Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Learning From Losing: The Life Lessons of "The Empire Strikes Back"

by Scott Tre

The thrill of victory is a natural high like no other, but the agony of defeat lingers much longer. It also tends to tell us more about who we are. If adversity builds character, suffering losses in life should render your character ironclad. Since we all love to win but hate to lose, our fear of losing causes us to miss out on such lessons. We hold on to the pain but forget to contemplate what that pain has taught us. Such is the foolhardiness of youth.

On May 21st of 1980, George Lucas unleashed the sequel to his industry redefining success Star Wars on a rabid but unsuspecting public. The title should have been a clue. Those expecting the fairy tale optimism of the 1977 original were offered something else entirely: a meditation on growing pains, sacrifice, and ultimately, Loss. The Empire Strikes Back was still a chapter in a fairy tale, albeit a dark and despairing one. It offered no easy answers to the dilemma's it presented, and boldly refused it's fanbase the consolation prize of a tacked on happy ending. Lucas, having raised the spirits of an entire generation, was now about teach them a hard and ultimately useful lesson.

He did so with the help of journeyman filmmaker Irvin Kershner, who he turned the directorial reigns over to. Kershner had been one of Lucas's professor's at USC. Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasden were brought in to flesh out the story. The budget was nearly twice that of the first film. Lucas relationship with the Directors and Writers guilds would not survive the production intact.

Let us put our disdain for the prequels and the special editions to the side for a moment. Let's appreciate and acknowledge the sheer power of the The Empire Strikes Back in all of it's purity. Lucas had created the most affecting kids story of all time, and then turned the tables on his audience. He did so without any malice. The end result initially left people lukewarm, but has since gone on to be regarded as one of, if not the greatest sequel ever made. It is a triumph of artistic vision and storytelling. It manages to immerse it's audience in impenetrable darkness without relying on the crutch of graphic violence.

30 years after the fact, it is easy to forget how bold an endeavor this was. An unhappy ending, a somber mood and a main character that was to be portrayed by a puppet hardly sounds like the makings for a sequel to the Highest grossing film of all time until that point. Empire took all sorts of chances with the good will that was generated by Star Wars. Those chances paid of in grand fashion. The somber mood haunted the dreams of children for years. The unhappy ending left them at the edge of their seats, and that puppet turned out to be the most endearing mentor figure of all time. Was this the result of shrewd calculation, or a case of all the planets being aligned? Usually the greatest things are some combination of both.

While the the first Star Wars opens with a space battle and quickly moves the action to the bright, sandy dunes of Tattooine. Empire starts off on the ice planet of Hoth. It is covered by an endless blanket of snow that stretches out as far as the eye can see, while a restless wind whistles away on the sound track. The camera wastes no time taking all of this in. We are simply planted in the middle of it and instantly reunited with our cocky protagonist, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Luke's ride on his "Ton Ton" is cut short by an abominable snowman called a Wampa. Luke is knocked from atop his steed and dragged off to who knows where. We are markedly different territory.

After Luke escapes being eaten by the Wampa, he is stranded in the snow and rescued by Han Solo. Now it's on to the films next amazing sequence, The At-At walkers assault on the rebel base. The At-At walkers are giant, lumbering mechanical behemoths that resemble war ready Woolly mammoths. Their presence is announced by the thud of an impact tremor (an idea that Spielberg would employ to equally satisfying effect in Jurassic Park. When a wide shot finally reveals them, we see an entire battalion. It is a sight that is at once creepy and awe inspiring. It taps into both our childhood fears and our sense of wonder. The stop motion effects, models, miniatures and matte paintings used to bring the sequence to life are as seamless as one could hope for. Those who prefer CGI to practical effects should take a close look at the pre-special edition version. They will become true believers.

Let us move to the next amazing locale, the murky swamp planet of Dagobah. On Hoth, the endless sheets of snow and incessant winds suggested isolation. This is emphasized by the visual of Luke wandering aimlessly after escaping the Wampa's lair. He has been deprived of his mode of transportation and his friends are nowhere in sight. This is a clue that Luke is about to embark on the loneliest of journies. On Dagobah, we see isolation of a different sort. Slimy marsh covered in clouds of pea soup fog. Stagnant bodies of water hide slithering beasts. Chirps and noises on the soundtrack suggest life, but the visuals themselves show us a moist dungeon. Luke again appears to be alone, until he is graced with the presence of Jedi Master Yoda.

