Thursday, December 10, 2015

Why is 'The Empire Strikes Back' the greatest sequel ever?

One of the signs of a great film is when a character who doesn't speak in anything other than grunts and growls is as expressive as any of the other characters. That's what Chewbacca brings to "The Empire Strikes Back."

Just as it happens whenever I watch its predecessor, "Star Wars," – definitely the first of my cinematic comfort foods, I find myself focusing on a certain character when I watch "Empire."

Sometimes it's Luke Skywalker and how he ends up confronting Darth Vader — despite only getting minimal Jedi training. Other times I get interested in how Han Solo has developed from "I'm not in it for your revolution" in "Star Wars" to volunteering to check out an Imperial probe droid that crashed on Hoth. And I've also ended up being interested in how Billy Dee Williams' Lando Calrissian screws over his good friend Solo and Calrissian's increasing frustration as Vader continues to change the terms of their deal. … Well, you get the idea.

Chewie really grabbed my attention this time around.

When the Wookiee is repairing the Millennium Falcon in the Hoth base, it's easy to see Chewie is frustrated that Solo hasn't been helping him. Actor Peter Mayhew is very animated; his gestures and body language throughout "Empire" really make Chewie more "human."

When Solo hasn't reported in (having looked for Skywalker in the unforgiving cold and snow), it's Chewie who wails his concern, echoing our own worries about the heroes and the Wookiee's friends. Much later in the Cloud City carbon-freezing chamber, Chewie rages against and takes out several Stormtroopers before Solo undergoes the carbon-freezing process. And after his partner's carbonate form is revealed, the Wookiee puts a comforting paw on Princess Leia's shoulder.

Chewbacca is as much of a break-out star of "Empire" as is composer John Williams' unforgettable score, which adds tension, romance, drama, dread and wonder to nearly every minute of the 1980 sequel.

There is so much more that makes "The Empire Strikes Back" unforgettable and undeniably watchable. Again and again and again...

"Empire" sets the standard for every subsequent sequel in the action-adventure, science fiction and fantasy genres. Countless directors have named-checked it with what they envision for their follow-up flicks.

First of all, as the middle part of the classic "Star Wars" trilogy, "Empire" introduces more complicated developments for the main characters and gets audiences asking many, many questions about the events in the film and what might happen in the finale.

Once Darth Vader orders the ground attack against the Rebel Alliance base at Hoth, "Empire" does't let go. Other sequels have taken this a step or so further and started right in the middle of furious action … and then slows down the pace. Vader's pursuit of the Falcon and its crew (Solo, Chewie, Princess Leia and C-3PO) essentially is one long chase scene, culminating in the trap Vader sets for Skywalker in Cloud City.

Just as director George Lucas does in "Star Wars" after Leia's rescue and the trash compactor scene, as "Empire" gains momentum, the story splits up the main characters. Skywalker and R2-D2 are on Dagobah as he learns the way of the Force under Jedi Master Yoda as Vader pursues the Solo and Co.

While the Dagobah sequence is the slowest part of "Empire," it's integral to the story — if not one of
the most important parts of the entire "Star Wars" saga. It's certainly pivotal for the Skywalker family and Luke's journey to being a Jedi Knight (even when he's the last one and only receives minimal training).

Just how important is Skywalker's training with Yoda? If you were to watch all three original "Star Wars" films back to back (which I've done twice, most recently in January!), the Dagobah scenes are situated almost exactly in the middle of the trilogy. That makes Luke learning the Force (aside from his brief time aboard the Falcon with Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars") the foundation of what came before in the saga and what has yet to happen.

Coincidence? I'm not sure.

Given all that, it's stunning to know Skywalker holds his own in his lightsaber duel (his first!) with Darth Vader — that is until the Dark Lord of the Sith essentially cheats by pulling out all his dark side tricks to batter away at his young and energetic opponent.

Dagobah is where Skywalker fails Yoda's first test for him when they encounter each other at his campsite: Patience and tolerance. Over the next few days — or could it be as long as a few weeks? — he attempts to learn what The Force and its dark side offer, when he'll learn the difference and most importantly that "size matters not."

One of Skywalker's failures at Dagobah — at least from Yoda's perspective — is at/in/under the dark, mysterious tree. But again, the experience is important to the young Jedi with what he faces later in "The Empire Strikes Back," not to mention his journey within the saga.

Skywalker sees his own face with Vader's exploding mask. It's not just one of the most disturbing images in the "Star Wars" films, but it's highly symbolic.

