20 May 2010

Thirty years of puppets, probe droids and paternity: "The Empire Strikes Back"

Things don't always go your way. Sometimes, you do your best to hide in the garbage dumped by an Imperial Star Destroyer only to be tracked to Cloud City by a persistent bounty hunter. Other times, you do your best to prove yourself only to end up losing limbs and discovering unpleasant genealogical truths along the way. Some days, sometimes you find out the hard way that the carbon freezing process does indeed work on humans – namely, you.

Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the world finding out that Darth Vader was really Luke Skywalker's father. That's right – "Empire Strikes Back," the second film in the hugely successful "Star Wars" trilogy (yes, I saw "trilogy" – those other three don't count) was released in theaters May 21, 1980.

That's not true. That's impossible! Thirty years?? To quote some dialogue from the film:

"Search your feelings. You KNOW it be true."


I don't remember the first time I'd ever seen "The Empire Strikes Back" in its entirety. Being born less than seven months before it came out precluded me from seeing it in theaters. I likely caught it as a movie-of-the-week on network television. Even at a young age, the movie's highs and lows were legendary among the kids of Hemlock Court: Darth Vader being revealed as Luke Skywalker's father; Han Solo being frozen in carbonite and taken by the mysterious Boba Fett; and of course, the introduction of the benevolent, linguistically scattershot Jedi master, Yoda.

My appreciation for "Empire" really didn't start when I was a kid. Sure, it had some cool parts, but the Death Star trench run of the first film and the Ewoks from the third seemed to captivate me more as a young boy. As I grew, however, so did my appreciation for "Empire," and in time, I found it to be my personal favorite.

The reason? Simple. It's dark. Really dark. Basically, everything bad that COULD happen to the Rebels DOES happen to the Rebels. Hoth attacked? Check. Han Solo put in to carbonite to face an uncertain future? Check. Luke Skywalker not only losing a hand but also finding out that he's the scion of the most evil man in the galaxy? Check.

The tone is a marked departure from the breezy optimism and fun of the first film, and serves as a weight counterbalance to the admittedly lighter third film, which according to Randall from the movie "Clerks" just had a bunch of Muppets.

"Empire" taught me a valuable lesson I can't recall seeing in many other movies of the era: the good guys don't always win. Coming from an time when children's programming was saturated with saccharine messages about inevitable personal success by the time the credits rolled, "Empire" seemed a refreshing dose of doom and gloom. Its message of triumph from the fact that our heroes were determined not to give up in the face of everything that had gone wrong. It's a good message to learn, and one that is more relevant in a period where a whole hell of a lot is going wrong.

So happy birthday, "Empire." I can't wait to show you to my kids and see the look of quizzical disappointment on their faces when the movie doesn't end the way they thought it would. After all, life is sometimes like that, too.

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