A couple weeks back my buddy and fellow author Jon Sprunk and I decided the time had come to revisit our childhoods and rewatch the original Star Wars movies that changed our lives. Knowing other fans might enjoy sharing the experience and learning how it’s influenced our writing, etc., we decided to discuss it on our blogs. You can find previous posts here, followed by the latest–a discussion of “The Empire Strikes Back.“
Bryan Thomas Schmidt: So Jon, you said watching Empire you found it to be better than you remembered. Give us some thoughts on that, please.
Jon Sprunk: Well, Empire is my favorite movie of the trilogy, and watching it again after a few years just reinforced that opinion. For one, most movie sequels are disappointing, but in Empire Lucas and Kershner flip the script on us. The imperials, via Vader, are the driving force in most of the scenes. For a kid (and an adult) who idolized Vader, that is a powerful device. I really loved the Dagobah scenes. Luke’s training is handled so deftly in scenes that are varied and well-timed that it feels like he’s actually learning something rather than an 80’s-style “training” montage to crappy music. We get more information about the Force, versed in eastern philosophical tennants, which just rings true. In fact, the entire concept of the Force always struck me as elegant–simple enough for a child to grasp, yet full of deeper meanings and symbolism. Also, watching Empire on DVD on a good television reminded how well these movies hold up, visually. Bespin city is just gorgeous.
BTS: And here’s where we diverge. I have waivered back and forth over the years about whether Empire or A New Hope was my favorite. This viewing leaves me feeling that A New Hope is a better film. For one, it’s far more imminently quotable. It’s also more hopeful and encouraging. I found Empire staler on this rewatch, maybe because I’ve rewatched it so often. I have never been a Yoda fan. Whereas you enjoy the training scenes, I found them the most frustrating part of the film. For me, the heart of Empire is the Leia-Han story and the furtherance of Vader’s journey. Luke’s takes second fiddle and is far less interesting. I found Yoda barely more tolerable than Jar Jar. Although, to be fair, in films where Yoda has appeared after this one, I found him easier to stomach. The visuals do hold up impressively. The battle scenes, etc. are amazing. The scenes with the ice monster and tauntauns a bit less so, given what technology since Jurassic Park can do but still, they pulled off amazing stuff considering when they were made. Favorite moments?
JS: The Battle of Hoth is one of my favorite battle scenes of all time. The Falcon’s plunge into the asteroid field–pure gold. I’m so glad they were able to make the ship more agile and evasive, because watching it fly through the asteroids is poetry in motion. I still wonder, though, why Leia couldn’t have been on one of the laser cannons, firing back at the TIE fighters. The scene where Luke enters the evil cave on Dagobah is haunting (and a good foreshadowing of his later duel with Vader). And, of course, the Luke-Vader duel. I still remember seeing it in the theater for the first time and freaking out when Vader reveals he is Luke’s father.
BTS: I love the battle of Hoth. I enjoy the chase scenes through the asteroid. The Bespin escape is a lot of fun as is the freezing Han scene. I also love the Vader scenes with his men, who are so ever expendable. And I too like that Vader-Luke duel in the cave and later the Vader reveal. There are some really great scenes. But I definitely enjoy the action scenes more than the drill training Yoda sequence generally. I also enjoyed the reveal of the Emperor this time around. Did anything disappoint or turn out different than you’d remembered it?
JS: Not too much. Yoda’s animations looked low-tech, of course, but that’s because I’m jaded with the current CGI capabilities. I found the Han-Leia “angry romance” angle a little juvenile in the beginning, but they got to where they needed to be at the end.
BTS: I actually enjoy their banter. It provided some of the best lines and the right amount of tension breaking/escalating humor for me. I really enjoyed the whole ice planet angle, much as I did with the BSG Ice Planet episodes in 1979, some of my favorites. The ice speeders, the Imperial Walkers, the melting in Leia’s chambers, lots of cool new stuff. Also a fun cameo from Cliff Clavin actor John Ratzenberger as the chief Rebel officer during the part where Han discovers Luke is missing.
JS: “Then I’ll see you in Hell!” Aye, I agree. Hoth was a wonderful start to the movie in many aspects. Kershner managed to squeeze in a budding love affair, Luke’s growing powers and new training goal (Dagobah), an escalation of the war (Imperial Walkers ftw!), brought back Obi-Wan for some sage advice… And I think Bespin was a good ending point for the middle film.