Here, The film offers us not a larger than life special effect or a familiar face, but a tiny puppet voiced by Frank Oz. That Yoda works instantly is part of the films spellbinding power. We automatically accept him despite the fact that he is obviously a puppet that emerged from Jim Henson's creature shop. The wrinkles and cracks on his face create a complex map of experience and wisdom. Somehow, his design communicates everything his character is about before he utters a single line of dialogue. Luke, in all of his ignorance, never suspects that this is the Jedi master he has been told to seek out. Yoda does not initially reveal himself, but chooses to sit back and observe. It is during this stretch of the film that a less appealing side of Luke's character emerges.

When it finally dawns on Luke that he is in the presence of Yoda, the dimunitive sage master looks at him with a disapproving frown. He has failed the first test. His shallow and impatient nature causes him to miss the forest for the trees. Much like the target audience for the Star Wars film's, he is a youth that craves adventure. The first film framed this trait in a way that made audiences connect with hom. Empire turns the tables, showing us the pitfalls of such an attitude. Yoda's frown is the frown of the older generation that looks upon the recklessness of youth, both pitying the young and fearing what their recklessness may bring about.

It is important to note that Star Wars established Luke as both a winner and hero. he should be full of himself. After all, he destroyed an orbiting battle station didn't he? Empire effectively demotes him once he is in the presence of Yoda. Yoda is unimpressed by his past accomplishments. Somehow this attitude is conveyed in the music and visuals. For a while we forget the adrenaline rush of the Death Star trench run, and we are there with Yoda and Luke in this moment. Winning a battle with the aide of high technology and a Star Fleet was the easy part. Now, the the hard work begins. Yoda will take him on spiritual journey as well as a physical and philosophical one. Like most young people, Luke wants the Prize but hasn't the patience for the long road ahead.

We now enter a training sequence that is not unlike those routinely found in martial arts films. Under Yoda's tutelage, Luke does roadwork and learns to levitate small objects. The lightsaber never comes into play. Yoda is helping Luke to build a spiritual foundation. It isn't simply a means by which to win a battle, but a way of life that is to be studied and respected. It requires a level of total faith that eludes Luke. Any mountain can be moved, all one requires is belief. When Luke openly and arrogantly doubts the limitless power of the force, Yoda gives him a demonstration. In the single most magical moment of the original trilogy, Yoda lifts The sunken X-Wing fighter out of the marsh and places it gently on the ground before Luke. He does so using the levitation technique. John Williams music builds to an invigorating and intoxicating crescendo. It says to both Luke and to audience, "Believe". At that moment, we are floating on air. Moments like this are what all great fairy tales are made of, the crossroads where inspiration and imagination meet.

Just as quickly, our elation is deflated. Luke, gasping for air, approaches his teacher:

Luke Skywalker: "I don't believe it"
Yoda: "That...is why you fail."

In those few words, reality comes crashing down. Our hero is failing. We begin to see that Yoda is not a curmudgeon, but a veteran who grasps the seriousness of the situation. He is a not only a teacher but a true believer. Luke's immaturity and spiritual shallowness may very well cost the rebel alliance the war.

Meanwhile his friends are desperately looking for shelter while evading capture from the Empire. Han Solo, Princess Leia (Carrie Fischer), Chewbacca and C3PO(Anthony Daniels) race for dear life in the Millennium Falcon. They weave in and out of an asteroid field and land in a vast cave on one of the massive floating boulders. There, they take a breather, hoping to wait out the fleet of Tie fighters that search endlessly for them. Their break is cut short when they realize that they are actually inside the mouth of a giant worm. The asteroid was it's nesting place. This sidebar from the main story is very much in the spirit of the old adventure serials, and in keeping with the sense of humor established in the Star Wars films thus far. We are thrilled, but we are also delighted.

From their we go to our next locale, the beautifully rendered Cloud City that hovers in the skies of the planet Bespin. For once we are treated to a sight that is elevating as opposed to isolating. The pink and red hues evoke the feel of picturesque sunset. We are introduced to Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the first African American character of the Star Wars universe. Perhaps in a nod to the by then defunct Blaxploitation genre, Lando sports a cape and a hairdo that would make Superfly's Priest green with envy. Like the architectural beauty of Cloud City itself, Lando's dapper appearance is a facade. Bright lights and smooth talkers are often a subterfuge meant to fool you. Han and his companions learn this too late, as Lando sells them out to Vader. Han is encased in Carbonite, suspending him in animation and readying him for delivery to Jabba The Hut. Hans encasement is a nightmarish image that consummates the mood of the entire film.

Luke has a psychic vision while meditating that alerts him to his friends capture. He decides to interrupt his training, much the chagrin of Yoda and the disembodied Obi-Won (Alec Guinness). Luke is willing to forsake the causes of both the Jedi and the rebel alliance. His reasons for doing so are honorable, but Yoda sees them for the selfish shortsightedness they represent. Wars have casualties, and true sacrifice means dealing with loss. Luke is not ready to embrace such lofty ideals, and rushes off to Cloud City unaware of the great revelation that awaits him.

