The Empire Strikes Back

Thought Bubble: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust the Force

When I first arrived at the line the week before tickets went on sale there were already people that had been there for days. I was driving into Toronto from Hamilton, about an hour each way, making a pilgrimage to the York Cinemas at Yonge and Eglinton. 

The York had been home to the last Star Wars celebration, the re-release of the “holy trilogy”. Yes these were Lucas’ futzed with versions, but it was my first chance in my lifetime to see all three films on the big screen as an adult. I bought marathon tix for each – five or six runnings in a row for all three episodes, spread out over a few weeks. Some drunk and chatty guys came into the 3am screening of The Empire Strikes Back, all excited and chatty. I turned around, told them to be quiet or I’d narrate the whole film. By then I’d had most of it memorized.

People ask if the Star Wars movies are my favourite films, and it’s hard to even think of them at times as movies. Born in 1972, the age of five was the perfect time to see Lucas’ first film. It wasn’t the ships or swords that captivated me, for one of my earliest childhood memories is being completely perplexed by the nature of the force. As a one-day philosophy major I’ve always found it interesting that it was the metaphysical that captivated my then non-cynical mind, while later on the more visceral elements of the films would take hold.

I saw Empire at a theatre in Moncton, New Brunswick, on holidays at my cottage. I recall the shock of “Luke, I’m your father” quite vividly, but that wasn’t the part that really messed me up. When the scroll read “Episode V” I genuinely thought I had missed three other films, for when I saw A New Hope it didn’t yet have numerals attached to it. I liked the Boba Fett guy, a character I’d already met in action figure form, and decided he was my favourite. I adored the AT-ATs, and again fell for Yoda’s Confucian pontifications. 

Return of the Jedi Ewoks

My first memories of Return of the Jedi were less warm. I was older, childhood slowly slipping into awkward adolescence. I knew that the Jedis were now returning, rather than seeking revenge as per the poster I had on my wall. Jabba was loads of fun, and the speeder bike chase and ending space battle (plus the glorious Shuttle Tyderium) being real highlights. But I remember feeling disappointed. It’s among my first memories in cinema of being underwhelmed, of feeling pandered to, that I was seeing something I’d seen before and getting a lesser example of it.

I wasn’t then old enough to be nostalgic about the past film, nor young enough to be free of that cynicism. Jedi was a turning point, where something that was supposed to be amazing wasn’t. At least, that’s how I felt on first screening.

Naturally, I’ve watched that film dozens and dozens of times since. Over the years I’d marathon the trilogy – first on VHS, then Laserdisc, and even on rare occasions on beat-to-hell 35mm prints – and of course I’d watch Jedi with the other two. As I got older I saw more in the first two films, adoring the structure of A New Hope, laughing at troopers banging their heads on doors or catching a Wilhelm scream.  Empire would still enthrall, and soon Probot would become a favourite character, because why the hell not? But I’d soon warm to Jedi too, softening my anti-Ewok stance, ignoring some of the more awkward character moments, and simply getting out the film what I wanted to. In other words, turning off the critical part of my involvement with the film and simply apprehending it as part of a saga.

When I marathoned those three back in ’97, it allowed one to focus even more closely on the works. I’d spend my fourth or fifth screening of A New Hope staring at background elements and other aspects of production design, admiring the hexagonal lights in the back of Luke’s garage, or the grime on the walls in the trash compactor. In Empire I’d mime the characters raising their arms when the first transport is declared to be away, and delighted in finding IG-88 littered in the Ugnaut station where C-3P0 is shot apart. 

For Jedi, though, I had a harder time. That bridge scene would get worse and worse each time, a clear indication that the three leads simply didn’t want to be there. Ford’s “who, me?” over acting, Carrie’s tired admission that somehow she always knew about Luke’s familial connection, and Hamill’s hamfisted attempt at drama were tedium incarnate.

I even noticed things like Leia’s claw-like finger nails, assuming that this was a result of Fisher’s cocaine abuse during this time. I saw the structural similarities that weren’t merely echoes to the original film but outright attempts to keep the flame alive, manifest no more overtly than when Threepio retells the story of the other films to his new furry companions.

Yet I also embraced the glorious moments even more deeply, revelling in Williams’ choral score at the end, getting chills with Jones’ reading of the “Sister…” line. There was Palpatine at the fore, being all shrivelled and evil, but tapping into some delightfully theatrical gothic fun. There were lightsabers and ships and explosions and fun, and if some of the dialogue was trite and some of the plotlines redundant or repetitive it didn’t matter much, because I got out of the film what was intended.