BTS: That’s a good point, actually. Middle film. One thing Empire does very well structurally which very definitely influenced me is be a middle chapter. At the end of A New Hope, it feels like closure. Despite the fact Darth Vader spins off into space alive, the Death Star is destroyed, the Rebels have won, our heroes are rewarded. Sure, there are enough seeds and loose ends for us to believe that there’s more we can look forward to, but also it’s enough of an ending that if the film had not been as successful, it could have stood alone fairly well. I really modeled my Davi Rhii series structurally after that. The first book, The Worker Prince, stands alone, despite having villains still alive and loose ends. But the second chapters tend to be harder. With a second movie, you expect more. You expect it to top the first in many ways–emotional arcs, character development, intensity, stakes, etc. But you also expect it to set up future possibilities, most of the time. Like any trilogy, it becomes a challenge then to make such a film and have it truly feel like it has an ending. Empire has all of these aspects–character development in spades, intensity in its darker feel, stakes as Vader goes unchained off to hunt like a madman with no Tarkin to reign him in, etc. But it ends on a cliffhanger and yet feels complete. Because by the end of the journey, it’s almost like so much has happened that we need to come up for air. OMG, Vader is Luke’s father? OMG, Han is frozen in carbonite? OMG, Leia and Han? What about Leia and Luke? etc. Despite the fact we are dying to know what happens next, we feel a sense of the chapter ending and a natural conclusion, even though the story very much goes on. Storytellers can learn a great deal from that.
JS: I couldn’t agree more. Empire is everything I hope my second books could be, take the best parts of the first chapter and build on them in a meaningful way, increasing the stakes while making us care more. And Walkers. And the Super Imperial Star Destroyer. One thing I noticed was that everything was a little bit slicker in the second movie. The sets were more polished, and even the actors were better groomed.
BTS: It’s true. Everyone was more comfortable and prepared. The first movie was a fly by the seat of your paints independent movie with low expectations, the second movie was the sequel to one of the greatest hits in box office history with the highest expectations and the pressure to go with it, so they were extra prepared and also benefitted from everything done and learned for the first film, just as I hope each subsequent book shows author growth learned from prior books.
I also think that from storytelling craft there was growth. They had a lot of back history worked out but Lucas brought on too top notch writers in Leigh Brackett, already a scifi and screenwriting legend at that point, and Lawrence Kasdan, a very smart up and comer. They surely demanded he figure things out that he’d winged before as did the director and the actors. Having read the behind the scenes making of paperback, I know some things were worked out on set as actors like Harrison Ford forced clarifications and changes. Other things had to be worked out with a third movie in mind, since Lucas now knew there’d be one coming. So he was able to complicate and add depth and complications to backstory and character arcs he didn’t bother with or need for A New Hope but which laid ground work and took the characters in directions to allow for a much stronger follow up.
JS: Yes, there is definitely much less making stuff up on the fly in the second and third movies. It’s interesting because I understand the need to throw everything into a first movie (book) because you never know if there’s actually going to be a second or third. But then there is, and you have to figure out some things that you winged or left mysterious in the first installment.
BTS: Exactly. Let’s talk about characters a bit. Empire introduced some important and less so new characters, whom we will see again. Admiral Piett, Boba Fett, Yoda, and Lando Calrissian, most significantly. I personally favor Lando and Boba Fett amongst these, because although he’s a small character, Boba Fett is one of those unpredictable menacing, mysterious badass characters that just keeps you guessing, and Lando fills in backstory for Han in many ways and also, it’s about time they had a major black character. Shouldn’t have taken this long. I love the way Han and Lando are parallel scoundrels yet, whereas Han is all rough edges and seat of the pants, Lando is smooth and refined. Who’s your favorite of these and why?
JS: I wish I liked Yoda more, but I’m not a big fan of puppets in live-action movies (nor most CGI ones, either. Gollum being the notable exception). I guess I’d say Boba Feet for the same reason, even though he goes out like a punk in Return. Lando is a good character, but I think he’d make a better spinoff hero on his own. I never really bought into him becoming a beacon of the Alliance. I think he would have been better served in his own element, fighting the good fight among the scum and villainy of the galaxy’s underworld. Piett… meh. Give me Grand Admiral Thrawn any day.
BTS: LOL Well, if Thrawn had faced off Vader that would have been REALLY interesting. I’d like to see that cage match. Yeah, most of the Imperial officers don’t show any backbone in dealing with Vader after the few Council members with Tarkin in A New Hope, Vader just runs rampant. But then, given his power and influence and ability to choke people, and, well, “the Emperor is not as forgiving as I am,” I’d say life expectancy put a damper on bravery and confidence. Favorite new set pieces/vehicles? The Imperial Walkers are pretty damn cool, although I like the mini-walkers in Return better, myself. I also like the Bespin fighters and the Hoth snow speeders. But my favorite new set pieces are probably Bespin and the Hoth base.
JS: Well, the Millennium Falcon isn’t a new set piece, but it acts differently in this movie. I already mentioned how it’s lightyears more maneuverable, but also it has a stronger subplot arc of its own (the malfunctioning hyperdrive). After that, I liked Bespin (Cloud City) a lot, especially the contrasts between the gorgeous white-and-silver upper city and the dark/gloomy undercity where Luke fights Vader (a second Cave!).
