Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back? Whoop-doo!
A lot of noise has been made in the past few weeks about this seminal sci-fi film celebrating its 30th anniversary. Every imaginable cretin has chimed in with their memories and thoughts on this triumphant Star Wars sequel. Most consider it the best of the bunch. The actual anniversary was last week. Its fitting that I come a week or so late to this particular nostalgia party. Just as I did to the movie when it was first released. Thinking back on it has me questioning my own geek cred as a film lover and aficionado. Its not that I was too young to see Empire on opening day. It's just that I didn't seem to care too much. In May of 1980, I was eight years old. And this "first in line mentality" that has overtaken us as a culture hadn't quite gripped my soul yet. I didn't see the movie for another week or two after it's debut. Same thing happened with Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Like any good little kid, I loved all things Chewbacca and C3PO. Seeing the film on opening day, or weekend for that matter, just wasn't an option.
If I am to believe the rest of the Internet, I am in the minority here. My parents must have been terrible, awful people not to take off from work and drive me to the nearest theatrical outpost that particular May 21st. I've since learned that they too wanted to see Empire just as bad as my brother and I. It wasn't playing at our local Cineplex on its opening weekend. This meant driving to Eugene, Oregon. A good fifty-six minutes away from the house. Dad was working overnights, and they took us as soon as they could. Before it opened, I remember My cousin buying the Marvel Comic Book adaptation. I didn't want to read it. I didn't want to know what was going to happen. I accidentally saw a couple of panels from the last few pages. And it boggled my mind. I couldn't quite comprehend what was happening with the carbonite chamber. Not wanting to read the word balloons, I skipped to the next pane. It was a picture of Lando's right hand man, Lobot. I didn't know anything about this character and assumed, in my eight-year-old mind, that they were punishing Han Solo by shaving him bald. It didn't make any sense to me. And it didn't make me want to see the film all that much. "Han Solo? Bald? Dumb." I remember asking the rest of that day, "Why did they shave Han Solo's head?" My questions weren't answered until I actually saw the film. "Han Solo wasn't bald, you little dope!" My mother frowned as we drove away from the theater.
The two things I remember most about watching Empire for the very first time was that the intermission was really annoying. And that the rest of Han Solo's life must have been kind of boring if this two hour stretch was all we were getting to see of his existence. Seriously, out of all the adventures he had in the comic books, and in the Han Solo novels, all he got to do was sleep inside a smelly kangaroo, kiss a chick, hang out on a rock, and get sealed in carbonite by his best friend? Wimpdog Luke, on the other hand, becomes a Jedi. A mother fucking Jedi! Though we couldn't see it at the time, this was the beginning of the emasculation of the American male hero as it still continues through to this day. And the ushering in of the fey scrimp as winning protagonist, as still witnessed in our most recent action epics.
It takes a long time to become a Jedi. It all happens while Han Solo is drifting around in space debris. Which must have been forever. He was in space with nothing but a talking trashcan and a dog, and he steal couldn't seal the deal with Leia? Come on! Han Solo is one of our all-time greatest scoundrels. This was the first sign that George Lucas was a little bit nuts. Out of all the adventures for Han, he picks this one. It seems like Luke and R2D2 are on Dagobah forever. While Han, Leia, C3P0 and Chewbacca's trip to Cloud City plays like a quaint afternoon jaunt. Heck, they even arrive in time for dinner. Irvin Kershner made such a great movie, most of us kids failed to notice the fallacies of Empire's timeline. But seriously, even as a kid, I remember thinking to myself, "Out of all the things that have happened in these characters lives, this is what you give me in real time? This is what you're showing me?" I guess I thought there should have been more.
It wasn't a gripe so much as an existential exploration of humanity. At the time, I'd built up such a myth about these weird space people in my head, playing with my action figures behind the couch. I thought, "There must be more to this excellent story. Why am I only seeing this? This is it?" The awesome adventures we constantly played through in our heads matched what was happening on screen, but the subsequent films never floated above or beyond those expectations. Maybe that's why I was one of the few who didn't care too much about the prequels. I enjoyed them for what they were. Saturday Morning Bombast. And they reminded me of the original Marvel Comic run. The thing that made Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back such a special film is that it moved beyond the trappings of celluloid. And it was a summer long event. No other film is capable of pulling that off nowadays.
