The Empire Strikes Back

1980-the-empire-strikes-back

It’s December 31st, 2015, and by now everyone in the galaxy has seen “The Force Awakens.” I thought this would be a good time to revisit “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), aka the first sequel to “Star Wars” (1977). “Empire” is most notable for its originality – a rare quality in a sequel – and for taking some major risks.

Here’s where Lucas’s independence worked in his favor. If Disney had owned Lucasfilm back then, “Empire” might have mirrored “Star Wars” more closely. It might have been about the Rebels discovering a second Death Star under construction and Yoda would have been played by an elderly human who, like Obi-Wan, would have accompanied the heroes on their mission and dispensed occasional wisdom/Force training. (And incidentally, it probably would have been called “Star Wars 2.”)

Instead, the heroes were split up; Han and Leia were pursued by an obsessed Darth Vader and Luke traveled to a swamp for long, slow scenes in which a puppet taught him about the mystical workings of the universe. And the movie ends with one hero captured and another dismembered. This was the sequel to the biggest blockbuster of all time.

But it worked beautifully. It gave fans what they wanted, i.e. the characters they loved, but it scattered them throughout these worlds and situations we never would have imagined.

If you’re sensing a veiled criticism of “The Force Awakens,” you’re not far off. I loved a lot of choices that J.J. Abrams made, especially the return to practical effects and real sets. Story-wise they played it safe and basically mirrored the plot of “Star Wars” but, to be fair, the film had the weighty task of establishing a lot of new characters and conflicts. Its main objective was to make us care about the new cast of characters, and in this “The Force Awakens” succeeded where “The Phantom Menace” (1999) failed miserably. Rey, Poe, Kylo, and BB-8 all have their admirers now. I don’t recall legions of fans being won over by Qui-Gon, Amidala, and that CGI rabbit who shall not be named. So, much like “Star Wars,” “The Force Awakens” provided some fun visuals and introduced a host of heroes and villains that fans loved; mission accomplished. Some laziness in the plot can be forgiven. (This time.)

Yoda_SWSB
Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back”

And while we’re on the subject of risk taking, I want to point out again that Yoda was played by a puppet. This was unprecedented. While the Muppets were hugely popular by 1980, and performed alongside humans regularly, there was never any attempt to make them lifelike. The conceit in the Muppet universe is that these characters are just accepted as normal people even though they look like crazy puppets. Yoda, on the other hand (*wink*), was meant to be taken seriously as a living, breathing creature. The fact that they even tried this is commendable, but his enormous success as a character is astonishing.

“The Empire Strikes Back” is well regarded as one of the best sequels of all time. It reunited the characters from the first movie and tossed them into new territory. It introduced new characters that would come to be beloved. Most importantly, it took some major risks. Let’s just say, Episode VIII has a lot to live up to.

 

Advertisements

NYC Film Guide: March 2015 (Part 2)

more snow 😐

The snow has returned to NYC and I’m back with the second half of Things to See in March. Again, check out the Film Guide for a full list of old movies playing in NYC, but here are some more highlights…

The most important film screening this month is obviously “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990) at my beloved Nitehawk Cinema. It’s part of their “Lil’ Terrors” series, which also includes “Ghoulies” (1984) and “Critters” (1986).

“Gremlins 2” was a long time coming. Its predecessor was released to enormous success, but director Joe Dante apparently had no interest in making a sequel. After six years of cajoling from Warner Bros, and a promise that he could do whatever crazy thing he wanted, he finally relented.

The end product certainly has the feeling of a film untouched by nervous studio executive hands. One doubts that the gremlins’ Busby Berkeley production number would have even been filmed if the studio had had any say. The unhinged madness is what makes this movie so special though.

That, and it features one of the best puppets ever built for the movies. I mean it. Any list of great puppets is incomplete without the Brain Gremlin.

The Brain Gremlin, "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" (1990)
The Brain Gremlin, “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990)

On the surface he looks like any other of his kin, but both in the story and as a puppet, he has one major difference: his ability to speak intelligently. The next time you see this movie, and by all means go to the midnight screening at the Nitehawk, pay attention to his lip articulation. This puppet’s mouth achieves two things that lesser puppets often struggle with: variety of movement and speed. That is, he can move his lips and mouth in a seemingly endless combination of ways, much like a human mouth, and he can do so very quickly, which is crucial to realizing an intelligent, verbose character.

The result is a puppet that delivers a believable performance. I would argue it does so even better than a modern CGI character could because it has the added benefit of being on set, of interacting with the environment and the actors. Its physical reality enhances its believability. That’s not to say all puppets outperform CGI characters, but this one is sophisticated enough to do so.

This month you can see another classic sequel of the early 90s, “Batman Returns” (1992), playing at IFC Center. What a different world were the nineteen-nineties, when this was considered mainstream summer blockbuster superhero fare. It now seems more closely related to the Batman TV show from the 60s than to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Director Tim Burton delivered the humor and campiness from the 60s but painted them with darker tones. The result is a Batman movie that captures the moodiness of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City, but is still a fun adventure instead of a loud, depressing ordeal.

batman-returns_05
Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer, “Batman Returns” (1992)

My next three picks are all fun adventures too, so maybe I’m biased.

Sundays mornings at Film Forum always have a touch of whimsy, thanks to Film Forum Jr., their ongoing series of kid-friendly screenings. But don’t expect insipid saccharine “kid movies.” This series is for budding film lovers, not easily traumatized crybabies or their overly protective parents. Last year I saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) here. Sure, an Indiana Jones adventure seems appropriate for little kids, but this is the one where God melted those Nazis’ faces.

Formerly at Film Forum Jr.
Formerly at Film Forum Jr.

This month at Film Forum Jr., little cinephiles will be treated to two fine examples of screenplay construction. Foremost is a screening of Robert Zemeckis’s “Back to the Future” (1985). They may be a little weirded out by Lea Thompson accidentally trying to have sex with her son, but they’ll get over it. From its novel premise to classic characters and brisk pacing, this screenplay, by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, earned its place in many a Screenwriting 101 course.

“Chicken Run” (2000) is also playing at Film Forum Jr. this month. A more traditional kids movie in the sense that it’s animated, but one of the first things that happens is the (offscreen) beheading of a minor character. This isn’t notable for its gruesomeness; it provides a real sense of peril and a strong motivation for the main character. And a motivated main character, even if she’s a chicken, is the foundation of a strong screenplay.

Michael J. Fox, "Back to the Future" (1985)
Michael J. Fox, “Back to the Future” (1985)

And speaking of strongly motivated characters in peril, we trek to Queens for one of my favorite Hitchcock films, “North by Northwest” (1959) at the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s screening in their series Required Viewing: Mad Men‘s Movie Influences, and the lineage connecting Cary Grant’s suave ad man to John Hamm’s is clear. They’re in the same profession at the same time, both models of coolness under pressure, both love drinking in the daytime, and they’re both ensnared in webs of mistaken, or stolen, identity.

The surface differences between the two men illustrate the different tones of Mad Men and “North by Northwest.” Where Don Draper is severe and broody, Roger Thornhill is quippy and sarcastic. That’s because Hitchcock wasn’t making a serious drama. Although considered one of the greatest directors of all time, he never aimed to make “important” movies. He wanted to entertain. “North by Northwest” is funny, exciting, and sexy – everything you want from a night at the movies.

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, "North by Northwest (1959)
Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, “North by Northwest (1959)

I always leave “North by Northwest” wanting to take a cross-country train ride and meet a mysterious blond while sipping martinis in the dining car. Then I remember that train rides are dull and the dining cars only serve food wrapped in plastic.

Ah, the magic of the movies.