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Rapping On Writing - Character, Story and the Utter FAILURE that is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

Yoda

Yoda: Ready are you? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained. A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless.

Today’s post, CHARACTER, STORY AND THE UTTER FAILURE THAT IS THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a followup to last week’s Rapping On Writing - Goals, Motivation & “Use The Force, Luke”, in which I wrote about what drives Luke in STAR WARS and how that works to make the film successful.

I hinted that there was more to speak of, with regard to our friend Luke, when it came to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

And here we are. So . . .

I have a confession.

I dreaded writing this post.

I’m not sure if I can tell you exactly why.

Maybe I’m scared of it. Or lazy.

Perhaps it is because I’m sure whatever I try to say will turn out to be utterly and completely inadequate to the subject.

And you know what?

It, at least in part, probably will be. I may fail.

Because I’m not Yoda (I’m much taller and I sound nothing like Miss Piggy), I’m not a golden god or the second coming of christ.

I’m just your average ordinary writer-geek with typical writer-geeky opinions, and the number of writer-geeks with writer-geeky opinions are the internets are legion.

I’m a typical guy, a tad obsessive on some subjects, but I am only human, prone to all sorts of errors and mistakes and system failures. Yes, it’s true. I’m probably gonna suck at this.

But I’ll give it a shot anyway.

All I risk is my good reputation (snicker) and hearty helpings of ridicule from the comments.

So I will try. Even though I may fail. Even though I’ll probably fail. I’m going to put my ass out there anyway.

Which brings us to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

Long considered by the legion of fanboys and girls out there to be the absolute BEST film of the STAR WARS canon.

It is, in my view, the best one of the lot.

A huge improvement upon STAR WARS and established an emotional tone never matched by any following stories. Of all the STAR WARS fanatics I’ve met (and I’ve met many over the years) I can’t think of any who didn’t consider THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK their favorite.

Which is ironic, seeing that just about every major character in that particular film FAILS at whatever they set out to do.

Don’t they?

First of all, they lose the battle to hold the rebel base on the Ice Planet Hoth. It falls and people die.

Han grabs Leia and they get on the Falcon and just barely get out before Darth himself appears.

The rebels FAIL to hold their base. They fail heroically, but they fail nonetheless.

Once they get into space, Han and Chewie realize that they failed to fix the Falcon, and as a result they can’t jump to hyperspace and have to resort to drastic measures, such as zipping into an asteroid field. They hide in a hole, but it’s not a hole, it’s a mouth. Sheesh, they can’t even HIDE right! So they barely get out of there and zip right out and almost get caught again.

Finally they pull an old trick, they attach themselves to one of the Imperial Destroyers, like garbage, and when the rest of the junk is jettisoned, the Falcon gets away.

Except they don’t.

Boba Fett follows them. Darth waits for their ass at Cloud City, Lando betrays them and Han gets tortured and eventually frozen in carbonite.*

THEY FAIL.

But listen, it’s not Han’s movie anyway, everyone knows he’s the reckless one.

This movie and series is supposed to be about LUKE.

Luke gets away from Hoth, but he’s no longer worried about his friends or the rebellion. He doesn’t worry if they made it, nothing.

He’s going to Dagobah to train with Yoda, a famed Jedi Master. Luke had a vision of Ben telling him what to do, after he escapes from the albino bigfoot who ambushed him and hung him up for a late day snack.**

Luke got away from the pale bigfoot, true, he did succeed at that, but Han has to save his ass in the snow.

Luke repays Han by making out with Leia*** (eww) and when the rebel base falls, just taking off for the swamp planet Dagobah and not worrying whether or not they’ll get away from the Empire.

Luke’s our hero, he’s the established Protag, and he doesn’t accomplish any of his major goals within this film.

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None of them.

Seriously. Think about it. He loses the rebel base. He makes it to Yoda and starts massive Jedi training, but doesn’t do especially well in the beginning (can’t get his fighter out of the swamp, Yoda has to do that) and actually LEAVES his training early.

He leaves.

Luke senses his friends are in trouble and decides that NOW he has to help them. Yoda and the ghost of Ben try to talk him out of it, tell him he’s not a Jedi yet, he ain’t ready, Darth will eat his lunch if Luke tries to face him, but Luke bails anyway. He leaves training to go save his friends.

And here’s the ironic part.

LUKE DOESN’T SAVE HIS FRIENDS.

LANDO has a change of heart and HE rescues Leia and Chewie and the gay robot, but Han is taken by Boba Fett.

