I realized that we had a flawed episode when I tried to explain the finale to my girlfriend, who is completely unfamiliar with the show aside from the spillover that she gets from knowing a few rabid fans. I realized it more fully when I heard someone insist that the final shots of the unpeopled remains of Oceanic 815 were an indicator that none of the show’s events ever really happened. And then I realized that there are people who are really bothered that we never saw what really happened to Stuart Radzinsky and who thought that the finale was awful for not answering that question. It gave me a dose of perspective. But there were big, broad awesome things in this episode that worked. It was a series of emotionally manipulative beats perfectly executed, and the fabric between them shows as thin sometimes. Knowing that it could not please everyone, it tried to please the most people possible. It pleased me.
There were three hundred and twenty four passengers on Oceanic flight 815. When the plane crashed on a mysterious island, the seventy-two survivors were stranded together for one hundred and one days. But most of them died before that. Six were rescued. Then, three years later, they came back. In the end, six left again, though not the same six as before.
Each of those survivors lived for years – decades, for all of them except Walt* – prior to coming to the Island. They’d had friends, been in love, held fulfilling jobs, saved lives, killed, coveted, were thrown out an 8th story window, sailed around the world. They were people in crisis who’d lived imperfect lives or good people confronted with bad things on their horizons, but as we saw more and more of their pasts, we knew more about them, more about why these people mattered.
In spite all of that, the most important moments in those lives, even the ones that managed to live long, fulfilling lives after flying away, were those comparatively brief days spent on that Island. The characters left an impact on each other that is indelible. So much so that their bonds survive after death. That much is apparent in each of the ‘reconnection’ montages our characters undergo.
That is the final and most important reveal that the Island held in store for us, and one that the series had been preparing us for for six years – the secret of the Island is not a four-toed statue or the name of a cloud of sinister fog or who exactly fired those shots. It has never been about those things and those things are frankly inessential to any real understanding of the substance of the show, an obfuscation over its heart. The real secret of the Island has always been the characters, the survivors, the castaways.
They are everyone in our lives that we knew only briefly yet molded us and changed us for the better. They are that for us because they were that for each other and we have always been one of them, too.
Yep, I had that lunchbox as a kid. Nope, it’s not for sale.
There’s a classic story about George Lucas and the opening day of Star Wars in 1977. As the film premiered in New York and Los Angeles, he was busy in a dark room mixing foreign language versions of the film. His then-wife Marsha arrived and they decided to have dinner together.
Heading toward the Hamburger Hamlet on Hollywood Boulevard, directly across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theater, they sat in a terrible traffic jam, wondering what could be causing such a disruption. It wasn’t until they finally reached the restaurant and glanced across the street that they realized what they were seeing. Star Wars was playing, and the lines stretched down the block.
“So we sat in Hamburger Hamlet and watched the giant crowd out there, and then I went back and mixed all night,” Lucas told author Dale Pollock for his biography of the filmmaker, Skywalking. “It wasn’t excitement, it was amazement.”
Imagine the pressure, then, of creating the inevitable sequel to Star Wars. You have a public clamoring for the latest adventures of Luke, Han and Leia. You have a burgeoning nerddom already scooping up collectibles and discussing the film eagerly at conventions and in fanzines. You have pressure from your collaborators and pressure from the studio. Pretty intimidating stuff.
Somehow, Lucas and his team managed to satisfy just about everyone. In 1977, George Lucas transformed Hollywood and popular culture with Star Wars. In 1980, he upped the ante by suggesting a new strategy. He defied just about every convention of popular filmmaking, and he let the bad guys win.
By the time the credits roll, The Empire Strikes Back has floored you with the emotional impact of a punch in the gut. Five minutes into the film, Luke Skywalker is attacked by a scary snow monster. Two hours later, Han Solo is on his way to Jabba the Hutt, Leia is mourning the loss of her newfound love, and Luke is coming to terms with four words that would change his life forever (not to mention the loss of his right hand).
On the surface, Empire is as fun and fast as Star Wars, yet somehow more relentless than the intense original film. The classic chases between the Millennium Falcon and the Imperial fleet move at a breakneck pace, helped along by John Williams’ breathless score. Action moves briskly from an ice planet to a swamp planet to the depths of space and finally to a mystical city in the clouds, where our heroes face the ultimate reckoning against the Empire. Even when the film seems to slow, it never stops.
As Han and Leia and the comic relief wing their way hither and yon in their futile efforts to escape evil, Luke finally learns something of substance about the mysterious Force that flows so strongly through him. His sequences with Yoda provide interludes of humor and depth between the frantic chase sequences, and so it’s easy to take them for granted as you wait to soar again through space in the Falcon with Star Destroyers hot on your tail.
Watch Yoda and Luke and Artoo more closely next time you see Empire; inhale with your brain and take in every detail. Each scene is a minor gem of filmmaking magic, especially in today’s CG-drenched age, where Frank Oz’s puppetry has been pushed aside and replaced by ones and zeroes. You find yourself quickly and fully invested in a puppet and a robot and a young student struggling to grasp profundities rattled off in a grumpy growl.
Some have called Lucas’ notions about the Force little more than pop hokum; others have adopted them as a near-religion. Whatever your own feelings, there’s some beautiful and simple ideas there, expressed by the script and the actors with uncommon grace. “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter…” We could do a lot worse than to live by those words as we shuffle through this world.
Meanwhile, the Falcon soars on, and the dialogue onboard the spacecraft effortlessly fleshes out the characters through classic one-liners, each of them delivered with the anxiousness of that one panicked moment when all seems lost and they’re about to be obliterated by their adversaries. There’s not a single scene between Han and Leia that doesn’t crackle, as screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett cast Han and Leia as an otherworldly Hepburn and Tracy, quipping their way across the galaxy with the Empire’s sinister agents in hot pursuit.
