny teenagers, back talking riot girlz, and lovable rogues, but I'll bet you don't know any midget sensei who speak in broken syntax.

2) Fresh take on the genre

When the first Star Wars hit the screen it was like a hurricane of fresh air. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Well. Okay: except Flash Gordon. But this was such a huge leap forward, such a refreshing take on the earlier space pulp material that it transcended its point of inspiration and became something else entirely. It became a phenomenon. People went to the theatre over and over again to see it, and cinema has never been the same since. It was the beginning of a four billion dollar franchise, and it was still unhindered by mounds of marketing crap weighing down the original creativity.

I recently heard some of the music from the first film, out of the blue, and out of context. And I was struck by the feelings it dredged up. It felt fresh, hopeful, wistful, like a beautiful lost dream. Just without all the additional hackneyed crap that got stuffed into the franchise over time by dozens and dozens of different, disconnected creators, marketers, writers, artists, and toy and game manufacturers.

As Jonathan Price's High Sparrow might say–if I may mix my franchises–there was something clean and pure about the original 1977 film. Strip away all the bells and whistles and CGI and toy tie ins, and you're back to the first film and something that might even be described as edgy. Daring. Hopeful. It was made by dreamers, invented on the fly, innovated while it was being shot with whatever could be found. No one was saying 'no, you can't do that,' and 'no, you can't do this'.

It was pulp art, but it was art.

A joyous flight of imagination.

Now it's a bloated, multibillion dollar behemoth, and some of that lithe, elegant purity was lost along the way.

It was probably sold off in a value meal.

3) Powerful character arc

Luke goes from being the aforementioned discontented teenager whining about power converters to a can-do man of action who saves the galaxy from The Death Star. At the beginning of the film, he believes himself to be powerless, unable to effect a vast and indifferent universe. Over the course of the picture, he learns he must take responsibility for his own life. He has to stand up and be counted and participate.

And he does.

Big time.

Is that not a great arc? Whiner to winner? From being helpless and outside the system to being a key part of a galaxy spanning adventure?

His outlook changes, his position changes, and he realizes his dreams.

What's his arc in Empire?

He hunkers down with Yoda and must learn to temper his teenage ambitions ("Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless."), and he begins to do so. Then he runs off to save his friends and have more adventure and excitement.


He grew as a character.

But is it as dramatic as in the first film?

Is it as exhilarating? 

First time round, he goes from zero to hero. Second time out, he goes from hero to… somewhat more tempered hero.

Just not as powerful a journey.

But wait, you say. That's not fair: what about the revelation at the end, that Vader is his father? That's a great twist, right? Yes, it sure is! But it does come with a price: first, it damages Obi Wan Kenobi as a character. It contradicts the first film. And, secondly, it makes the universe smaller and more contrived. As great a twist as it is, it reeks of the soap opera, where people are forever running in to their evil twin, he's are really she's, and lovers discover they're (ew) siblings.

Star Wars (of Our Bold and Beautiful Lives) was just done with a bigger budget, better score and more heavy breathing.

Yes, true, that's why it's called Space Opera.

But there's good opera, and then there's bad opera.

Empire begins the 'shrinkage' of the galaxy when it reveals Luke's the son of Vader. By the third film, Leia is his sister. In the Prequels, it is revealed C3PO was built by Vader.

Buddhists like to say 'everything changes, everything is connected, pay attention.'

It's all holistic.

And it's standard practice to emphasize this in film, to connect characters and tie them in tightly together in a meaningful way, far more so than in real life, but here? It just makes the galaxy seem small and creepily inbred.

Honestly, couldn't they find a love interest for Luke that wasn't his sister?

4) Epic ending and a sense of scale

We begin with a farm boy, a couple of fleeing droids and some stolen plans. We end with a space station the size of a small moon blowing up just before it was about to vaporize another planet.

Talk about stakes! Talk about tension!

Will Luke save the rebel base and all his friends, or will the Empire be triumphant, destroying not only the Rebellion HQ, but the stolen plans along with it?

The villain here isn't just Tarkin and Vader, but the Death Star itself. It's a menace to the entire galaxy, a mobile doomsday machine. And it's already killed a planet full of people!

And what do they attack this planet sized peril with?

Teeny, tiny fighters.

Drama is about conflict and contrast, right? Scale makes things epic. Well, here we have the greatest, most dramatic difference in scale in pretty much the entire history of cinema: man vs. planet.