Luke gets there and doesn’t save Leia, he doesn’t save Han, he fights it out with Darth (in an outstanding light-saber battle) and Luke LOSES that fight.

Loses the fight and loses a hand, to boot. And finds out some disturbing paternal information, a little tidbit about his real daddy that MAKES this film.

Luke, now without a right hand and emotionally shell-shocked, drops himself into a shaft, preferring to die rather than switch to Darth’s team, catches a break by snagging an antenna out in the clouds and mind-melds with Leia so she can pick him up. SHE saves him.

And they escape and that’s the movie.

Let me recap.

Luke FAILS at every major goal he has for himself.

Everything he says he will do, he doesn’t.

He fails.

Darth, who promised the Emperor he’d either kill Luke or bring him on the dark side, Darth also fails.

Han, except for saving Luke’s ass in the snow, Han also fails at most everything he sets to do.

Leia saves Luke at the end, but other than that, nothing, she can’t even get Han to save “I love you” before he’s frozen.

Lando does succeed at rescuing Leia, but he can’t help Han, and the one triumphant character in this picture is Boba Fett, who achieves everything he set out to do.

So tell me, since most of the major characters fail at their achievements in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, why does this film so resonate with us, why is it the favorite of most of the fans, why do we seem to recognize its excellence?

Co-written by Lawrence Kasdan (who would go on to write another small film in the following year, a one RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, whose hero also seems to fail at quite a few things) and directed by Irvin Kershner, it went over schedule and way over budget, and it’s been reported that George himself was unhappy with it.

But today, out of the six films made, it’s the one that most resonates with many of us.

Why?

I honestly don’t know if I can clearly define it for you.

I sense it, I feel its presence out there, but how to put it into words?

I don’t know if I can, at this time. That’s where I may fail you.

I know it has to do with identity and humanity. It has to do with the idea that, as people, we’re all shifting identities and emotional contradictions.

It has to do with Luke’s personal discovery regarding not only of what he now values (as he grows, he discoveries his friends are more important to him than he thought) and how hard it is to become what he’s dreamed of becoming, but the weight of his own identity.

I know it has to do in part with Luke’s courage, his choice to face someone he knows he may not be able to defeat (Darth) and the shock finding out that a man he hated actually brought him into creation.

I hesitate to use the word conflict here, not because it’s incorrect but mostly because it is, for me, incomplete. A lot of great drama has conflict, to be sure, but I don’t know that it’s what elevates it.

Conflict is a word bandied about quite a bit, but the reality is there are bad films with conflict (uh, the last THREE STAR WARS FILMS) and in and of itself, conflict doesn’t quite explain why this film rates so much higher than the others. There is conflict in all the films.

There are happy endings in the others (well, the ending wasn’t so happy for the audience during PHANTOM MENACE, but you get what I’m saying, right?) and in RETURN OF THE JEDI, yet another character (Leia) discovers the father she never knew***, just like the film previous to it, but it doesn’t register as cool as EMPIRE.

Why does THE EMPIRE STRIKE BACK rock so righteous?

In addition to what I noted above regarding identity and humanity, I think it’s also something regarding our own survival as people. Think about it.

In this one, our heroes suffer crushing defeats and somehow survive. They fail but they live. Like life, when we’re all striving against forces, both good and bad, that are beyond our power, it’s sometimes a miracle when we even live through it.

Screenwriter John Turman once mentioned something that really resonated with me, and I posted it in another related article****, that it’s not always what our characters do, but what they ENDURE that makes them special.

Don’t you think that’s true?

Isn’t less about what Luke does as much as what he endures as a result of the choices he’s faced with, the life he’s chosen, the impossible contradiction of doing the right thing when the right thing is at cross purposes, isn’t that a part of why THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK so resonates?

The notion of putting your ass out there and falling on it, isn’t that the ultimate mark of our humanity? Our ultimate truth? Don’t characters and stories who bounce against our own mortality and imperfections ring true for us most of all?

Isn’t the very fact that we all have to endure all sorts of hazards just to be born and grow up and survive past our teens, not to mention do anything else, doesn’t that reverberate with you, doesn’t this story face us point blank with our own flaws and frailties and that very scary thing that echoes throughout humanity, our own feelings about our finite lives?

I like to think so.

But what do I know?

What do you think?