But whatever the fun, whatever the quips, whatever the depth of Empire, an undercurrent of darkness and desperation runs beneath it all. The desolate opening sequence on Hoth suggests the loneliness and impossibility of the Rebellion’s struggle. Throughout, evil is never more than a step behind our heroes. The Falcon never does manage to completely shake the Empire until Han has been frozen in carbonite and Luke has narrowly slipped between Vader’s fingers. Even the sequences in which Yoda teaches Luke the ways of the Force are insidiously downbeat—we may learn a lot from the sage Jedi Master, but Luke certainly doesn’t seem to.
No moment is more bleak, more impassioned and more desperate than when Artoo finally opens the hatch that will lead Leia and Lando and the rest out to the waiting Falcon at Cloud City. Williams’ bittersweet romantic theme for Han and Leia swells, Artoo unleashes a cloud of smoke that provides an uncertain haze, and Leia blasts angrily at the stormtroopers hot on their tail. The look on her face tells us that she has no idea that she’ll ever see the man she loves again.
It’s a crushing moment, and honestly, has a big summer event movie ever managed to crush you emotionally the way Empire can? Even when you know that Return of the Jedi will come along next and make everything okay, it still has an undeniable impact. It’s still that punch in the gut.
As a sequel, Empire did the impossible. It raised every possible stake in the Star Wars series. The characters and story gain unexpected new dimensions that echo both backward to the original Star Wars and forward into Return of the Jedi. That makes Empire the heart of the original trilogy.
Taken on its own terms, The Empire Strikes Back is as sweeping as Gone With the Wind, as sharp as The Philadelphia Story, and perhaps the most simply imaginative sci-fi film ever. The Rebellion may have lost this one, but in the end, it was geeks the world over who won.
Taken from the pages of Poodoo, my book-length compilation of writings about Star Wars, available now and absolutely free! Even on yer iPad!
More great Empire tributes:
[The following post contains spoilers for the finale of Siege and the various one-shots and specials that spin out of it. If you have not read Siege #4 and wish to remain unspoiled, you might want to skip this one.]
Sometimes nerds have questions, and we do our best to answer them. Sometimes they’re about important things, but mostly they’re about the ridiculous curiosities of fandom. It’s kind of like Antiques Roadshow in the Batcave. Or something. We call it Nerdly Advice.
Today’s question comes from ‘CLOC’, who wants to know “Jeff, What’s the deal with the Sentry? I don’t know anything about him except that he did it with Rogue and probably Crystal, too, right?”
One of our not-so-secret Ultimate Alert Nerd Press Dreams is to someday host a “Greatest of Grok“-type night of live readings, featuring the contributors giving voice to their various creations. I mean, can you imagine Ken Simon (actually trained in acting!) reenacting his childhood telephone obsession for all the world to see (Connected, issue #2)? Or Matt Springer (once commandeered the stage in a school production of Godspell!) mixing high comedy and plaintive drama to put on his best “lady in love with Cthulhu” voice (Love, Lovecraft Style, issue #3)?
Geography and other annoying factors make this Dream kind of an impossible one, but that doesn’t mean we can’t prepare for the day it might happen. I actually had the chance to do a bit of on-the-spot prep earlier this year and I will now share this tale with you.
I currently have 1,884 albums on my 160GB iPod. I will listen to them all, in a random order, and write about them.
I clicked over to the Albums list on my iPod, started spinning the dial with my eyes averted, clicked twice on the center button, and this is the record that began.
In some ways, it’s a fitting choice to start this sure-to-be-abandoned-eventually project, since it’s one of those perfect pieces of pop art that are so damn appealing to me–a huge popular smash that’s part of the cultural wallpaper of the seventies, and classic rock radio ever since, but also a critical success that has held up for me well over repeated listenings.
Of course, I was about seven months old when the record was originally released, in February 1977; during the first six months of my life, the members of Fleetwood Mac were apparently enduring a personal relationship hell while recording Rumours. That’s part of the album’s mythos and it’s become intertwined with the lyrical content, to the point where Rumours is universally regarded as this big giant turmoil breakup record lathered in crisp, shiny production.
It’s the production that has kept me coming back to Rumours, though there are of course some absolutely titanic songs on here. You can go ahead and roll your eyes if you want but remove this album from the context of its era and you’re left with a stunningly personal folk-rock record crammed to bursting with gigantic hooks. It’s a pretty amazing blend, too, which is kinda rare in rock records; you don’t often hear an eleven-song set that you can honestly say represents all of the creative viewpoints of the band, but here you’ve got Lindsey Buckingham’s straight-ahead arena bile, and Christie McVie’s understated plinking, and Stevie Nicks being all weird and gypsy all over the place.
But back to the production. It’s so clean. Whether it’s warranted or not, I tend to lump in the sound of such diverse artists as the Eagles, Warren Zevon, and Fleetwood Mac into the same bucket; I think of it as a specifically west coast style. I imagine all these endless nights of debauchery at the Record Plant or A&M culminating in these pristine recordings, mixed together with each instrument just barely rubbing up against the next.
It’s got a sunny disposition at times but Rumours is a pretty dark record, especially in the final moments: “Rock on, gold dust woman…take your silver spoon and dig your grave…” The blinding light of southern California, the decadence of the seventies rock lifestyle, and the disintegration of love all collide and intermingle.
When I was in college and home on break, I found myself drawn into some kind of VH1 special about the making of Rumours. A friend of mine called while the show was on, and I asked my dad to tell him to call me back, cause I was watching this show. As I recall, my dad kinda rolled his eyes at me, and started dancing in the living room, singing, “Thunder only happens when it’s raining…players only love you when they’re playing…” Unforgettable as a sleepless dream, like the album itself.