Goliath has nothing on the Death Star.

Seriously, how much bigger was he than David? Twice his size, perhaps? Maybe even three or four times if we want to be really dramatic.

Have you ever noticed that? When we tell a story, we naturally want to up the stakes. It wasn't two guys fighting us, it was four. And we had to go to school uphill, both ways.

Storytellers make villains bigger and more powerful, the cost of defeat more dire, and the hero's disadvantage greater, all in order to make victory sweeter.

How much larger is the Death Star compared to the hero? We're talking single seat fighters vs. a freaking planetoid.

You can't get a more dramatic, more epic difference in scale than that.

Except maybe my ten year old nephew, who'd have the hero fight an anthropomorphized galaxy.

But never mind him.

Finally, and somewhat controversially, there's the sexual subtext. Lots of people say this isn't there, at all, and only a sick perverted mind would even allege it. Sorry. They're in denial. The art direction gives the game away.

What am I talking about? The final attack on the Death Star is analogous to impregnation. Tiny sperm (the fighters) attack the massive egg (the Death Star) which then explodes (in orgasm).

Which just adds to the thrill of the climax.

What does Empire offer us?

Han is captured and put in carbonite (which is pretty inspired, really). Luke learns the truth about his father and gets a hand chopped off to boot, putting him one step closer to being a cyborg like his dear old dad.

It's a cliffhanger.

There's no real resolution.

No payoff.

No real ending.

No adrenaline rush.

True, you can argue that this is a more mature, more nuanced, and more thoughtful film. At least, as thoughtful as a movie with laser guns and a green Buddhist puppet can be.

And yet… is thoughtfulness what you want from Space Opera?

A better argument is that the series is a cinematic version of the old serials from the thirties and forties, each ending with a compelling cliffhanger that makes you want to come back.

Now that I can agree with, and in that sense, the soap opera/serial aspect of Empire makes it great. Yet there is a price to be paid for this approach: the quality of the film ultimately becomes dependent on the next in the series, as Empire is not self-contained to the degree Star Wars was, and requires Jedi to provide the ending.

By making it part of a greater whole, each part must support the others, and if one fails, it reduces the sum of the total.

And unfortunately Jedi is not anywhere near as good a film as the first two in the original trilogy.

True, the character of the Emperor was inspired and played with cackling, divine malevolence. He's the best part of the picture. But much of the rest of it doesn't measure up.

5) Unencumbered possibility

As more detail and baggage was added to the Star Wars universe, possibilities were defined out of existence. What was in the realm of the audience's imagination was turned into products, and the elegance of the original narrative thread became convoluted and contradictory.

It began with Empire ('He betrayed and murdered your father' to 'No, Luke, I am your father) and only got worse from there.

Marketing concerns loomed ever larger, trumping story telling. For example, Han Solo was to be killed off in Jedi, but was spared because Lucas was afraid it would hurt toy sales.

At least in Empire, story was still king.

In the prequels, it got to play court jester.

1 comment:

  1. I could have sworn I read this magnificent essay and commented...but, I guess not. (Maybe I did in Google+?)

    Anyhow, spot on analysis. I heartily agree.

    While anticipating "The Force Awakens", I maintained to some others chaps that "Empire" lost me with that ridiculous soap opera "I am your father" moment. When I first witnessed that moment, I was dismayed at the cliche of it all. And then, while we all waited for "Jedi", I held out that it nothing but a diabolical ruse from Darth Vader to rattle his opponent. wasn't. Heavy sigh.

    Of lesser stature, but still a sharp skewer into the mythos, was Lando and Han. Up until halfway thru "Empire", the Millennium Falcon was Han's pride and joy. A space hopping hot rodder who built his machine from nothing but a handful of bolts and the chassis. HIS BABY. Except...he won it from Lando in a card game! WHAT?!?!?

    Cliffhanger endings are all fine and good...when it doesn't take two-three years for the next instalment! Then they are purely ridiculous. The fate of Flash Gordon over the magma pits of Mongo was resolved next Saturday, not after all the fans graduated high school.

    Right now, I only have a copy of "Star Wars" in my collection. To paraphrase from Scotty from the Other Franchise, "with no bloody 'New Hope' or 'Episode IV'". I used to have the whole trilogy, but one can't watch "Empire" with the cliffhanger ending without immediately watching that glass of flat, room temperature cola called "Return of the Jedi".

    Cheers for the blog post!