Footies:

* Interesting fact one: The main reason Han got frozen in carbonite was simply because they didn’t know if they’d have Harrison Ford back for the next film. Unlike the other actors, he hadn’t signed a three picture deal, he did them one at a time and he wasn’t sure he’d be back either, he was known to be none too fond of the dialogue and silliness of it all, though that’s just rumor. But one of the best things about this film was Han’s tragic end, and it came about mainly because Ford was stubborn about doing another one if he didn’t feel like it.

** Interesting fact two: One of the reasons Luke is attacked by the Yeti is because Mark Hamill got into a bad car wreck and had part of this nose missing and noticeable scars. Having the Yeti carve him up explained the scars and in addition, puts him in jeopardy, let’s us know that even though he blew up the death star, he still ain’t all that, he can be hurt and killed, and gives dear old ghostie Ben a chance to come back and talk to him.

Two examples of necessity being utilized for great things in story.

Now for the bad example:

*** The Man Who Would Be King and I have discussed this and we both agree that having Leia turn out to be Luke’s sister was one of the weakest, silliest dodges ever, and helped make RETURN OF THE JEDI something of a disappointment (okay, more on that in a moment) and not only that, it doesn’t make sense.

First two major human characters we meet in STAR WARS? Leia and Darth Vader. Darth captures her. She says snide things. He has her tortured and eventually she’s scheduled for termination.

That whole time, he doesn’t use the FORCE to figure out she’s his daughter? He did it with Luke, right? Luke, when they met, triggered it and he frigging KNEW, but Leia just SLIPS his mind?

Bull-hockey. What it was, they knew that she had to end up with Han, it only made sense, but since Luke was their hero, they figured they had to give a reason for Leia to prefer Han over Luke.

I mean, other than the fact, she just loves Han and it makes more sense for those two to be together. Other than that. Sheesh. We could have accepted it without the sibling explanation (and it’s like they forgot the two made out, like, TWICE, eww!).

And yes, I know some people really love RETURN OF THE JEDI, and I myself love Luke’s journey to face his father and The Emperor, I love it, but I could have done without the teddy-bear commandos and all that, and ANOTHER DEATH STAR? Listen, you blew one up in the first movie, we already know they’re vulnerable, so the minute we see this one, we know there’s gonna be a race down some Death Star canal and a really small hole to hit with a torpedo and they’ll hit it at the last second.

They should have come up with something new, not another Death Star. So it was half a great film.

**** More on this subject of character and failure here, called: The Great Pumpkin, The Football That Won’t Hold Still, The Kite That Won’t Fly, The Red Baron & Other Wonderful Unrealized Aspirations

15 Responses to “ Rapping On Writing - Character, Story and the Utter FAILURE that is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”

  1. terraling Says:

    It has been a long time since I’ve sat down and watched the Star Wars films (even though when I was young they were the air I breathed, the blood that coursed through my veins etc etc), but just reflecting back on them the reason Empire stands out so much is that it took the characters to difficult places and is the only one of the films that didn’t flinch from that, that didn’t feel the need to cut away to some fluff (or something fluffy), a fairy story with an expected sobriety. Lucas made grand claims for the deep meaning at the heart of the films (Joseph Campbell mythology etc) but he never had the conviction to follow it through, as if he was sort of embarrased by it and so needed to make light of it once he’d put it out there. For whatever reason - OK, specifically because he released the helm to proper filmmakers - in Empire we were really allowed to test out these ideas of the hero’s journey and the dark side etc. The way Lucas plays it in most of the output, there is a dark side (evil) but its opposite is not a light side (ie good) but more of a light-weight side.

    In Mystery Man’s recent post about arcs, I meant to but didn’t get round to posting something similar to your ‘endure’ point: that although how characters respond (bend, don’t budge, or break) can vary, what is fairly universal in good films is that they are largely defined by the shit that is thrown at them, the pressures that are brought to bear on them.

    Didn’t someone one time edit Return of the Jedi and cut out all the furry crap and produce a much better, darker film, albeit shorter?

  2. terraling Says:

    Errm, I meant ‘unexpected’ sobriety of course…

  3. James Says:

    This is an excellent post, Joshua (and of course one that resonates with my not-so-much-inner-as-blatant geek). I think you’ve nailed as to why Empire resonates with fans (and even non-fans; many anti-Star Wars critics begrudgingly admit that Empire is the only movie in the series worth a damn).

    That all the characters fail in virtually all of their goals changes them from the cardboard cutout archetypes from the first film into three-dimensional characters you can genuinely sympathize with and feel for. (And worry about; you never really have any doubt that Luke, Han and Chewbacca are going to save the day in the original Star Wars.)