(And boy, did fans from 1980 until the release of "Return of the Jedi" ever talk about it! And yes, we talked; there weren't online message boards and the Internet hadn't been thought of in the early 1980s. All we could do was speculate until "Jedi" and through out our theories based on what happened in "Star Wars" and "Empire" …)

Fans in the early 1980s were dying to know what the Skywalker-Vader duel and exploding mask meant — especially after the Big Reveal of all Big Reveal Moments in cinematic history, that Vader is Skywalker's father, Anakin.

First of all, it's obvious the tree experience is the first time Luke feels the presence of the Dark Side. Something draws him there. Yoda tells him "away put your weapons," but Luke seems to think he needs to be armed. (Now why there's a Dark Side presence where the greatest of all Jedi Master has exiled himself is an issue unto itself …!)

I've always imagined the visions of Vader's appearance and Skywalker's face appearing in his mask as warnings for Skywalker to avoid falling to the Dark Side, as his father did. The message to Skywalker is clear — or at least as clear as it can be since Lucas has never explained the sequence to my knowledge: Be aware of the Dark Side; it can seduce you just as it did Anakin Skywalker.

Just as Luke Skywalker prepares his X-wing to leave for Cloud City to save his friends, Yoda warns him to "remember your failure at the cave." Was it a failure because his student entered the tree area? Or that Skywalker felt the presence of the Dark Side?

But really isn't Skywalker a better person — not to mention Jedi — for having that experience? How can he not know what the Dark Side of Force is like if he hasn't felt it?

'Empire' goes dark — very dark

A Captain Obvious statement here: "The Empire Strikes Back" is one dark film. There are maulings, torture, betrayal and an amputation.

The main character quickly goes from being a hopeful, naive farm boy to a man burdened with knowing that Darth Vader — the very man who killed his first Jedi mentor in cold blood before his eyes — is his father. Solo's best friend betrays him and he then gets tortured by Vader — who never asks him any questions. Threepio gets blown apart. The Falcon nearly doesn't live up to its reputation as "the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy" since the ship's hyperdrive unit continually malfunctions.

The list goes on … but it's safe to say all this is quite a shock given how much critics praised its predecessor as bringing the film industry out of such a dark period that focused on anti-heroes.

As far as future franchises that end as trilogies, filmmakers also tend to take a darker path with their second movie. That's exactly what Lucas and director Irvin Kershner did with the next installment of "Star Wars;" Team Lucas went dark. Really dark — all while amping up the action and suspense.

The first Big Reveal

Why else is "The Empire Strikes Back" is so influential?

Darth Vader's revelation of being Anakin Skywalker is the biggest Big Reveal movement on film. And quite possibly in pop culture history.

Nobody saw Vader's revelation coming.

It hit all of us like the cinematic equivalent of a ton of bricks. Vader had just cut off Skywalker's right hand. And then Vader has the balls and audacity to deliver a line that floored all of us: "No. I am your father."

"Vader couldn't be serious about being Luke's father? … Could he?," we thought in 1980.

Skywalker's reaction is much like movie audiences: "Nooo! That can't be true! That's impossible." But Vader remains steadfast: "Search your feelings. You know it to be true."

Many fans — and I was one of them for a while — thought the Dark Lord of the Sith was just toying with Skywalker's mind. Fans assumed Vader simply was trying to seduce him to work together in bringing down Emperor Palpatine so they could "rule the galaxy as father and son."

This was the most memorable moment in "Empire" — but you never mentioned to someone who hadn't seen "Empire" yet in 1980. It was as if audiences across the world had signed a silent and mutual pact not to reveal the Big Reveal.

That's right; "The Empire Strikes Back" contains what's likely the first-ever spoiler. Vader's five-word Big Reveal is the first "oh s**t!" moment, when audiences can't believe what they saw and heard.

Whether it's on film or in TV and print, countless writers have attempted to create that same kind of moment.

Just as big of a storytelling innovation is even though the events of "Empire" move the "Star Wars" saga storyline to improbable places, there's no happy ending. With Skywalker dealing with the fact that the most feared and dangerous man in the galaxy is his father and Boba Fett taking the carbon-frozen Solo to Jabba the Hutt, "Empire" ends as nothing less than a cliffhanger.

It's no wonder "The Empire Strikes Back" gets people talking and is my favorite of all the "Star Wars" films. Grade: The exceptionally rare A+

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