My Honest Reviews of the Star Wars Films: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Sequels usually follow the law of dimishing returns. Look at The Matrix sequels, which went from pretentious fluff to execrable nuisance in record time. Starting from Star Trek II (because honestly, who really wants to start with The Motion Picture?), the next time we got a truly worthwhile Star Trek film was VI; I may have emotional attachment to The Final Frontier and Star Trek IV was an entertaining “expanded television episode,” but the truth is the truth.

The Law of Increasing Expectations

The Empire Strikes Back is arguably the first film to really buck the trend. It not only bucks it, it raises the bar for what a good sequel to be. It’s not just a re-hash of past triumph; the characters go in interesting directions, the villain is given a more robust treatment and the technical craft is refined.

This is not to say that Empire is completely flawless, as many fanboys would like to proclaim. Even hinting this can often lead to heated arguments, if not other fans proclaiming your apostasy. The Party Line is that The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect film. Kevin Smith said so!

The part where Luke is attacked by the Wampa feels unnecessary. The legend of Mark Hamill’s accident that left him so scarred they had to adapt the movie for it notwithstanding, it feels crammed into place. There are many other ways that they could have had Ben appear to Luke, in many other circumstances, and they would have rung just as true and would have gotten us to the meat of the story a bit quicker.

After the thrilling battle with the AT-AT walkers, the pacing suffers a bit in the middle. The story loses a little focus, and while Han and Leia’s love story becomes more Gone with the Wind, it feels like there’s too much time spent getting there. Luke’s time on Dagobah is momentous, but there’s some dawdling while Yoda espouses philosophy like a stoned college roommate.

The only slow part I won’t particularly hound upon is where Chewbacca re-attaches C-3P0’s head. To borrow the words of the director, the scene is supposed to call to mind the “Alas Poor Yorrick” scene from Hamlet. It does, and when viewed through that lens, it’s actually fairly brilliant.

Where It Delivers

What Empire does have is a brilliant ending. The duel is thrilling, the chase is magnificently executed and a lot of the choices are unexpected. There’s an element of complexity introduced that shows more confidence in having mutliple storylines and resolutions; whereas A New Hope is very linear, Empire experiments with more parallels.

It also introduces some truly interesting side characters. Lando Calrissian is on deck and ready to replace Han Solo should the position open. Boba Fett struts onto the scene, with awesome armor and the sound of gunfighter’s spurs when he walks. The Imperial Captains and Admirals add a flavor to Vader that gives him a much more sinister edge than the original, when he was seemingly restrained by Governor Tarkin.

Of course, who doesn’t love Yoda? A wise muppet, brought to life not only through technical expertise but the subtler interactions from Mark Hammil. I could muse a bit on how a fictional character speaking in fortune cookie feel-good sayings seems to have shifted the spiritual beliefs of an entire generation, but that’s another topic for another time.

Special Edition Changes

I’m not a huge fan of the Wampa insert just because they didn’t get the lighting right. The other changes, especially the expansion of Cloud City, I welcome. And the mystery of Luke’s 1997 yell as he fell? To quote a poster from my old days at the message boards: “Best Un-Change Ever.”

The other small changes took a little adjustment. Of course, no one was going to complain when they fixed the problem of reversed film with Admiral Piett at the end. Digital trickery saves the day! (Now if only they’ll do the fix for Obi-Wan’s braid in The Phantom Menace and Threepio’s eye wires in A New Hope.)

The Final Analysis

What they had the sense to do with Empire was to finish strong. The audience walks out of the theatre wanting more. In a sense, that’s how Attack of the Clones mirrors this one: exciting open, wandering middle and thrilling end.

But that wandering middle does get to me. I’m no enemy of exposition, but what really makes the middle of Empire a sticking point for me is the part where they’re stuck in the slug’s belly. Not so much being detoured into the cave, but the forced point of making it a worm’s belly that suddenly they have to escape to further the plot along. Seems to me that there should’ve been a lot of other possibilities there.

And of course, even though it’s been played into the ground, The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) remains one of the greatest musical cues in the history of anything.

My Honest Reviews of the Star Wars Films: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Revenge of the Sith also came along at an important time in my life. I don’t talk about it, few know about it and I have no desire ever, under any circumstances, to relive it. As always, George Lucas was there to offer the salve on my wounds.

So the natural inclination is to think that I can’t be detached in my assessment of this film. Untrue, I say. Untrue. It happens to be a fact that not only does this film have a special place in my heart, I think that it’s the most perfect film Lucas has ever created. It’s both integral to the story and completely independent, similar to the original film, but it’s also a work created by a filmmaker far more sure of his skills.

Coming of Age

Just about everything having to do with the technical construction of this film is perfect. There are moments, to this day, that blow my mind from exactly how much better the process got in so short an amount of time. Actors shot on a set matted into a model, being attacked by digital figures such as General Grievous.

The cuts are quick, the action is breathless and the musical cues are the most operatic of the series. My joy at the fact that Williams brings in more pronounced string arrangements—even giving my favorite instrument, the violin, a highlighted role—can’t be overstated. It breathes new life into old themes. The newer themes, especially for General Grievous, bring a sense of military bravado to match the much-loved Imperial March.

Death, Destruction and Grievous

As far as digital characters go, General Grievous is a bull’s eye. He’s diabolical fun, quirky in the way that some of the best ancillary characters of the series are, and has a real personality that sells him as real. While the effects are fantastic with him, it’s the voice work of Matthew Wood that closes the deal.

Whereas Dooku is an obvious thematic echo of the man Anakin will become, Grievous is a subtle shout of the nightmare mechanical non-life he’ll be forced to live. He’s also got a twisted sense of humor and the type of laugh that tells you that if he had a mustache, he’d twirl it. Maybe it’s thanks to the sense of humor I got from my father, but I’ll get a chuckle out of Grievous every time.

Abstract Operatics

In a way Lucas comes full circle to his more abstract roots (seriously, watch the original THX-1138 sometime), though with much more polish. Dialogue is only part of the way to tell the story here; Lucas realizes he has a full visual and aural arsenal to unleash. He utilizes it like a Buck Turgid on the Pentagon budget team.

Some may knock him for it, but he gets the balancing act spot-on this time; the music cues, surrounding warfare and a quick shot of Anakin stating he wants to go back and save the clone fliers (all played by Temeura Morrison), followed by Obi-Wan’s quick order not to do so, is all that’s necessary to establish Anakin’s desire always to be the hero. Later, when Anakin puts himself and the newly-rescued Chancellor in danger for the sake of saving Obi-Wan, we see his difficulty in letting go. Like a symphony, we just need ‘hits’ to cue us. This character has a hard time knowing when he isn’t in control.

It’s also reminiscent of the original film in this series, which spends just long enough on important deaths and events to let the music swell and move us along in the story. It allows for a lot of story to be told in a little over 2 hours.

Burnin’ Love

And of course, there’s the love story. This time it’s much more tragic and subtle. The theme of love developing into a desire to control comes to fruition.

Most importantly, we find out two important things about Darth Vader, the iconoclastic villain of our childhoods, whom we turned into an anti-hero of sorts. The first is that he was, in fact, a monster. He didn’t just kill the incompetent or those who wronged him. He killed as a means to an end.

The second was that he had good intentions. At least, ones with which anyone who’s lost a loved one can identify.

The Vader plotline also takes on an interesting personal note from Lucas, but not one I’m sure he’s aware of. The English majors out there can start buzzing about unintentional subtext. It makes this film his most personal since American Graffiti.

Revenge of the Sith is an apology poem written to his ex-wife. If you follow the track of Lucas’ life, he was a wunderkind kid who struggled with his identity in the context of his father, who was eager and came into success much earlier in his chosen career than he probably anticipated. He fell in love with a competent and talented woman.

They got divorced around the time Return of the Jedi was finished. I think that if you look over the prequel trilogy, but Sith especially, you see some reflection on his life as to how his own obsessions—ironically, with technology—claimed his love when he couldn’t reconcile the two. He then became trapped, if you will, by Star Wars as everything he ever did or will do since then will be measured by it. A victim of his own powers, if you will.

I think you’d be crazy to say you don’t see a parallel in this film.

The Final Analysis

I know that this review winds up being exactly the way anyone who knows me expected it to be for at least one of these films. But I’m being truly honest when I say, Revenge of the Sith is as close to perfect as any film of its kind needs to be.

Are there fanboy things that I “wish” had been left in? Sure. But the pacing of this film, something for which I take four of the remaining five to task for, is so spot-on it would be hard to imagine it being improved by changing the editing choices. Of course, given his penchant for Special Editions, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the Blu Ray set. But I will point out that to date, this is the only one of the six that he hasn’t altered in any way when released to DVD. Maybe that says something in and of itself.

My Tribute to Irvin Kershner

As everyone knows by this point, Irvin Kershner died today after a prolonged illness. As everyone also knows, this gets notice because he directed The Empire Strikes Back. In a long career of filmmaking, there’s only one movie that will be used to define him.

It’s not altogether a bad thing to have that claim to fame. After all, he’s partially responsible for crafting an iconic piece of film that has withstood the test of time and come to be regarded as the de facto “favorite” for everyone who speaks about the Star Wars films.

In fact, earlier today when I mentioned his passing and that he had directed Empire, nearly everyone felt compelled to say, “that’s my favorite one.” Of course, everyone knows what a Star Wars fan I am, and so when I replied that it wasn’t my favorite there was a bit of a double-take.