BTS: Yes and the Falcon is always one of my favorites and the one Star Wars toy I never had and still lust after a bit. Sigh. I could make it manuever… heh… From a storytelling perspective, another thing that’s interesting is the way Lucas has woven the subplots and majors together. At the beginning, Vader is hunting the Rebels for Luke. That’s the overarching storyline. Vader is hunting Luke throughout. Then they set up Han-Leia sexual tension that wasn’t as direct in A New Hope but was hinted at by the Falcon cockpit scene where Luke gets jealous when Han asks “Do you think a guy like me and…” That storyline begins with Han daring her to admit her feelings and her denial but then they are thrust together twice, first by fear for Luke out in the cold and then when Han takes her aboard the Falcon to flee. Now they have to deal with each other and their storyline is embossed with a chase through asteroids by the Empire, and then the Bespin visit. The third major plotline is Luke’s quest to be a Jedi and get training from Obiwan’s Jedi trainer, Yoda, which leads him to flee to Dagobah instead of rendezvous with the fleet. With the exception of Luke’s training, all three plots are intertwined throughout, but even at training, there is a sense of inevitability that Luke must face Vader, as evidenced in the cave scene and later when he goes to rescue his friends, bringing them all together again, in a sense. It’s very smart writing and crafting. They manage to pull it off while keeping up an intense pace, not easy to do.
JS: Quite right. And Empire is the first time we see the Emperor (well, a holo-image of him). This sets up the third movie, of course, and gives us a deeper insight into the machinations of the empire. It’s important to know that the Emperor places such high stock on a single person (Luke), and firmly entrenches the idea that the battle between the Light and Dark sides of the Force is just as important, if not more so, than the war between the Alliance and Empire. Then there is Yoda’s line when Luke leaves Dagobah. Obi-Wan says there goes our last hope, and Yoda replies, “No, there is another.” That one line haunted me until the third movie came out, a powerful bit of foreshadowing.
BTS: Yes, and they paid it off nicely which we’ll discuss in Return. I think overall, if I had to sum up Empire, it’s a maturer Star Wars chapter in many ways than either of the others. In Return, Lucas used Ewoks to return to a level of childlikeness that many fans dislike but also that took bite out of the darker aspects, but we don’t see that here. Here the dark overhanging the entire story is a constant. Jeopardy is the watch word throughout: from the jeapordy of the Rebels as the Empire finds them again, to Han and Leia fleeing Vader, to the dark inevitability of Luke’s face off with Vader, and then, “I am your father” with Luke escaping, sans hand, but Han off with Boba Fett. Never in the entire film are we not on the edge of our seats wondering how one or more of our heroes will survive. That lends to pacing and tension but also to a less hopeful spirit than the first film in many ways. And speaking of, “I am your father,” we haven’t talked about big reveals yet. What were your big “Wow” moments?
JS: When Luke lost his hand to Vader, that was a pretty big surprise back when I saw the movie the first time because I had grown accustomed to the idea that the heroes would emerge unscathed from their adventures, and that moment introduced a hint of true mortality which had previously been reserved for nameless stormtroopers and rebel soldiers. Seeing the Emperor for the first time was also big. I still get chills when Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp. That is why you fail, indeed. Then the entire sequence from when Luke lands in Bespin, shoots at Fett, and then fights Vader is spectacular.
BTS: I agree about the hand and the significance of it, but the symbolism of his replacement hand looking like Vader’s after the “father” revelation also was shocking. If you’d harbored doubts before, then that moment, you just knew it had to be true. I think the mortality of Han was brought into question as well. And we were left hanging. I think the mortality of Han was brought into question as well. And we were left hanging. The X-Wing thing was huge. I also think the revelation of Darth as being humbled by anyone was big. It humanized him as well as reminding us that maybe he wasn’t the darkest evil possible because the Emperor was worse or might be. Also, that Ben could still appear and was still alive in another realm was a really important revelation which became far more important in the next film and prequel trilogy. So that was a big moment. I also think the Han-Leia thing was a bit startling at the time because we were kinda rooting for Luke to get the girl in A New Hope and now he had other goals and needs. But it sure made it easier to transition to the revelations of the next film.
Well, it’s almost time for the third film. I actually tracked down copies of the theatrical releases on DVD and am going to rewatch those for the first time in decades. That’ll be interesting. Meanwhile, any final thoughts on Empire?
JS: My final thought is that I loved it. Empire is possibly my favorite movie of all time. Part of that is surely nostalgia, but part is also due to its importance in the trilogy– the farmboy enters a larger world and faces his enemy on near-equal footing, the scoundrel and the princess find strength in each other, and Vader comes to the forefront as the primary antagonist.
BTS: I still can’t get over the part where you said Vader was your hero growing up, but perhaps if you cry at the end of the next film we can unpack that. Okay, all, we’ll be back next week to discuss Return Of The Jedi. Our first discussions can be found here: