Saturday, December 12, 2015

Growing Up With Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

At five years old, I'm not sure I really understood the concepts of cliffhangers or ennui, so this was more or less my intro to those ideas.  I've read elsewhere about people my age who freaked out about how bleak they found The Empire Strikes Back (1980), or got wigged out that it didn't have a tight ending where the heroes saved the day.  And while I get that, I wouldn't say that was my take away.

Prior to the screening, I only vaguely recall being aware that there was a new Star Wars movie coming out because my mom ordered a Boba Fett toy through the mail (yeah, we were one of those families).   But one morning The Admiral grabbed my brother and I, tossed us in the car and drove us to a gigantic theater somewhere in Dallas (I've had Dallas-dwellers identify the theater for me a dozen times based on the description, but I can never remember the name), and we watched The Empire Strikes Back with hundreds of other people.

There's quite a bit I recall from that screening.  For example - I'd never seen a hero get mauled by a Yeti before.  Or gigantic walking robo-tanks.  Heck, even seeing through the viewfinder of the one Rebel soldier was kind of awe-inspiring.  Luke's Jedi training was the first time I remember thinking Luke was, at last, kind of cool (we all liked Luke, but Han and Chewie were clearly the cool characters).  Han and Leia's romance was something I remember not feeling was too "mushy".  I distinctly remember the giant space worm (people freaked out about that).  And the sheer chaos of everything in Bespin once everything goes to hell.  I mean, really, once the door slides open and Vader force-nabs Han's blaster, everything else is just downhill for our heroes.  And that whole escape in the Falcon is just bonkers, really.


But I didn't freak out.  I think my reaction was "well, clearly Vader is a bad guy and is lying about all this 'I'm your dad' business - because he's a bad guy and Luke is a good guy, and we clearly have a sequel coming where this will all sort itself out".  I took Lando and Chewie flying off as our stand-in cool guy going off to retrieve his cool friend.  No problem.  After all, Luke wasn't even going to need to worry about a lack of a hand.  Robots had just slapped a new one on.  I must have been quite the pollyanna as a kid.

It was, however, the first movie I can recall seeing where everything was uncertain from the first scenes.  Luke could get randomly mauled.  A glance across the horizon could reveal AT-AT Walkers.  Your co-pilot could get blown up.  Your home/ base could be invaded and you'd have to flee.  Weird hermits could turn out to be Jedi Masters playing it on the down-low.  Bounty hunters on your keister.  You could realize that cozy cave you were standing in could be the belly of a gigantic beast.  And when you called on your friends, they might be compromised.  Oh, and the bad guy is secretly YOUR DAD.

So, yeah, I totally get why this was a big deal.  That was a lot to throw at a kid, but it wasn't scary (to me).  It was the first thing I saw that was telling a story with consequences and real problems that didn't get resolved.  It was one of the few things we'd seen that was both aimed at me as a kid and yet had seemingly real stakes and something like gravitas (for me, Star Wars and Superman: The Movie set the bar for gravitas).  Years later when I heard someone refer to Star Wars as Space Opera, I was inclined to agree.  It was Wagnerian not just in Williams' score but a family drama playing out on a massive scale - especially when you tied it through to Jedi.

That said, the events of the movie grow more narrow and more intimate.  This movie didn't end with a battle going on in space - it had the giant fight at the 1/3rd mark.  The final fights are in small numbers, street fights in the hallways of Bespin and Vader and Luke swinging at each other in darkened corridors.  The scope of the story remained huge, but that personal level was very much in play.

No one bought my pitch for "Who's the Bossk?"

It isn't as true today, but for a long time, it was generally believed in movie circles that a sequel was inevitably a pale shadow of the original film, and the only examples of a sequel surpassing the original most folks could cite were Empire and Godfather II.  That's some pretty good company to keep.

The release of Empire Strikes Back led to a very, very good year at my house for some amazingly rad toys.  I can still remember the Christmas where I got my Tauntaun.  For the next few consecutive Christmases and birthdays, presents would remain deeply embedded in Star Wars mania, and, between Jason and me, we had the real AT-AT toy (we didn't mess with that cardboard playset).  The Turret and Probot playset, the Rebel Base with collapsing bridge.  The Dagobah playset.  Lobot.  A snowspeeder.  Han and Luke in both Hoth gear and civvies.  Leia in both snow suit (which captured none of the majesty of Leia's real-life snowsuit), and in Bespin gear.  And at some point I got the Wampa toy, which I found curious as you never saw the Wampa in great detail in the actual movie, but I wasn't complaining.

Two Christmases later, I got the Rebel Transport, and the first sortie was away.

this thing was so cool, y'all
maybe you didn't like playing "engine room blaster fight", but I did.  and it made a handy storage case.

I'm sure we played out Bespin and Dagobah scenes, but I was kind of fixated on the Hoth stuff.  We didn't have even half the stuff you could own, but we were only vaguely aware of that fact.  after all, we had the AT-AT.  How could you complain if there was an AT-AT in the house?

But I was also old enough to actually know the name John Williams, and that first Christmas, my Cousin Sue got me the two-disc record of the score to Empire Strikes Back.  I listened to that thing until I wore the groove out, I think.  Still have it in my vinyl stack.  I remember thinking it was super classy because John Williams had recorded it with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Around that same time, I remember my mother telling me to comb my hair, because Boba Fett was at JC Penney's and we were going to meet him.  I will never entirely understand what the story was, but we walked into JC Penney, and there was Boba Fett up on a stage.  You'd walk up to him, shake his hand, and walk off.  But it was a full-blown Boba Fett costume and some actor inside who refused to talk.  I got a signed photo, and I very much regret losing it somewhere along the line.  Later, Darth Vader also swung through the Richardson, Texas shopping mall, and I got his autographed picture as well.

Hey, working actors.

I'd be remiss if I didn't go ahead and mention one of my favorite topics to allude to here at The Signal Watch.  Princess Leia in a snowsuit.

You can take your gold bikini, I like my ladies in chin to toe covering.

Probably best not to dwell too much on that, but we all imprint on something.

As Lando and Chewie sailed off into space and Luke, Leia and the Droids took in the sights, what I was painfully aware of was that I was 5 and there wouldn't be a new movie until I was eight, and that seemed just impossibly far away.  I needed resolution.

It seems like there was a lot of school bus, playground and hanging around time killed interpolating, extrapolating and sorting out what was going to happen.  I doubt we got one thing right.  I mean, I sure as heck didn't predict they'd be back on Tatooine in Episode VI.

In general, it's still considered the best of the Star Wars flicks after 6 movies and nearly 40 years.    No doubt had only Episode IV ever existed, it would still be fondly remembered, but I suspect that a lot of folks my age coming back to Star Wars aren't looking for the high of that movie - they're looking for what they got out of Empire.  Whether it caused tension or fear or whatever discomfort, it's the one that gets you invested in the idea in a whole new way.  Frankly, it's impossible for me to imagine watching the series beginning with Episode 1 and moving forward to Jedi (and, now, to The Force Awakens).   Empire expanded on Star wars and made it feel somehow even larger while making it somehow even more human.

What will be interesting is what tone the new films take.  After all, the folks working on the new movies are of my generation, and we were more or less agreed upon our adoration of Empire.  Of course, you can't do that in movie after movie, but it does at least make me think the weight many of us older fans felt was missing from the Prequels will show up again in the newer movies.  I guess we'll know in a few days.

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