SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the Star Wars movies and want to be surprised if you do, please read no further. This blog reveals a major plot twist. You have been warned.*
And now for something completely different! The temperature hit 100 degrees in Portland last week. As per my custom when the summer heat gets unbearable, I pop The Empire Strikes Back into my DVD player and am instantly cooled off by the awesome opening scenes on the ice planet Hoth.
There has been much discussion on which of the six Star Wars movies is the best one. Let me weigh in on that now, to get it out of the way: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back towers over the others, hands down. Let me tell you why.
First, it was not directed by George Lucas but by Irvin Kershner, a serious movie director noted for his fine work on spy thrillers and quirky independent films. Empire was his first foray into science-fiction, and his selection as director for the sequel of Star Wars, the most popular movie of all-time (at least back in the 1970s), was surprising. But, as audiences quickly learned from the opening scenes, Kershner was the perfect choice because of his focus on character development. That leads to my second point.
Empire was an actor’s movie, not just a special effects blamorama. In Episode V, the characters and the actors playing them really shined in a way that is sorely lacking in the other five Star Wars movies.** Empire is the movie in which Harrison Ford became a star. Even the non-human characters like Yoda possessed a humanity that very few subsequent science-fiction movies have been able to duplicate successfully.
Thirdly, Empire is my favorite Star Wars film because of the plot twist that would forever change the saga. I will never forget the audience reaction in that Westwood theatre in Los Angeles when the shocker was revealed. My friend and I had waited in line for several hours to see the first showing. This was in 1980. As the movie unfolded spectacularly, we felt our long wait was more than justified. Now we were at that iconic scene on the ledge in the cloud city of Bespin, with Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker locked in mortal combat with their lightsabers.
Vader: Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Luke (slowly backing off, with right hand severed): He told me enough! He told me you killed him!
Vader: No. I am your father . . .
The audience reeled! You could hear a collective gasp! I covered my open mouth in disbelief. This is probably the single most shocking audience moment in cinematic history. It will never happen again, for there will probably never be another universally acclaimed pop culture saga like Star Wars.
That first-showing audience walked out of the theatre in silence! I have never seen that happen before or since except, perhaps, at a funeral. We were down the block before my friend and I started to talk.
“What did we just see?” I asked.
“I don’t know, man,” my friend replied. “I wasn’t expecting that at all! I wanted a happy ending, like in the first movie.”
“Well, life is not just a happy ending,” I said. “This changes everything.”
“You’re telling me! And you know what really sucks? We have to wait three more years to find out what happens next!”
We laughed and both agreed that Empire outdid the first movie in almost every aspect: acting, special effects and, most importantly, story development. This wasn’t just a retread of the original Star Wars. For the next three years, it seems like a whole generation of fans was debating the ambiguity of good and evil.
In the first movie, the characters were drawn in broad brushstrokes of black and white. Luke Skywalker was the good guy; Darth Vader was the bad guy. Simple, easy to follow. Now, in the sequel, we find out that Luke is the son of this monster who routinely crushes and kills enemies and allies like so many flies at a family picnic. Say what? I remember well the discussions my friends and I had about this. Even Joseph Campbell, the great American mythologist and writer, chimed in:
The monster masks that are put on people in Star Wars represent the real monster-force in the modern world. When the mask of Darth Vader is removed, you see an unformed man, one who has not developed as a human individual. He’s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself, but in terms of an imposed system…
- from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, page 144, 1988 edition
All this came flooding back to me as I watched The Empire Strikes Back on that hot August night. I miss those long philosophical discussions with my old friends. The Star Wars saga was a fun romp that gave many people a chance to think about morality and mythology. It’s too bad that George Lucas’ later attempts to revisit his universe were not as successful. But that is another discussion for another blog.
More reading: Mythology of Star Wars
* It is difficult to think that there might actually be people out there who have never seen Star Wars but, as the years go by, the series has certainly diminished in its pop culture influence. It had a good run. Hopefully, a new generation will discover it — or, better, create their own contemporary mythology.
** By the way, am I the only one who finds it tedious to have a discussion about the confusing order of the Star Wars movies? Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi are numbered as Episodes IV, V and VI, but are really movies 1, 2 and 3. Meanwhile the prequels — The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith — are numbered as I, II, and III but are really movies 4, 5 and 6. Pass the aspirin, please.