2/24/09

R079 Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

(1980, SciFi, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy and Chad Vader

How are you going to defeat Vader if you can’t levitate a robot while standing on your head?

Rating: ****

In a Nutshell:


Darth Vader hunts Luke Skywalker in an attempt to recruit him for the Emperor.

Summary:

Good thing they didn't show her smoochin' Luke on that thing.The original Star Wars trilogy was one of the founding fathers of Film Series That Don’t Pause for Backstory. As reference for the plot of the first film, all we get is a phrase or two in the flying wall of deep space text that opens the film. If you’re reading this, then you probably already know what Star Wars is, and what happened in Episode IV, but just in case you’ve recently awakened from a thirty-five-year coma, here’s a link to that review.

We pick up a few weeks (months? years?) after Luke and Han got their Death Star Demolition Medals. Imperial forces have hunted the Rebel Alliance across the galaxy, forcing them to take shelter on the inhospitably cold planet of Hoth. While scouting the environs around their new home, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) gets swiped by a Yeti and frozen in an upside-down position to await his turn at dinner. Judicious use of his Force powers frees him—specifically, his ability to telekinetically summon a lightsaber and then swing it wildly at his enemies. He collapses in the snow outside the Yeti’s den, and hallucinates a scolding from Obi-Wan Kenobi’s fuzzy blue ghost (Sir Alec Guinness). His friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford) finds him and stuffs him inside the steaming corpse of a tauntaun (sort of a kangaroo/alpaca with mountain goat horns) while he sets up a shelter. Rebel speeders find them the next day, and take them back to base for treatment.

While Luke recovers, an Imperial probe droid lands on Hoth, transmitting images of the base back to its fleet. Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) moves his fleet to attack the planet, strangling underlings with his mind as he goes. Led by Han, Luke and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), the rebels hold off the Imperial assault long enough for most of them to escape.

At this point, our narrative splits in two. Plot A follows Han, Leia, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) as they try to escape the doomed Hoth base in Han’s ship, The Millennium Falcon. The damaged Falcon can’t make the jump to hyperspace, and leaving them stuck with the entire Imperial fleet on their tails. They fly in and out of an asteroid field (and a giant asteroid field-based worm) in an effort to lose them, but it’s not until Han disables his own ship and disguises it as space garbage that they finally escape. They fly to the nearest space port to make repairs.

The new 2009 Imperial Walker!  Smooth ride, air conditioned, and reaches speeds of three miles per hour!The nearest space port happens to be Cloud City, a mining facility administrated by Han’s old friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Lando offers his hospitality while his engineers fix the Falcon’s hyperdrive problem. While exploring the facility, C3PO discovers Imperial storm troopers, who blast him to pieces. Shortly thereafter, Darth Vader shows up at dinner with a lot of armed guards. Lando apologizes; a bounty hunter named Boba Fett tracked them to Cloud City, bringing the Empire with him. Lando had to sell out Han and Leia to save his city. Vader’s minions get to work making our heroes suffer to bait a trap for his true quarry. The man Vader really wants is nascent Jedi Luke Skywalker.

Luke, in the meantime, has spent all this time in Plot B, at the beginning of which he followed his fuzzy blue ghost master’s advice and flew with R2-D2 to the swampy planet of Dagoba. Here he receives more Jedi training from a wrinkled green Muppet named Yoda (Frank Oz). In a Force-induced vision, Luke sees his friends suffering and spurns Yoda’s advice to let them die for the sake of his training. Inexplicably—by which I guess I mean, “Through the power of the Force”—he knows exactly where they are, arriving just after Han is flash-frozen and packed in carbonite. R2 joins Leia and the newly reformed Lando to escape and attempt to rescue Han. For reasons that may have made sense to him at the time, Luke wanders into the freezing chamber to face Vader. They duel with lightsabers up and down the halls and catwalks of Cloud City. Vader finally cuts off Luke’s hand, cornering him at the end of a catwalk to confess “I am your father.” Luke doesn’t take the news well; he jumps into a deep shaft, which turns into a slide, which opens up and deposits him on an antenna below the floating city.

