Hello, what have we here? Why, it’s the latest instalment of #80sMC! This week the duties are shared between two of the gang, separated by a generation, but united in their love for one film, as Millennial Louis Thelier and Gen-X-er Paul Childs delve all the way back to 1980 to tell us what The Empire Strikes Back means to them.
As always, spoilers follow, but to be frank, if you don’t know the spoiler by now, you might want to have a talk with yourself about why you’re even reading a Star Wars article on a site called World GEEKly News!
Star Wars is – like for many, many people – a franchise particularly dear to me, as well as one of my formative movie experiences. I first saw the Original Trilogy all the way back in 1997, on VHS, when I was a fresh-faced six-year-old [cue Cassian Andor crashing through the window, screaming “I’ve been in this fight since I was six years old!”]. It was the newly released Special Edition (my apologies to the theatrical edition purists, the SE is the only version of Star Wars I’ve ever known), excitedly bought by my Dad, who at the time was old enough to remember seeing the original releases in 1977, 1980 and 1983 respectively.
Prior to watching the movies, he told me: “We’re going to watch Star Wars this week.” The name immediately struck a chord with six-year-old me, even though, before that week, I’d never heard of the trilogy. I can still remember the mental image I conjured: boxy, bulky tanks rolling over a barren moon, with a huge planet hanging low in the sky. Obviously, since I’d never heard of Star Wars before and thus didn’t really have any idea of what to expect, this mental image was hugely inaccurate, to say the least.
And then we watched Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, and my tiny mind was blown, just like many millions of people in 1977 and even more in the decades since. I acutely remember getting to the end, and my Dad asking if I wanted to watch the next one. Obviously, I said yes. He chuckled and said we’d have to watch it the next night, as it was late and I had school in the morning.
True to his word, the next night, we watched Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. And while I’m going to talk about the rest of the movie later in this retrospective, I’m going to skip ahead and talk about That Moment. You know the one.
I remember being glued to the screen, watching Luke fight valiantly against Darth Vader who, like any great screen villain, I wanted to see beaten. But in the back of my mind, as much as I wanted to see Luke kill the Bad Guy, I already knew there was a third movie, so something else had to happen, right?
When Luke lost a hand to Vader’s blood-red lightsaber, I was aghast. How could he fight now? What was going to happen? To my young mind, the whole thing was already over.
And then Vader started talking. I watched, enraptured, as he implored Luke to join him. “No way!” I thought. “Luke wouldn’t do that.” And when Luke refused, I relaxed a little, because that’s what the Hero does: oppose the Bad Guy with everything they can.
“Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.” Vader intoned, in James Earl Jones’ unmistakably rich voice.
“He told me enough! He told me you killed him.” Luke shot back.
And then the bombshell dropped.
“No. I am your father.”
Talk about flipping everything on its head in just one line.
With that revelation, Star Wars changed forever. Things fundamentally shifted. Paradigms changed. This was no longer just a story of Good vs Evil, but something deeper and more personal – though, of course, I don’t think it’s possible to watch The Empire Strikes Back and not notice its depth and greater maturity before you reach the scene I’ve spent a few hundred words talking about now.
For six-year-old me, though, I was right there with Luke. It was impossible, wasn’t it? Vader couldn’t be Luke’s father. He was lying or trying to trick Luke. It was such a shock to me that I refused to believe it until we watched Return of the Jedi, where Yoda confirmed that, yes, Luke was the son of one of the two most evil men in the Galaxy.
When the credits on Empire rolled, I immediately wanted to know what happened next. I remember begging my dad to please let me watch the trilogy closer because I desperately needed to find out if Vader was lying, or how our heroes would bounce back from what is a decidedly downbeat ending. Of course, he said no, and I had to wait a full day to see Luke’s acceptance, Vader’s redemption, and the Rebellion’s victory. I can’t remember what he thought of my reaction to the twist, but I’m sure he loved seeing my jaw drop and my mind explode into more pieces than Alderaan.
Anyway. In terms of just how good the twist in Empire is, there’s a reason why everyone still quotes it, an entire forty years later. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the twist, and nothing else in cinema comes close. You can keep your Sixth Senses, your Fight Clubs, your Shutter Islands etc., etc.. Empire is where it’s at, man. And sure, technically, it’s a twist that’s not set up at all, there’s virtually nothing to hint that Vader, or Anakin as we’d find out, was Luke’s father. All you get is that Vader – and the Emperor – are searching for him, for reasons unknown. But to me, the twist coming essentially entirely out of left-field is what makes it so strong: no one saw that shit coming. Though, again, it’s quoted and parodied and recognised so much because it’s rightfully iconic.
