Friday, October 24, 2014

My Troubled Relationship with Empire

(Originally Written for Jedi News)

When I submitted my first May the 4th Saga reviews a year and a half ago, I maintained that Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back was my personal second favorite film of the Saga.

About a month later, it was my fifth favorite.

A few months after that, it was third.

"Away, put your flaming! I mean you no harm!"

If I’m being completely honest, while the other Star Wars films are pretty set in my favorability order in relation to one another, Empire hops all around the board for me sometimes on a weekly basis. It will never again be my most favorite (that’ll be Phantom, but every Star Wars film up to this point except Clones has taken that title at some point in my life), nor will it ever again be my least favorite (and remember: least favorite is still a favorite!). But of all the Star Wars films, my feelings about Empire are definitely the most complicated.

First, a little history. When I first saw IV-VI in theatres with the Special Edition releases at age 11, it was definitely my least favorite. I found it, on the whole, rather boring, and aside from the Yoda stuff and the classic ending, there wasn’t as many memorable parts compared to the other two. At around age 16-ish, I had gone completely the other way. It was my favorite for how dark and “adult” it was compared to the other two, and I was seeing things I hadn’t seen before that made me love it.

"He's talking about me again, isn't he? Will you bloody let it go?!"

By my mid-20’s, however, I had begun to settle into the order I have now. I have a clearer understanding of what George Lucas was trying to do with the Saga’s story, a better sense of what kind of movies these are, and where their strengths and weaknesses truly lie.

I stand by the assessment I made in my May the 4th review: Empire is one of the most well-done of the Saga on a technical and compositional level, and should be given every accolade for throwing the narrative curveballs and being a different kind of “part 2” than moviegoers were used to at the time. At the same time, it’s a little too different. It feels, in some respects, like it’s trying to be better than it should be, and thus is really one of the poorer examples of the Star Wars Spirit that makes the Saga as a whole so fun and memorable.

And on a personal level, it’s weird that – consistent with my initial opinions at 11 - it has both some of the most interesting and some of the most boring parts of the entire Saga. Again, I stress that this part is MY OPINION, and not indicative of anyone’s experience but my own. However, there are plenty of days where it’s difficult for me to force myself to care about what Han and Leia are doing and not just fast-forward to Dagobah. I don’t, because it’s Star Wars and fast-forwarding is blasphemy unless you only have time to watch a single scene, but good god do I want to sometimes. But those Yoda scenes are SO GOOD! And the most famous revelation in modern cinema? Perfection! Silly out of context, but still!

"No! I'm not going out there, and I'm not gonna say that STUPID line one more time!"

My dichotomous feelings about the film are further exacerbated, like everything else these days, by those who also count themselves amongst the Star Wars fanbase. I mentioned recently that I have a hard time watching any of the films nowadays without thinking of how unfair mainstream geekdom has been in their assessment of the Saga, but oddly enough it’s Empire where it hits the absolute most.

For not only does mainstream geekdom love Empire, it’s almost sacrosanct that self-respecting fans MUST love it BEST, for it is clearly THE BEST of anything and if you disagree YOU DO NOT BELONG! Not bad for a film that had mixed reviews at best during its initial release. I almost wish the same thing would happen to Phantom in a few decades, though I know it won’t because the internet has a longer memory than the people who populate it.

This attitude makes me want to absolutely hate the movie, especially since this same crowd levies hypocritical criticisms at films for the same so-called “flaws” that they can’t seem to see Empire has. But I can’t, because it’s Star Wars. I love the movie, and it is really good, just not quite as good as people make it out to be. It’s so confusing to me; how can I love a film to death and still feel it’s overrated? I’m sick of hearing about it, sick of hearing critics citing it as the standard of Science Fiction (especially when it’s a space opera fantasy film like the other five), sick of its general fetishization. If someone picks Empire as their favorite, I’m always questioning whether that’s the truth or if they’re just giving what they’ve been told is the “right” answer. But man, the crawl, and the Battle of Hoth, and Yoda, and Vader laying some cold truth on Luke, I light up when I watch it. Even the boring parts, at the times where I don’t want to skip them.

"Yes. Charming."

It’s so hard for me to reconcile it. The film elicits such strong emotions in me both positive and negative, and I never know where to place it. If I place it high, I feel like I’m appeasing the hater crowd. Place it low, and I feel I’m not giving the film its due. Put it midstream, and it feels like a cop-out.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that at the end of the day Empire is just a freaking movie, just like the other five. As much as we love the Saga, there are more important things in this world to worry about instead of who likes what movie a little bit better. Otherwise, how can any of us truly enjoy them the way they’re meant to be enjoyed?


  1. I get your feelings.

    Before I really became shockingly aware that half the Saga was hated by some portion of the crowd, I didn't really have a problem sitting through and watching these films. Nowadays, it's a bit more difficult, and I honestly always have had a hard time seeing why so many think Empire is the best. Sure, I love the Yoda scenes, and I love the "I Am Your Father" moment, but all of the other films have similar iconic moments, and they are in a lot of ways, very similar in their execution and style, that I have a hard time getting around the hatred. But well you know, their are other films some folks call fantastic and when I turn to see them it's rather overrated, so you know, it all really boils down to opinion I guess.