The Phantom Menace - Duel of the Fates

In 1999, then, the buildup was intense. The whole world was clambering it seemed for this new chapter, and we were finally going to continue this saga that had seen an explosion of interest (I assure you that in the early ‘90s few gave a damn, at least outwardly).  I’d spent money to see terrible films like Wing Commander just to see a glimpse of a trailer, in shock when Maul’s double bladed saber erupted. We were going to get something new and raw, using technology that was at the forefront. Lucas was again pushing the boundaries and we were along for the ride.

But I also knew, even then, that I wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate the film, one way or another, after only one screening. As I learned from Jedi, expectations are very hard things to overcome, and with The Phantom Menace there was too much buildup, too much anticipation for any one film to live up to. If it was new, at all, it was doomed to fail.

That’s why I purchased eight tickets in a row. I wanted at the end of twenty-four hours to know this film, to crash my way through all the trepidation and built-in expectations and take the film on its own merit. By the end of the first day I’d seen the film more times than anyone who hadn’t made the thing, and maybe in its finished form more than Lucas himself. 

And so when the world decided the film sucked, that it was a disappointment and an infantilization of a film in contrast to a series of films they’d first seen in their childhood, I was prepared. I’d seen, more than most, what didn’t work. But I’d also allowed the film to live on its own terms, to laugh at Jar Jar the way I’d been able to finally laugh at Ewoks or C-3PO, to see the notion of sacrifice played out in the final scenes and feel that the groundwork for a larger storyline was being set. I still think the droids going out to repair the ship as it escapes Naboo is among the best of any of the six films, and the saber scenes with Maul remain mighty. The podrace scene is visceral and thrilling, and the animation of Sebulba is kind of glorious. 

Yet this, of course, isn’t the party line. There are extraordinary moments in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith as well, equal to any in the other trilogy, and the lowlights are no worse than the missteps in Jedi either. Where they differ, of course, is that they tell a structurally different story, a fallen hero’s journey rather than the rise of a young warrior. It’s the tragedy of Anakin told with the darkness and gothic romance of the form, while the other trilogy traces Luke’s (and the audience’s) inculcation into the world where the Force controls one’s destiny.

The Force Awakens - Han and Chewbacca

Which brings us, at last, to J.J.’s film and the pent-up expectations for it. We’ve pondered the trailers, we’ve seen the costumes and clips, and fallen for a new round droid. We’ve heard Han declare “Chewie, we’re home”, and with that one line the nostalgia is made entirely manifest. Everything about the film – the Falcon, TIE-fighters, troopers, feels more right somehow, because rather than being precursors they’re overt continuation of what came before.

The goal for a sequel, particularly one that revisits the world like this one, is to give more of the same but differently. That’s what Jedi did, of course, and what I felt to be disappointing at the time. Now, of course, it’s what audiences demand, and if The Force Awakens fails it will be because it’s not enough like the film that Lucas first made.

We can look to films that got this right from this very year – think Creed, or Jurassic World, two big hits that relied upon nostalgia and echoes to the past for much of their emotional and aesthetic effectiveness, yet manage in varying ways to make the works stand alone on their merits. Contrast this to Mad Max: Fury Road, a continuation in name only, a film that has little more than a car and a jacket to remind of the other works that came before, crafting something new (and wonderful) that embraces the spirit if not overtly the storyline or aesthetic of what has proceeded. 

We’re not getting Max here, though perhaps the likes of next year’s SW spin off Rogue One will allow for that kind of direction, with those kind of chances taken, to be followed within the larger Star Wars universe. No, there’s too much riding on The Force Awakens, too much now invested in cleaning up what some feel were Lucas’ stumbles.  The safest thing to do is to do what worked before just tweaked a bit, to remind once again the fun one had when a child watching Luke and Leia swing across a chasm, or to have Han Solo chilling in a cantina.

I’ve been asked a lot if I’m excited for the new film, and I have to admit that after years of waiting I’m pretty Zen about it all. I’m quite confident that there will be plenty for me to adore about it, plenty that will be tweaking directly my own well honed knowledge of what’s come before. I’m not expecting much new or revelatory, but that’s perfectly fine. 