As for the rest of the movie: it’s ballsy as all hell.
A New Hope was – while presenting them in a way that was fresh and innovative – a collection of well-worn Saturday morning serial tropes, mixed with the dusty, used aesthetic of a Western and a liberal sprinkling of Samurai and WW2 movies.
Empire, however, really frickin’ went for it: darker, more personal themes, the bad guys coming out on top by the time the credits rolled, a big action set piece at the beginning of the movie instead of at the end (clearing the air for the actual climax to be far more personal, as it needed to be), a little green frog that looked like Albert Einstein taking over the “wise master” role… not to mention the big jump in effects quality (the Battle of Hoth still stands up all these decades later), some instantly iconic new John Williams themes to add to the repertoire (The Imperial March and Han Solo and the Princess being two particular standouts), better acting all around – particularly from Hamill, the introduction of everyone’s favourite galactic pansexual smoothie Landonis Balthazar Calrissian III (look it up, that’s his actual full name), as well as imaginative new locations, a suspiciously phallic space slug, and – outside of the Battle of Hoth – some absolutely stunning set-pieces like the asteroid belt chase, the escape from Cloud City… and that lightsaber duel, which is still the best in the Original Trilogy, and easily one of the top three in the entire saga.
I think the point I’m trying to make is: I love The Empire Strikes Back to pieces. Don’t get me wrong, A New Hope is great and a classic for a reason, but Empire really showed what Star Wars could achieve when it hits its true potential: a level of quality, passion and movie-making genius that has only really been matched once since Empire released; in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi.
From the opening shot of a Star Destroyer launching probe droids into the void of space to the Rebel fleet regrouping to fight anew, The Empire Strikes Back is a true space opera. It has thrilling moments aplenty, romance, humour, suspense and is – dare I say it – Shakespearean in what it manages to pull off narratively.
Star Wars is a story of family, and in particular a story of fathers and sons, and I’ll be forever grateful to my own dad for introducing me to a series I’ve been and will be a lifelong fan of. I’m a father myself now, and I can’t wait to show my daughter the Saga in its entirety when she’s a little older (I’m sure she’s going to love seeing Rey kick a bunch of ass), but when we watch Empire, I’m going to pay particular attention to how she reacts to the greatest twist in cinema, so I can experience what my dad presumably did because those moments – those magical, immortal moments that experiencing cinema together can produce – are what Star Wars is really about.
My experience of seeing Empire for the first time is somewhat different. My parents, my dad in particular, are not huge fans of SFF. My dad used to play football and would often be at a match on a Saturday, or working, so it fell to my mum to take my brothers and I to the cinema. I will, at the end of this piece tell a story about one of the more recent times I went to the cinema with my dad – it’s a cracker. But for now, let’s go to 31st May 1980. I was five and a bit years old and my mum was taking me to see The Empire Strikes Back. I was aware of Star Wars; I had some of the toys, and I knew who all the main heroes and villains were. I had done for at least a year. I know this for a fact because my first ever Star Wars toy was a Tusken Raider (or Sand People as the box, and Obi-Wan in the film, referred to them). I got into a lot of trouble for losing Sandman’s (as I called him) Gaffi Stick in my then, newborn brother’s pram. It never turned up. Given how long plastics lasts, it could still very well be lodged in Barrie’s lower intestine forty-one years later.
My little brothers, however, were not coming with us this time. My baby brother Barrie was one-and-a-bit and my middle brother Lee was three-and-a-bit (yes, we were all “and-a-bit” – our birthdays are all within a nine-day window. There must be something my parents find very special about April. And with that image that I really don’t need in my head, I’ll carry on). Barrie obviously was far too young for the film. Lee wanted to come but my mum didn’t want him to see it after what had happened just a few months earlier when she took us to see The Black Hole. For a week after that film, he woke in the middle of the night screaming that “The RED MAN is coming to get me”. So, probably quite sensibly, my mum thought that Lee wouldn’t cope with Darth Vader. Probably for the best. I can still remember his screaming. In Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Scary Moments viewers voted for him at number 91, so she probably had a point.