This reaction diminishes Kershner’s accomplishment with the film.

We all know that Empire is the darkest of the original three films. We all know that Han wasn’t supposed to say “I know” originally and they changed it on set in a moment of improvisation. We all know that Empire is the film that provided my generation the permission to think they knew a whit about philosophy because they really liked Yoda.

Still it diminishes his work.

Kershner’s accomplishment was to help create a film worth watching after the original Star Wars. It’s easy to overlook what a big achievement that is.

Think for a moment of the films that have surprised you, changed the way you looked at the whole experience of moviemaking, and think then of any sequels that might have happened afterward.

Case in point, Superman. Your youthful self thought that Superman II was awesome because it had three (!) Super-villains in it; one line in particular, “Kneel before Zod!”, is a part of our generational lexicon.

But Superman II is trash. The footage (obviously) directed by Richard Donner is still worth watching, the other parts directed by Richard Lester is barely watchable. Nearly everything about the film fails to withstand the test of time.

Let’s move on down the road to the cult classic Highlander. This was a testament to what a little bit of ingenuity, an original concept and a dedicated cast and crew could produce with a bit of passion. It even had a tremendous soundtrack with original music by Queen which was some of the best work they ever did.

Then Highlander 2: The Quickening happened and made us all feel dirty. It also engendered a life-long dislike for the work of Michael Ironside, which he really doesn’t deserve as I’ve read he’s a really nice guy. Also, knowing how films really are made, he didn’t have any control over how craptacular the resulting the film would be.

To use a more modern example, and one far more mainstream: The Matrix. The sequel(s) to that unexpectedly enjoyable film are so stunningly bad that the longevity of the original’s popularity was reduced to ashes within years.

As a side note, the Matrix films also expose a truth that my friend Mike long bespoke: expectations are everything. Everyone went in to the first film expecting a serviceable action movie that would probably be little more than cheesy fun thanks to its insistence on having Keanu Reeves in it. When instead it wound up being an enjoyable post-modern hash of Messrs. Orwell, Gibson, Dick, Ellison, et al., we were amazed. But then the bar was set higher, and it was harder for the sequel(s) to satisfy. This speaks even more to the true accomplishment of Kershner with Empire.

He was skilled and confident enough to take the director’s chair for the sequel to a film that, at the time, was the undisputed champion of the world in terms of capturing imaginations, and help to produce something that was not only enjoyable but a worthwhile film on its own.

Is it the best Star Wars film of the six? That’s a matter of personal opinion and there’s no point to arguing it. Some people like apples more than oranges and you’ll find others that prefer pears. There are others who are happy with any of the choices depending on their mood, and they like each for different reasons.

The point is not whether he directed the “best” of anything, but rather that he took on the daunting task of building upon a cultural icon and leaving a positive mark when he did it. So positive, in fact, that I’m willing to overlook Robocop 2 in his oeuvre.

May you rest well, Mr. Kershner, and thanks for doing your part to make our collective childhood fun. You can be sure that you will be remembered for quite some time to come.

Fandom, Fanaticism and the Question of Art

In a recent Q&A session with Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II and Star Trek VI, he said, “Art is not a democracy.”

I find that to be a particularly interesting statement from a film director, considering the tremendous amount of collaborative work from set designers, production managers and assistant directors (as well as visual effects teams in a lot of cases). But it’s a great point when viewed through the lens of fandom, and it ties into a something that came up during the long–running comments between myself and Tony over the last month about Star Wars v. Star Trek.

The nature of nerd fandom is a uniquely strange thing, one that I have yet to see repeated in other fan bases. There is a level of obsession that exists that is admittedly extremely unhealthy. Trust me, I took a long, long road from the Star Wars fan I was to the Star Wars fan I am.

To sidetrack onto that journey and give a little background, I was at one time the typical über-fan whom people usually mock. Star Wars was my golden calf. May the angels of heaven protect you if you touched my stuff or came in with a criticism you couldn’t defend. I would spend hours trying to convert people, to convince them that it was not only perfectly normal to obsess about a fake universe of laser swords and Dark Lords, but they were somehow deficient because they didn’t.

Honestly, why my brother didn’t do me the favor of a serious ass-kicking, I’ll never know. It’s probably a testament to what a loving brother he truly is.

Anyway, like most geeks (a sub-genus of nerd) I felt that I had something of a “claim” to the Star Wars storyline. Like a jealous lover, anything that threatened disharmony within the galaxy far, far away was a matter of extreme angst.

However, this is not unique to Star Wars nerds/geeks/et al. Spend some time with a Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Trek or (if any exist still) Babylon 5 fan, and you’ll see. With some, it’s as plain as the chain mail under their shirt; others have learned to control themselves like a Zen Bruce Banner, but find the right combination of triggers and they Hulk Out on you just the same.

They’ve taken the notion of fandom and turned it into fanaticism. With this fanaticism comes a heavy price for artists.

Harlan Ellison wrote an essay called Xenogenesis about the phenomenon and delivered it in a speech in July 1984. Many science fiction writers shared stories with him that resonate today, and seem to be repeating with other sci-fi/fantasy creators through the new millenium.

Reading it (in a collected work in the early 1990s) started the change in my own perspective. It was a glacial change, but it took less than a decade to complete the journey, which was less than half the time I’d taken becoming an OCD fan, so that counts as a win.

In the essay, Ellison postulated what I came to realize, which was that sci-fi and fantasy fans take it to a whole level that causes a sort of metamorphosis in them. They feel that they have just as much ownership over the artist’s work as the artist him/herself.

If you know anything about Mr. Ellison, you know what he had to say about that. He did, however, sound the warning bell for the rest of us.

The tricky thing of course is how much fandom is too much fandom? Is a convention too much fandom? Putting a phaser app on my Droid phone? Recreating the entire set of the Enterprise from the original Star Trek TV show and creating a completely unwatchable fan series?

I would submit that none of those things is too much fandom, unless….

It fosters the notion that the fans somehow “own” the material as much as the artist, or that they have some sort of legitimate input to bring to the table for the creative process.

Something like Star Trek is a uniquely difficult one in this realm, though, because by its very nature it’s “art by committee,” which isn’t really art but entertainment. There isn’t some singular visionary force behind the series as a whole. However, allow me to use the disclaimer that TV entertainment can be art when you’re talking about something where a singular theme/plot/vision is in place from the beginning (I’d call this “The LOST Principle”).

In general, however, while there may be instances of singular visionary forces (i.e., the aforementioned Mr. Meyer) that produce singular cases of art within the context of the whole, Star Trek has always been the child of 1000 fathers and mothers. It remained “television” in its very nature, even after it crossed to film.

But again, if the fans had their way, Spock never would have died (there were protests when that d*ck Roddenberry leaked that plot point), robbing us of one of the most poignant and moving science fiction stories of the last 30 years. If the fans had their way, Darth Vader never would have found redemption, but rather would have turned Luke to the Dark Side and lived nastily ever after because that hard edge they earned when Suzie McAllister* turned them down for homecoming showed them how life is always rough and never ends happily.

*I made up this name. If there is a real Ms. McAllister out there, apologies.

Back to the main point, though, fans have to give up this idea that because they’re fans they have some sort of right of input. At that point it stops being art and becomes merely entertainment. Beyond that, it becomes entertainment that caters only to a specific audience.

That’s fine, though. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment either. Not everything needs to be a classic. But know how to discriminate between the two.

And if something doesn’t strike your fancy, then fine. You’re not obligated to stick with anything. Just ask Bruce Springsteen or a host of other musicians who try new things how well that’s been received by their “hard core” audiences. It doesn’t invalidate the work, nor does it invalidate the fans. If you’re only a fan of Bruce Springsteen up until Tunnel of Love (like me), that’s cool. If you liked the first Matrix but disliked the sequel(s), then that’s cool. If you prefer David Lee Roth to Sammy Hagar…well, all right then.

I guess my reaction is, if you dislike it then move along. There’s no need to stay invested in something if you dislike it. It’s like people who watch TV shows into their later seasons and bemoan how much better it was earlier. You know what I did when The Simpsons started to stink on ice? I walked away. Thanks for the memories, the stuff I liked was great and I’m sure there are people that think the later stuff is golden. That’s fine too. But I’m not going to keep watching the show and tell everyone every week how much I liked the older seasons more.

Why would I keep watching if I disliked it?

And that’s the crux of the problem with sci-fi/fantasy fans. They carry that vested interest with them, so even as they start to dislike something so much that they spew venom at it, they just stay in the relationship for no other reason than habit. And even worse, if someone else seems happy with what they now dislike then they attack that happiness too, with all the force they can muster. It’s not a matter of civil disagreement, it’s a matter of religious zeal.

Naturally, I fall into the trap from time to time of one of those pointless arguments. If you keep hanging with snarling nerds, it’s like being an alcoholic hanging out with friends who still drink. The chances of a relapse are very, very high.

But I’m pretty happy with the fact that I’ve changed my outlook from dork apostle to quiet believer. If someone wants to have the discussion, then cool. But it’s difficult to be too deeply involved in the nerd world anymore, especially when it comes to disagreements about artwork (which is what good films should strive to be). We need to remember that we’re just spectators, not participants, and not owners of the work by any stretch.

Goodness I went off on a tangent, didn’t I?