Everything that Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy have been saying is that this film is for the fans. Well, frankly, this film is likely structured for those that simply want to revisit the stories of the 1970s and 80s on a larger canvas. Hate the prequels all you want but there was an ambition there to both lead up to the original trilogy and find a way of telling a different archetypal story. I hope that ambition still holds, and that we’re not simply getting a recycled version of what’s come before.

However it plays out we already know some of the critical narrative is already in place. Even if The Force Awakens had nothing other than a Falcon and a Ford then it’d be safe for some to argue that at last we’re rid of those wretched prequels and on the correct path. This is catharsis cinema, meant to itch a very specific scratch. J.J. is a perfect person to direct this phase, a filmmaker who has parroted Spielberg and Lucas in the past to great effect. Even with relative creative freedom his film is still going to be an echo of what came before, and that’s entirely what’s expected of him. 

Rian Johnson’s next film may prove to be the real interesting one, where the slate has been wiped to a certain extent and more dark and dramatic themes can again be explored. The burden isn’t there on Episode VIII to strictly give the people what they want, and so it may be the more original and effective of the flicks. Yet for this awakening there’s one goal here – don’t fuck it up, keep things relatively simple, make people remember what they loved about these films and give them that. I don’t say this as if that’s a simple thing to do, and I think some very smart filmmakers are doing their very best to fulfil this goal. But that’s a very different thing than wanting to craft a new story, to do more than fill in blanks and give us what we’re expecting.

The Force Awakens - Finn

I’d like to be surprised with The Force Awakens. I’d like something completely out of left field to play out, to be delightfully shocked that they go down a different path. Yet I’m betting that’ll be saved for other films, and here we’re going to get what we are all kind of wanting, which is a fun time at the cinema watching our new favourite characters fight in a larger battle and enjoy as ships swoop through the frame. We’ll have sabers and bad guys in black, and might even have a major death or two to keep things dramatic and give proper closure.

Closure – that’s what we’re getting with this film, it seems. Even if it’s also serving to lead into other new and different narrative directions it will fundamentally provide closure for all those annoyed by Padme and Anakin and just really wanted Luke, Leia and Han to make a go one more time. I will be seeing it, multiple times on opening day, and finding a way for it to become part of the rest of the saga through both familiarity and repetition. I expect that it will fit in perfectly because that’s what it’s designed to do. I expect to like it right away because that’s what it’s entire goal is. I expect to enjoy myself very much, to find things to say about it, to revel in the fact that I’m again hearing that theme on the big screen. 

But I also expect, in some small way, to be disappointed I’m not getting something truly new and original. I’m expecting to feel a bit like I did with Jedi, to feel the machinations of marketing as much as I do about storytelling. If Jedi was among the first films that made me cynical, it equally is among the first that showed me how to overcome that cynicism if I choose to.

I won’t begrudge bandwagon fans of this film, and will thoroughly enjoy the enormous outpouring of adoration for the film that’ll come if it’s even half good. I’ll be pleased to see new generations making this film their own, going back into the ephemera and, the Force willing, saving up enough money to buy my packaged now-vintage toys to fund my retirement. I look forward to next Halloween to see some Finn and Rey costumes. I want a lifesize BB-8, just not as much as I want a lifesize R2-D2. More importantly, I want to enjoy the theatrical experience, to be in a room with likeminded people enjoying something as a community. The whole notion of a blockbuster is that a large group of people are collected for this shared purpose, that the lines wrapped around the block are a slew of humanity all entering one place, one temple, to witness something both individually and collectively. We can be cynical and feel it’s all a ploy, but at that moment, in the dark, when the camera tilts down from a starfield and we see some ship sweep past (because you know it will) we’ll all be sharing that excitement together.

Back in 2005, just after Revenge of the Sith came out, I was with a friend at a local department store. There was some big merchandise sign hanging that I thought would look good on my wall, and I joked with the sales person about whether I could have it. “Sure”, she said”, “Star Wars is over”. She meant nothing melancholic about the statement, but at the time I felt a little sad, felt that maybe with the end of the prequels we’d see the end of theatrical versions of these stories. Then came the Disney sale, and now Star Wars will likely never be over, long outliving the creator of the original series.  And now we’re getting a film that will provide a kind of closure in one way just as the storylines will be expanding over the next decade. 

So that woman was wrong – the phenomenon that is Star Wars isn’t over, and it might never be. Here’s to the new chapters, long may they run.


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