    1. Yeah. Too many people treat opinion as fact nowadays. It's really difficult not to.

  2. I mean, I do feel like a lot of people like Empire for a lot of the wrong reasons- like, people who like it because it's "dark" and "serious" when in all actuality outside of a couple scenes and maybe the ending it's not really all that dark. There's that need people have to have things from their childhood to be gritty and dark, and of the original SW films Empire is the one that fits that bill the best, but I still don't think it fits it very well (honestly, I find ROTS waaaay more dark and humourless, which is one of the reasons I don't like it very much).

    I know you've commented that you feel it's almost embarrassed at times to be a Star Wars film, and I still really disagree with that given how overtly humorous a large part of the film really is. Yeah, it's a tad more mature and serious-minded than the other films, but equally there's a *lot* of jokes, a *lot* of very high-concept stuff (muppet Jedi and cloud cities and all that), and given how huge a fan Kershner was of the original film, I don't think it's embarrassed at all about what it is (not to mention that by this point there wasn't really a notion of what it meant to be a "Star Wars film" anyways).

    I mean, I still think of it as the best of the films, since I do think it's the most technically well-accomplished of the lot and is also the most cohesive. It's also the only one of the films that goes for a very thematic base, which is something I always appreciate a lot (though I should temper that remark by noting that just because the other films don't have as much of a thematic undercurrent is not necessarily an attack against them- you don't *need* that necessarily to be a great film, but the fact Empire has it certainly helps it be one).

    1. I don't know what you mean by "theamatic base".

    2. I should also address that I don't think it's necessarily "embarrassed" to be a Star Wars film, and I do acknowledge that it has its genuine silly side. But for some reason I feel as though it's trying to suppress a lot of that - not always succeeding, but definitely trying. I'm not sure I can explain exactly how or why.

      And I certainly agree that Sith is way darker than Empire or any of the others, but that's really the second half where it gets intensely dramatic. Sith's first act especially has a lot of fun with itself, which is why I don't have the same problem with it. Though I suppose I wouldn't blame anyone for finding it slightly schizophrenic because of it, despite what I feel is a natural tonal shift.

    3. Is it really the first half? I have a hard time remembering anything lighthearted outside of the opening sequence. At any rate, if we're talking relative darkness in the two films, Empire doesn't get really "dark" until the arrival on cloud city, which occurs I think after the halfway point as well for the film.

      And what I mean by thematic base is that the action of ESB is mostly driven by a couple key thematic points, namely Luke's search for identity and "greying up" the moral simplicity of the original film, and this underscores most all the stuff that goes on in the film. Luke and Leia go through similar arcs in discovering themselves and finding their own personal identities, and the dual reveal of Vader's sympathetic side and Lando's betrayal serves to undercut the black-and-white morality of the B-movies that Star Wars homages so much. The lessons Yoda espouses serve as a thematic backbone that the other stories and arcs extend out of, and the end result is a film that's very tight thematically and extremely cohesive in its storytelling. The other films don't really do this, which is again not a bad thing- I'm not going to dock Star Wars for not doing this just as I wouldn't knock North by Northwest for not being Vertigo when watching Hitchcock films. But it is why I think ESB is the best of the films thus far.

    4. Sith: The first act, minus Dooku's death, is straight-up fun action. With the second act, it takes a more serious twist, but everything with Grievous is still rollicking. The Third act, of course, ushered in by Anakin's fall and Order 66, is pretty much where things go straight to hell.

      Empire: But even Hoth I feel has a certain futility to it that few of the other big action setpieces have. There's a grittiness to Empire even in the "lighter" moments that I don't really see in the other films.

      Themes: I kind of get what you're saying, but I would argue that Phantom and Clones are very thematic in the same way. Phantom with its symbiosis and duality, and Clones with everything being foggy and obscured both physically and existentially throughout.

    5. Except that I don't think any themes in Phantom or Clones is dramatized in the action and character arcs the same way. In ESB, the action extends fully out of the themes present- like, in ESB, Luke's arc is his discovery of a bigger and more complex world than he was aware of, and particularly how this manifests in his search for his own identity. This is made textually explicit in the cave scene on Dagobah and the ending, and is an active part of how events move and progress in the film.

      I just don't think you can apply the same sort of base to the arcs of Qui-Gon and Anakin respectively in TPM and AotC. At best, the duality and fogginess are incidental touches made to the texture of the worlds, rather than intrinsically built into the storytelling.

      And re: ESB's darkness, I get what you're saying but I really don't think the futility is really felt until Han/Leia are captured in Cloud City. The Hoth base gets overtaken, yes, but what's crucial is that the filmmakers structure the battle to make it *feel* like a victory, with so much attention being given to the escaping convoys and the destruction of the AT-ATs. And this really does carry through tonally until Lando's betrayal on Cloud City.

    6. I would suggest giving Lard Buiscit's analysis a look if you haven't already. It really opened my eyes to the rampant symbolism in these films.

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    8. I think I've seen it before, and my main issue with a lot of these arguments is that symbolism is not the same thing as thematic unity. There can be all kinds of symbolism thrown into a film, but if it's not actually dramatized into the narrative it's not much more than simple textural stuff. And I'm fully willing to believe there's all sorts of thought and symbolism put into the textures of these films- even at his worst Lucas and his team are *phenomenal* worldbuilders- but I've not found any arguments that that symbolism is built intrinsically into the narrative.