In the early 80s, a few great classics went above the call of duty, drifting through the entire three months we'd be out of school. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Back to The Future, Ghostbusters. Some might even argue The Dark Knight. But Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back was there for us from May to September. We saw it nearly ever other weekend, and I can't even tell you, off the top of my head, what other films opened that summer. That just doesn't happen in this day and age, and if so, very rarely. Most films come and go in a weekend. We spend a lot of time contemplating them, waiting for them, bitching about them. As soon as they hit, we see them, and that's it.
Empire was different. And it's all about the characters. We, as a generation, simply love all of the characters in this film. From the Ugnaughts to Lobot, to that weirdo Medical Droid. They all made it an important, lasting affair that particular year. Though I'm unsure of the overall beats, the film is extraordinary in setting up relationships we care about. And moments that hit like a truck. It is glorious cinema on all levels, and everything a great movie should be. Knowing that there were always new Empire trading cards made going to the grocery store a fun event. Getting to relive the adventures over again on a Coke glass at Burger King made us fat from fast food. Because of the time of year it came out, we'll always associate the film with sunshine and summer vacation. Especially the smell of mown grass, as we each strived to earn that next exciting action figure. I remember my Aunt was in the hospital for most of that particular summer. Empire was what kept us kids at bay while my parents worried at her bedside. Why do most of us kids still remember it as a near religious experience here, 30 years later? Because there was nothing else like it at the time. And it still looks, feels, and plays like the best afternoon a young child could hope for. A river picnic, adventures in a ditch, climbing a tree, Empire, and a girl crush. Of course the movie is going to continue to resonate. It's a sensation that elevated itself past just being "a movie". Something our summer films strive for today, but simply can't achieve. Because of all the stimuli that surrounds us. When Empire arrived, we didn't even have too many cable options. It was the only thing in town, so to speak. A hot chick at a Bar Mitzvah.
Anyone you talk to who was alive at this particular moment in time remembers it as such. The one thing no one but my brother and I seem to remember, though, is that awful intermission that interrupted the middle of the film. By 1980, the theatrical intermission had been all but abolished. In today's marketplace, where every dollar counts and screen space is a limited commodity, an Intermission, even for a three hour epic like Avatar, is absolutely unthinkable. Unfathomable. Costly. And dangerous to the attention span. During the Golden Age of cinema, the intermission allowed you to head to the lobby for refreshments. Take a quick pee break. Or step next door and shoot a quick Gin. When we saw Empire, I'd only every experienced the Intermission at my parents' favorite revival theater, The Roseway, in Portland, Oregon (which is still operational, albeit showing new films). Empire's Intermission comes right when Han is flying the Millennium Falcon out of the Asteroid monster's mouth. The teeth are closing down. And the screen goes black. The lights come up. "What!?!" The entire audience gasped.
We all thought the film broke. Right at the most inconvenient moment. Nope. We were informed that it was intermission time. We weren't told when the film was coming back on. So we all hurried to pee. Dad got a box of Milk Duds, then we were back in our seats. Waiting. Growing restless. The lights went down. The film came on without warning. Fast. The jaws came down on the Millennium Falcon. The scene lasts approximately two more seconds. Half of us were turned around, kicking the ground, or otherwise engaged in a conversation about what was going to happen next. 95% of the audience missed the Falcon's escape, and suddenly we were thrust back into Dagobah without much concern. It was a cinematic moment of whiplash that has stuck with me till this day. I can still see it playing out in my mind's eye, like a memory that failed to eviscerate itself.
This wasn't just some odd occurrence, either. Every subsequent time I saw the film in various theaters throughout Oregon, the film always played with that same Intermission. It has become Pavlovian. I can't watch the film on DVD without wincing. I know right where the Intermission is going to hit. And I am always shocked when the Asteroid escape scene plays out it its entirety. It just doesn't seem right in my head. And never will. It scarred me so much, I remember being worried about the intermission when Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi came out. There wasn't one. No that's I've started taking beer to the theater, I wish every movie had an intermission.
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back is a film that will be with us forever. It deserves a pat on the back for being quite decent these past thirty years. Aside from all that assholish CGI tinkering by its creator, the film still stands as a fresh and exciting endeavor for anyone interested in taking a look. Its held our hand through many spiny nights. Its been their for us when other movies sucked. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back? Whoop-Doo! Eat Food! Kill Grandma!
Now where the fuck is my Empire Blu-ray?