Obviously, the version I saw back then was the Theatrical Cut and that’s the version I watched in preparation for writing this, to bring back those memories of excitedly queueing up at Corby Forum – my local cinema, in the days before multiplexes, with just two screens, one of those cool old-school desks that the ticket pops up out of, stale popcorn and threadbare chairs (with ashtrays in the back). It was a flea pit, but although it’s long since closed down (and was recently demolished), I still have a lot of affection for the old place. Looking back over the full list for this 80s Movie Challenge, I saw many, many of them there. Whenever I smell popcorn warming, I am instantly transported back there, even though my mum never let us have their snacks (she opted for bringing homemade sandwiches and fruit in her handbag – as a throwback to that, I often take a bunch of grapes to the flicks).
As an aside – I’m not a Theatrical Cut purist, certainly not with ESB. I quite like the (mostly) minor additions and improvements to the middle part of the trilogy and the 2004 DVD addition of McDiarmid as Palpatine does add a nice touch of continuity.
So I knew who Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, Vader, Stormtroopers, Artoo Deetoo and See-Threepio were. Beyond playground chatter though, I didn’t know how they were all linked. But I don’t think it mattered. Seeing The Empire Strikes Back first didn’t really impact on my enjoyment of it at all. Like Louis though, the big reveal at the end hit me like a gut punch. Luke was crying. Heroes don’t cry, I told myself. Do they?
Apparently, they do, and ugly-cry at that. Seeing ESB was one of my very early lessons that it’s OK for guys to show emotion and that sometimes the goodies don’t win.
Now I didn’t have the luxury that Louis did, to be secure in the knowledge that everything was going to be alright, and that our heroes would be back for a further adventure – filming for Return of the Jedi would not begin for almost another two years! When I walked out of that cinema I was full of questions. Why did Vader win? Will Luke’s robot hand be any good? Will Lando and Chewie find Han? And if the gang ever get back together, will Leia choose Luke or Han (er, probably best skipping over that one, in retrospect).
Vader’s big secret was the talk of the playground at school the next Monday morning after. Back in those days, we didn’t really care about spoilers. We weren’t upset about hearing them, and we didn’t think twice about revealing them! Conversations would go something like:
ME: Guess what Jason?
ME: Darth Vader is Luke’s FATHER!!!
JASON: NO WAY!
JASON: Whoah! Amazing! Hey, Simon?
JASON: Paul says that Darth Vader is Luke’s FATHER!!!
SIMON: No he isn’t!
ME: He SOOOOO is! He says it at the end. He says “Luke, I am your father.”
PETER: It’s true! He does say it. He says [Puts on best Darth Vader wheeze] “Luke, I am your father.”
ME: [Pointing at Peter]. Yep. Just like that.
SIMON: Oh, okay. Cool. So who’s his mum then?
ME: [Shrugs] I dunno. Mrs Vader? Anyone want to play Battlestar Galactica? Bagsy I’m Starbuck.
SIMON: I wanted to be Starbuck. That’s not fair. Can’t you be Apollo?
ME: No. You’re Apollo or you’re not playing.
PETER: I’ll be Boomer.
JASON: And I’m a Cylon! By your command!
MARCUS: Can I play? Who’s left?
ALL: You can be the robot dog.
And so on.
It wouldn’t be until later that year that I finally saw Star Wars on Betamax. We had a bit of a party. My mum and dad hired the film out, invited our friends Johnny and Jason round, shoved us five boys into the lounge with a jug full of juice and a bag of crisps each and left us to it. For some bizarre reason I can still remember that being the day that I learned that you said “Cheers” and not “Cheese” when clinking glasses of orange squash together. We also counted the number of times Leia kissed Luke. It’s two.
By the time I watched Star Wars I, of course, knew all about Empire and its revelations. I knew Han and Leia would fall in love, I knew Luke would train to become a Jedi and of course I knew about his parentage. It really did change how I viewed the first film, seeing this group of individuals who didn’t know each other meet by chance and become the good friends I already knew they would. And now, having seen the first two parts I had to wait almost THREE YEARS to find out what happened next in Revenge of the Jedi (where presumably, Luke was going to get revenge for having his hand lopped off so unceremoniously).
During those three years, Star Wars became a huge part of my identity. I collected many of the toys. I quoted the films over and over. Any impromptu sword fight after happening on a couple of branches would be accompanied by the VWOOSH, VWORM, SWORP sounds of a lightsaber. Even now, it is impossible for me to go shopping for a new broom handle without doing the sounds in the middle of the aisle in B&Q. You can probably tell that Star Wars stayed with me in a way that other film, TV and toy franchises (like He-Man, Transformers, M.A.S.K.) of the 80s didn’t.
