Sunday, July 14, 2024

Star Wars Rewatch: The Critic Strikes Back

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (TFA) has taken some criticism, whether you agree with it or not, for being too similar to Star Wars: A New Hope (ANH). I think we can all agree that TFA hit some similar story beats, and there were definitely very intentional callbacks to the first Star Wars film. Whether it was successful or not is a discussion for another day.

The next film (if the amazing trailer is to be believed) promises to be a little darker than TFA. This falls in line with the second film of the Original Trilogy (OT), The Empire Strikes Back (ESB). It was a little darker, a lot more complex, and had some surprise reveals that made us all hungry for the third chapter. If the new films continue in TFA’s trend of echoing the OT films, then you can’t do much better than ESB to emulate. Ian, Zach, and Gretchen all love this movie, and it’s going to be tough to find anything negative to say about it (but we’re darn sure going to try, if just to be fair).

What were your feelings on the movie going in?

Zach: I have been waiting to watch this movie since we started this rewatch project. It is rare to find a movie that is part of a series which functions so well as both a part of the whole and its own story.

Gretchen: Given that I’ve recently been reading a lot of Star Wars comics and the YA Leia novel, needless to say I was pretty damn excited for ESB. It’s quintessential Leia and Han/Leia, and includes one of the greatest reveals of the series.

Ian: I don’t think I ever not in the mood to watch this. It has some of my favorite moments from the OT. Excited. Raring to go.

What did you think of the characters? How have they grown since Star Wars: A New Hope?

Gretchen: The first act of the film sets up Luke and Leia’s growth as leaders really well. We see Luke taking charge of the air attack on the AT-ATs with no hesitation. Even before that, we see Leia at the general’s right hand, leading the fledgling Rebellion. One of my favorite moments is her ringed by pilots, all of them listening in rapt attention as she details their attack and escape plan. They’re both natural leaders, and we see right away that in the three-year gap, they’ve grown into capable rebel commanders in their own rights. Go Skywalker Twins!

Zach: It is so good to see this to be honest, and it is something that I am glad the new films emphasize. Leia Organa is the leader of the Rebellion. Every single decision that the Rebellion makes is one of hers, and all the officers ask for her advice before doing anything. She is a Princess in the true medieval sense of the word: she is the leader.

At the same time, Leia actually gets a personality in this episode outside of “snarky princess” that she was in ANH. She is so driven by her cause that she leaves everything and everyone else by the wayside. We do not really get see this interaction much with anyone else except Han, who is desperately trying to get her to admit her feelings for him. Come to think of it, the only interaction that she and Luke get is when they… kiss… that was weird…

Ian: Yeah, incestuousness aside, that was kind of an odd moment. We see Leia and Han’s game of cat and mouse, and she is able to hold her own no problem. Kissing Luke to get at Han was an odd choice. Then Luke’s smug reaction for just a beat is another odd character moment, but one of the few times Luke gets to be funny.

Gretchen: I got the impression this time around that Luke’s not so much smug because he wants the kiss so much as he’s good-naturedly making fun of Han’s desperation and lack of success. Though that might just be me over-analyzing…

Maybe a little bit smug. Okay, there’s some smug.

Zach: Luke has a TON of development. In the years between the Battle of Yavin and now he has matured from a slightly whiny teenager to a hardened, driven, battle commander. It is an interesting thing to see how his whiny “I want to go out and be something” has changed to “I want to go out and save people,” between the two movies. On a basic level they are still the same idea, but the subtle change says a lot about Luke’s character

Gretchen: So true. As for Han, well to me if Han can be said to have grown, it’s more loyal to his friends and more in love with Leia (and a bit with Luke, tbh). He’s clearly devoted to her and seems reluctant to leave. In the three-year gap, he seems to have earned the respect of the Rebels as well as gained a bit of stability. He feels more settled.

Zach: I think that this is actually more honestly Han’s personality, he just never had the time or opportunity to truly be himself between smuggling for the Hutts and running from the Hutts. It turns out he is romantic and wants a committed relationship. The idea of Han being a “flight risk” is totally ridiculous. He is loyal to people he cares about, and that includes Leia. It does a real disservice to his character to reduce him to that.

Gretchen: Preach it.

Ian: The changes in Vader are noticeable. Gone is Tarkin’s lackey. It seems that in the interim since the Death Star’s destruction, Vader has been given a much bigger role in the fight against the Rebellion. This probably has a lot to do with Luke. Vader’s singular focus on finding Luke has turned him from the Empire’s caged animal to a murderous rage monster. He goes through Imperial officers like so many M&M’s. With Vader in charge, officers must be turning down promotion after promotion just to stay out of his way.

