Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Empire Strikes Back

National Film Registry.... I am your blogger.

Okay, considering the reaction that gets in the movie and the fact that the personal pronoun is a totally separate line, maybe it's not the best thing to open up with. But when am I going to have another chance to make that joke?

Happy Star Wars Day, my dearest readers. I have to swallow my chagrin that my April Fool's Day post is the most viewed on my blog, but hopefully the new readers went beyond that. But hey, I'm in time for the only other Star Wars film on the National Film Registry. And, in my opinion, it's the best Star Wars film. A New Hope is incredibly important for reviving that sense of fun sci-fi space opera serial. It gave and continues to give new generations that whole wriggling in your seat anticipation.

So if the entire point of A New Hope is how fun it is, why do so many people consider the much bleaker Empire the superior film? I think that's a particularly relevant question now, when so many movies and series are going dark and ending on downers just for the point of being dark. There's been a kind of Kafka-esque gloom suffusing our fantasy and science fiction entertainment, especially over the last 20 years. Is The Empire Strikes Back where it started? I honestly don't know the answer to that. Maybe it started with Alan Moore and with Tim Burton's Batman. We got to like the darker, more frightening style. And yet, The Empire Strikes Back has a different tone than the current crop of "Life sucks so I brood in a barely lit scene" films. Instead of being dark for the sake of darkness, the darkness and doubt feel purposeful. Life isn't going badly for the Rebel Alliance because life itself is pointless and horrible, but because they are in a horrible situation. The downer ending isn't to make us feel like we're more clever for expecting it - it's raising the stakes.

Of course not every science fiction story prior had a hero who won. After all, the movie was made 15+ years after The Twilight Zone. But there's really the rub in this film - the center of a serial is always supposed to raise the stakes. You aren't supposed to believe the heroes could possibly make it out of this alive. In Flash Gordon and Captain Video, the heroes didn't only escape alive, but relatively unscathed. As Annie Wilkes says in Misery, "That's cheating". I think that's where the success of The Empire Strikes Back as a film really comes into play. You can talk about the Zen Buddhist elements, the deepening of the universe, or the storyline that mimics Greek tragedy... but for me, the strongest feature of the film is the lack of cheating. No one escapes unscathed. Leia finally allows herself to unbend a little from the pillar of strength she always has to be... and instantly her lover is forcibly taken from her. Han really finds the core of altruism and selflessness within himself... and is tortured and experimented on. Lando gives up his honor to protect his people... and loses anyway. And of course, there's Luke. Poor, poor Luke. Even Vader gets his first spark of real humanity in this film, where he proposes that instead of murdering his son, he can turn him to the Dark Side... and he is then rejected by a son who chooses death (even if he wound up surviving the fall) over him. I guess that's why the first half of Return of the Jedi feels like it has lower stakes. The Empire Strikes Back is all about these life-changing, often shattering events happening to the main cast, and then you don't see the recovery. Just a moment of hopefulness (though is anyone else bugged by the fact that Lando is wearing Han's clothes in the final scene?), set against that unforgettable backdrop of stars.

Maybe it's not a perfect film and maybe the next film weakens it a bit, but The Empire Strikes Back is space opera at its best.

And remember: the Fourth will be with you. Always.