I still remember the excitement as the build-up to ROTJ began. In these pre-World Wide Web days, you couldn’t just go online to find out details and see clips. We had to wait for things to be drip-fed to us in magazines like Look-In and shows like TISWAS and Multi-Coloured Swap Shop. Aside from snippets seen in the trailer, the only clip I remember seeing, to my great excitement, was the speeder chase on Endor. Aside from that, I went in totally blind, as I had done with Empire before it.
Of course, the marketing machine went into overdrive, advertising every piece of merchandise my gullible eight-year-old mind would absorb. I don’t know where my best pen is, which I was using just a couple of hours ago, but I still remember this commercial perfectly:
That was Lucas’s masterstroke to capture not only the imaginations of the kids watching but the wallet of their parents. Ask anyone between the ages of forty and fifty and they’ll probably be able to list off every single figure, vehicle and base the owned back in the day. And of course all three films came with their own unique wave of desirable toys. The Christmas after Empire landed was the most spectacular of all, however, as that was when we got the Millennium Falcon and the AT-AT.
I got the Falcon from my grandparents and was the envy of my school friends. Well, apart from those who also got it, which was most of them. I only ever knew one person who had the AT-AT though. I’ve mentioned Mez in some of the other 80s Movie Challenge pieces as he was always ahead of the game when it came to movie releases and introduced me to lots of them. I also spoke in a Human:KIND article about how I met him. I was nine, and as nine-year-olds were wont to do in the 80s, we compared our Star Wars collections.
Mez had the AT-AT. Lucky beggar.
I still remember during a school closure in January or February of 1985 (we used to get quite heavy snows where I lived) that we decided to recreate the Battle of Hoth in my back garden. Between us, we had Snow Speeders, X-Wings, AT-STs, the Imperial Probe Droid as well as many other figures, vehicles and playsets from that act of the film (and quite a few that weren’t). It was an epic battle and, as was often the way with our games, there were no winners or losers and no-one died (because THAT’S NOT FAIR). Toys were scattered all over the foot deep snow-laden lawn. And the AT-AT had been the star attraction. Had digital cameras existed back then it would have been Instagram Gold!
And then my dad told us to tidy up. That was when we realised that half the figures and probably two-thirds of the tiny weapons were missing. We had to wait two weeks for the snow to melt before we could dig out all the missing toys. But it was worth it for that afternoon in the snow, playing and laughing and incredibly inaccurately recreating that amazing scene in the movie.
Hopefully, my little nostalgic ramble captures what the magic of Star Wars means to so many. It’s not just about the films, or the toys, or the lunch boxes or the comics – it’s about the memories that come with them – and The Empire Strikes Back will always be a very special film for being my introduction to that journey.
Speaking of memories… I promised you a tenuously linked story at the start of my bit, so here it is. I’ve been to the cinema with my dad many times, as part of a large family group. But I’ve only been to see a film with him, just the two of us, twice. Once was on 30th August 2008 to see The Strangers while my wife and mum were off at a night out. The film was ruined by kids (who were nowhere near old enough to be in that showing) laughing and jeering at the movie.
The second time was on 5th July 2014. A date forever seared into my memory.
Once again my wife and mum were out, at a hen night and I was to be left in charge of my dad. He said that he’d quite like to see Jersey Boys so I said I’d be happy to go and see that with him. Earlier in the week while my parents were in town, they decided to nip into the cinema and buy the tickets in advance. However, they were disappointed to find Jersey Boys had been dropped by the cinema due to slow ticket sales. My mum looked at the board for other films showing on that date and one caught her eye.
“Go and see that,” she told my dad.
“Oh, no! Do I have to?” he groaned.
“Yes, you do,” she snapped back. “You always make Paul watch football whenever he visits. Maybe this time you should do something with your son that he is interested in for a change.”
Dad couldn’t argue with that, so my mum bought two tickets for us to see… This:
My poor dad not only had to endure almost three hours of mind-numbing metal-on-metal action but also my desperate attempts to condense the plots of the previous three films into a coherent entry-level recap during the twenty-minute car drive to the cinema. I believe I described it on social media later than night as “like being repeatedly punched in the eyes, brain and backside by giant robots.” My dad, however, had an altogether different reaction to it. It gave him a diabetic hypo. He was alright after a bit of glucose, but we’ve never been to the cinema together, just the two of us, since. After that experience, I’m not sure I blame him!
Join us again next week for some spooky 80s fun as Paul kicks off our 31 Days of Horror 2020 with a look back at one of his very favourite films. Is it a horror? Is it a comedy? Is it a romance? Is it an action-adventure? I’m sure somebody knows…
But who are you going to call?
That’s right! From 1984, it’s Ghostbusters!