What do you love most about this movie?

Gretchen: Han and Leia are everything.

Zach: Step 1 – Try not to cry. Failed Step 1

Gretchen: The tragedy of Anakin Vader struck me so much more poignantly this time around. The moment where Piett sees beneath Vader’s helmet was scary when I was a kid (who was this monster beneath the helmet??). This time, it’s a heartbreaking moment of vulnerability where we see the man Vader used to be.

Moreover, the final confrontation between Anakin and Luke resonates even more powerfully. Having seen the Prequel Trilogy (PT), we can imagine what Anakin must feel seeing his son alive, powerful, and foreseen to bring down the Emperor. Here is finally a chance for Anakin to break free and take his master’s place, no longer a slave to the Empire. Then to have Luke reject him…OW. It hurts. #SkywalkerClanFeelings.

Zach: Everyone knows that usurping power is a fun father-son activity! I do it with my dad all the time.

The pose that birthed a thousand memes.

Ian: That saber duel in this film is like… wow. This is hands-down my favorite saber duel in all of Star Wars. It isn’t about flawless choreography, or an unstopppable force versus an immovable object. This fight is an inexperienced kid standing up against impossible odds, and a much older, more powerful Vader toying with his upstart of a son. Vader is really just playing with Luke at first. He pushes him around the carbon freeze facility and into the pit with relative ease, never intending to strike a killing blow. But Luke surpasses expectations and even though he is clumsy and ineffective at first, his persistence and determination keep him on his feet. I imagine Cap standing there at the beginning of The First Avenger telling his bullies “I could do this all day.” Luke doesn’t nearly have that degree of confidence, but he still manages to stick around long enough that Vader gets tired of it. By the end, Vader is hammering away at a Luke who just won’t give up, and even gets a few licks of his own in. Finally, a frustrated Vader is forced to cripple his son just to get him to stop and listen to his pitch.

Gretchen: “Cripple his son just to get him to stop and listen to his pitch…” I’d never thought of it that way, but you’re absolutely right.

Ian: I forgot to time this battle when I was watching it (because I was glued to the screen), but I am sure it is only a fraction of screen time compared to the overwrought bombast we saw two films ago. There is so much emotion and character conveyed throughout this fight. I could watch it over and over again. Compare that to the basically nothing we get from 20 minutes of flashy CGI and deftly performed choreography in Episode III. Lightsabers are fun and cool, but rarely has a duel been this good. Then, as Gretchen mentioned, the rejection of Luke caps it all off. This is Vader’s failure as much as it is Luke’s, and even though you can’t see his face, David Prowse’s body language tells us all we need to know.

Gretchen: You know what else hurts? Seeing Yoda’s fears about Luke—plus a bit of projection—which are based in his experiences with Anakin. He worries Luke is too reckless, too impatient, too angry, needs control. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s Anakin. It may not apply to Luke as much as Yoda fears it does, but that makes sense given his past. Plus, he worries Luke cares too much about saving his friends and will be turned to the Dark Side out of a need to protect them. Again, sound familiar? The PT may not have executed a lot well, but the emotional resonances in the OT sure do hit home. So I guess what I love most is all the feelings I have watching it. Both of the Han/Leia variety and of the Luke/Anakin variety.

Zach: Everything that Gretchen pointed out (some of which I had not even thought of but now I am suffering). The other thing that I really liked about this movie is Yoda’s lessons about the Force (although we’re ignoring all other canon info on the Force). It really adds a feeling of wonder to the Star Wars universe.

Ian: Yeah, Luke’s recklessness. This is especially poignant when the first shots we see of Luke in the next film are robed in black and force-choking Jabba’s guards. He is leaning awfully dark side (which frankly has me worried for Episode VIII, but that’s a discussion for another time). If you watch these films in the “machete order” which goes IV, V, II, III, VI (and omits I altogether) it is especially poignant because having just seen Anakin’s fall, and knowing what we know of Luke’s training, then seeing him show up robed and all choke-happy, it’s really troubling. I’m sure we’ll want to elaborate more next time when we watch Episode VI.

Zach: John Williams is in TOP FORM in this movie. “The Imperial March”, “Han Solo and the Princess,” and “Hyperspace” are all standout entries in the Classic Star Wars themes, and the work he does with the preexisting themes is phenomenal. The Force theme in Yoda’s teaching takes on a new, ethereal dimension. Some might even say that “Han Solo and the Princess” is a variation on Leia’s Theme from ANH. As good as “Duel of the Fates,” “Across the Stars,” “March at the Jedi Temple,” and the Revenge of the Sith opening version of the Force theme were, all are overshadowed by the music of ESB.