Meanwhile, Leia, Lando and company have failed to rescue Han, and are now fleeing for their lives in the Millennium Falcon. Luke calls Leia back with the power of the Force. Lando rescues Luke, R2 finishes repairing the hyperdrive, and Chewbacca flies them all to safety. Later, Luke gets a new hand while Chewbacca and Lando take off to look for Han.

Thoughts:

Luke, I knocked up your mom and then strangled her with my mind.The second Star Wars film (fifth in chronology) is the best of any Star Wars thus far. I’m guessing this is because it comes from a happier time—after Lucas had been recognized as an imaginative genius, but before his co-filmmakers lost the power to temper that genius with professional restraint. After he’d been granted freedom to do what he does best—design an extraordinary, fascinating universe—but before he got free reign to do things he’s no damn good at, like write and direct...

Though, okay, I have to correct myself here. Lucas has never been a great writer/director, but the original Star Wars and films like THX 1138 and American Graffiti show that he used to be at least competent...

What were we talking about? Oh, yes. Empire Strikes Back takes place in a happier time. Back when the action was exciting, the plot twists stunning, and the Force was ancient, mystical and (fortunately) inexplicable...

Though it’s a little bit like spider sense, in that it only shows up intermittently, explaining sudden flashes of knowledge to cover plot holes, and then disappearing to preserve surprises and plot twists for the audience. The Force, ladies and gentlemen! There’s nothing it can’t do... when it feels like it...

Where was I? Um... happier times? Back in the days when Yoda was actually wise...

Kill your father, you must, but out with your sister, not, should you make.Though, come to think of it, Yoda’s an excellent teacher of Jedi skills, but every time he looks at the big picture, he comes to precisely the wrong conclusion. He’s like a crazy right-wing junior high gym coach with pointy ears and bad syntax—able to show you the correct way to dribble and shoot, but his real-world advice involves refusing to pay taxes while stockpiling weapons and booze. In Star Wars terms, this is the guy who thought it would be a good idea for the most powerful surviving member of the entire friggin’ Jedi order to sit on his wrinkled green backside in some backwater swamp for two whole decades while the galaxy went to hell around him. The only reason anyone ever accomplishes anything, good or bad, in these pictures is because people usually ignore him.

So, uh, back when Yoda knew how to sound wise by merely implying his outrageously bad advice, instead of just blurting it out where anyone could hear...

Well, okay, it’s not a perfect movie. It’s a fantasy film that takes place in a man-made universe, and by their very nature, man-made universes are riddled with inconsistencies. The Empire Strike Back comes from a happier time, when the plot was simple and exciting and moved too fast to let its audience get bored enough to pick at its intrinsic flaws. It’s a fun movie, and fun movies get a lot more leeway from their fans in that department.

Mike, Bill and Kevin are joined by internet sitcom star Chad Vader for the commentary. Chad’s first appearance behind the Rifftrax microphone only yielded one comment every fifteen minutes or so, and these focused on his amusingly pathetic sitcom persona. He’s been all smart-ed up in this one, and it’s a good thing, because now he’s got as much air time as the big three. Though he’s still kind of an idiot (most notably during the Dark Side Cave scene when he shrieks “Nooooooooo!” at every opportunity), much of the time he’s every bit as incisive as his fellow riffers. A few of my favorite comments: During the Text in Space scroll at the beginning, Mike says, “I hope the Imperial Star Fleet doesn’t fly by, or they’ll totally find out where the secret rebel base is.” Regarding the strange gurgling noises of Luke’s tauntaun, Bill says, “Is he riding the Hamburglar?” When Kenobi’s ghost directs Luke to the Dagoba system, Kevin says, “I installed the Dagoba system on my computer last week.” During one of the many repetitions of Darth Vader’s signature theme music, Chad lets us know the words to that tune, “I am a friendly bunny named Fred. / Please come close and I’ll feast on your head.” The Empire Strikes Back is a fun and occasionally ridiculous film, and the riffers reel off one great comment after another, making this commentary a worthy successor to the excellent A New Hope riff.