Darth Vader's character was already iconic by the time of Empire's release, but Empire made him even more imposing. Here, he uses his "force choke" to punish imperial officers who fail him. Forgiveness and patience are qualities that elude the Sith lord. This is played to darkly comic effect, as it seems that the pool of commanding officers in the imperial fleet will eventually run dry under Vader's supervision. His impatience mirrors that of Luke, albeit in a much more extreme way. Such foreshadowing was lost on audiences back in 1980. Vader has captured Luke's companions in order to draw him out and trap him. Luke falls into the trap without hesitation.

It is here that the film enters it's most despairing stretch. Luke's confrontation with Vader brings to life our worst fears. Vader taunts Luke verbally and toys with him. The beginning of the fight suggests they may be evenly matched, but as things progress the truth becomes clear. Vader is a more accomplished opponent and a more experienced combatant. His intentions may be less than honorable, but his faith in and command of the force is undeniable. Luke clutches his lightsaber with both hands while Vader uses just one. Never underestimate a man who is sure is his faith and has experience on his side. Raw talent is rarely if ever, enough.

Vader's victory is chilling in it's complexity and completeness. Now begins the nightmare phase of their duel. Vader has used stealth and cover to evade Luke, showing his cunning and strategy to be superior. Now, he shows the depth of his mastery of the force. He lowers his saber, and suddenly things begin to levitate and detatch from their bearings. Luke is pummeled by the debris and disoriented by Vader's psychic attack. The message of the scene is clear as crystal: "Let me show just how outmatched and outclassed you are. I don't need a weapon to beat you. Now...The pain begins". It is obvious that Luke cannot win this fight.

The duel continues. Having shown Luke the extent of his abilities, Vader demands surrender. Though beaten, Luke is scrappy. He refuses to admit defeat. Vader toys with Luke a bit too long, allowing him to land a saber stroke. In one of the most shocking instances of violence in the original trilogy, Vader severs Luke's hand. Luke has been bested physically, mentally and spiritually. Now comes the death blow, delivered via the most shocking twist in summer blockbuster history:

Darth Vader: Obi Won never told you what happened to your father.
Luke Skywalker: He told me enough! He told me you killed him!
Darth Vader: No...I am your father!

Luke's loss is now complete. Everything he thought he knew has been undone. The audience has no idea where they stand with this film. The fairy tale optimism of Star Wars has been replaced with emptiness, despair, and regret. The hardest thing about growing up is learning to accept the truth. The truth about the world and the truth about ourselves. The world is not the way we want it to be, and things are rarely the way we perceive them. The truth is obviously too much for Luke to take. He leaps to his death, and is eventually saved from the brink Leia, Chewie and a newly reformed Lando.

As the film draws to a close, A battered but healing Luke receives a mechanical hand to replace the one he lost. Lando and Chewie depart in the Falcon to rescue Han from the clutches of Jabba The Hut. As The elegant John Williams score rises to an emotional close, we are left with one final lesson: Even in the darkest of moments, hope prevails. All wounds heal. Learn from your mistakes, and be ready to seize victory when a second chance presents itself. This was of little comfort to audiences that were not ready for a cliff hanger ending, or to see the Hero of the first film so soundly defeated. The initial response to The Empire Strikes Back was lukewarm. The technical superiority to the first film was evident, but the end product was hardly as satisfying. The Box Office gross reflected this sentiment, as Empire proved extremely popular, but not nearly as popular as the original.

Times have certainly changed. Empire is now rightly regarded as easily the best of all six Star Wars films, and among the very best sequels ever made. While it lacks the instant satisfaction of the original, it's haunting presence resonates much more. it is a beautiful metaphor for the growing pains that we all experience from puberty on throughout adulthood. Growth means pain, and ultimate victory is meaningless without struggle. George Lucas sought not to discourage kids, but to enlighten them to what awaits them. Empire seeks to make young people ready and strong for the trials that await them. Sometimes, your shortcomings will get the best of you. Sometimes the bad guys win. This is inevitable. True warriors are resilient and continue on. Do not fear the truth or regret it. Simply regroup and decide what to do next.

May The Force Be With You.


  1. man, i've never seen the remastered version, but now you make me want to peep it.


  2. ["a newly reformed Lando"]

    I find this term offensive. If anything, Han, Leia and Chewie should be begging his forgiveness for a) leading the Empire to Bespin; and b) Chewie's strangulation attack that prevented Lando from rescuing Han. Even worse, am I really supposed to view Lando's act as betrayal? He is supposed to be more concerned for Han, Leia and Chewie; than the people of Bespin?

    I don't think so.