Ian: Well said. Who can forget the Imperial March?

Gretchen: The score is iconic.

You know what else is iconic? This.

Ian: One more little item. I love Yoda’s introduction. He’s goofy, sarcastic, funny. I want to think this isn’t a put-on, but just kind of the way Yoda is when he’s not in Jedi Sage mode. I love him teasing Luke about wrecking his ship, and messing with all his stuff. It’s clear he’s testing Luke to get a feel for him, but it’s also one of the most fun and memorable scenes from the film.

Gretchen: I had the same thought, actually! He’s so serious in the PT; getting to see that goofy side after everything he’s faced is a real treat.

It can’t be perfect can it? What are its flaws (if any)?

Ian: The only thing I can think of, and this is a kind of big problem even though I didn’t notice it until a couple of years ago, is the odd time differences through the second act. Luke is on Degobah training with Yoda, while Han, Leia, and Chewie hide out in an asteroid that turns out to be a living thing. If you pay attention, Luke’s training appears to happen over days, possibly even weeks or months. Han, Leia, and Chewie’s predicament is intercut with Luke’s training, but it feels more like a matter of hours. They hide from the Empire, are attacked by gross bat-things, discover they are in a giant asteroid worm, and gtfo in what one would reasonably assume to be an afternoon. Finally, Han pulls his trash stunt and they escape to Bespin. Without lightspeed, this could have taken awhile, but it just doesn’t feel like it did. Meanwhile, Luke is working, improving, getting dirty and sweaty, over what feels like weeks. He and Yoda have a rapport that implies some time spent together. At least, more than just a weekend retreat. Are we to believe Luke is so strong in the Force that it only took him an afternoon to get most of the way there?

The thing is, the editing and pacing are done so masterfully that you wouldn’t even notice unless you were really looking for it. I didn’t notice until someone else pointed it out. So really, the one flaw I can even find is a testament to how successful the film is even in spite of that.

Gretchen: Yeah, I’ll be honest, I didn’t notice until you just pointed it out. But you’re right, the time doesn’t line up. Still, it really is so well done that even now that I know it, I can’t find myself able to get angry at it. It’s all tied together so well, the correspondences between the locales, the fauna, the mist, the eerie ambiance—they cut together so well that I can’t be mad at the time jump.

Zach: I actually looked this up on the Star Wars wikia and according to Pablo Hidalgo it says that it took the Falcon a month to go from Hoth to Bespin. So probably the best answer is that the asteroid field and escape from the fleet took a few days at most, but then the travel time allowed Luke to do all his training. That said, you both are right: the editing is next level.

Also, I cannot believe they deleted the scene where C-3PO murders some snowtroopers.

Is this the best Star Wars movie? Why or why not?

Gretchen: I’m pretty sure the only correct answer is yes. It has so many great moments for the original trio, lots of emotional depth, a tightly-packed, fast-paced plot, and the writing is so well done. The dialogue is near-perfect at conveying character and nothing feels unnecessary. To me, if I could only watch one Star Wars movie for the rest of my life, it would be this one.

Zach: Most definitely. The themes are all presented smoothly, the world is built up a bit more, and the movie itself is just well-made. The way that everything is put together gives a constant sense of anxiety and tension. Everything is moving, and while we do have small moments of calm, there is always a feeling of urgency.

Ian: Yup, pretty much. Episode VI will always have a special place in my heart because it was my favorite growing up what with its epic battles and resolution to the story, but yeah, Empire is hands down the better film.

Overall Thoughts

Gretchen: Talented. Brilliant. Incredible. Amazing. Showstopping. Spectacular. The ultimate Star Wars.

Zach: Two hours and seven minutes of perfection. I can watch this movie (or clips of it from Youtube) forever.

Ian: Nothing more to add. This is the high-water mark (at least to date).

Ian’s Score: 10 – Electrifying: YES,YEESSSS! Too good for the galaxy, too pure. Leaves the viewer with a feeling of deep emotional catharsis and stimulation. Worth infinite rewatches with the volume turned all the way up. This rating truly represents the Light Side of the Force.

Zach’s Score: 10 – Electrifying: YES,YEESSSS! Too good for the galaxy, too pure. Leaves the viewer with a feeling of deep emotional catharsis and stimulation. Worth infinite rewatches with the volume turned all the way up. This rating truly represents the Light Side of the Force.

Gretchen’s Score: 10 – Electrifying: YES,YEESSSS! Too good for the galaxy, too pure. Leaves the viewer with a feeling of deep emotional catharsis and stimulation. Worth infinite rewatches with the volume turned all the way up. This rating truly represents the Light Side of the Force.

Images Courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm

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