    And the interesting thing about Raiders of the Lost Ark is that it’s not so much that Indiana Jones fails, is that he does nothing to affect the outcome. If he decided to stay home and do nothing, the outcome of the movie would have been exactly the same.

    God damn, I’m a geek.

  4. Ray-Anne Says:

    You shall have to forgive my lack of insight here, but I was under the impression that ‘Empire Strikes Back’ was analogous to the Second Act of the Three Act story that was the Star Wars Trilogy.
    And Act Two is where I usually sink the characters into the worst nightmares they can come up with = and they are hopeless, useless, and demonstrate the very weakness which got them into this mess.
    They are at their lowest point. And the only way out is up.
    Of course, by throwing larger and larger rocks at them, I expect the characters to be forced to make tougher and tougher decision and act in new ways, which brings even bigger rocks on their heads, etc etc.
    Yes. They have to endure. Yes, they have to decide whether this goal is worth it or not - and, as you say, Luke decided it wasn’t.
    And yes, they are made to face the one thing in their lives they have always been afraid of.
    Whether it is a relationship.
    Whether it is their accountability and responsibilty to others.
    Or simply, that they were not ready for the truth until now. Life, Death, Love, Betrayal. Family. Loss. Those little things that bite us in our sensitive areas when we least expect it.
    And if that does not cause character growth before the big, final battle, then we have surely failed as writers.
    Then again, I may have totally missed the point. But thank you nevertheless for the lateral thinking.

  5. Mickey Lee Says:

    Nice job, JJ!

  6. Joshua James Says:

    Thanks guys -

    Terraling: I’d heard about that revenge edit, never saw it but it sounds cool . . .

    James: I agree with you, and thanks for the shout out. One tiny thing, Raiders would be slightly different at the end had Jones stayed home - probably no one would have ever found the Ark (Nazis were looking in the wrong place) but your point remains the same.

    And I never figured out how Jones knew to close his eyes but the French guy didn’t (but the French guy figured he had to dress in robes) or, once everyone was dead, how Jones got the Ark back into its crate without opening his eyes, heh.

    but who cares, by that point, right? Heh.

    Ray Anne - Yes, I guess you could view this as a potential act two (then how come Leia makes out with Luke, when they know they’re siblings in act III?) but than that doesn’t explain why this act was sooo much better than the other acts, right?

    That’s what I’m trying to do. Whether we look at it as a part of a whole or an individual film, there were things in there that made it truly spectacular, right? That’s what this discussion is about.

    Godfather I and II both were awesome. III not so much. All parts of one story and all individual stories themselves.

    I do think one thing that separates EMPIRE from the others is Luke’s discovery of his father. It goes to the core of our being, finding out who we are and what we do (and when you think about it, Michael Corleone discovers the same thing when he kills for his father and goes back to Sicily, he discovers who his father was, what that means and now who he, himself, might be) and who may can or cannot become as a result.

    there’s something in there, in the identity and humanity, that really rings for me.

  7. Joshua James Says:

    Oh and Mickey, thanks man!

  8. Mystery Man Says:

    I loved this article. I never thought to try to define the reasons Empire resonates so much with people. I personally love the look of the film. In terms of story, it’s a real pot-boiler in the sense that it just keeps moving along. I don’t believe there’s an Act One, which is nice, and it just jumps right in to the story. I never thought about all those setbacks, and I guess most people would feel okay with that because of the endurance factor (brilliant point) and I guess, too, they know that the road to victory is always paved with endless setbacks. There are also some great heightened emotional moments that I love to experience again and again like Yoda lifting the X-Wing out of the swamp, the news from Darth about being Luke’s father, and that emotional moment when Han gets frozen into carbonite. The look on Leia’s face and Chewbacca’s whining gets me every time.

    And ya know, I understand what you mean. I don’t feel even remotely close to nailing why it works.

    Great post, man. Loved it.

    -MM

  9. Joshua James Says:

    Thanks man.

    In a way, it’s what makes writing unlike mathematics . . . it’s an undefinable sensation (not unlike music) that cannot really be graphed, much as we’d like to. So many of the industry gurus seem to wish to break down successful films in ways just like that, like math.

    But too many great movies defy the math of McKee and his ilk.

    Some moments, put together properly, equal much, much more than the sum of their parts.

    And we can’t explain why. We can only point at the moment and go “There.”

    Problem is, in a screenplay, many folks don’t look when you point. They’re looking for the “Arc” or any of the other mathematic structures they believe all successful films have. So there’s a disconnect.

    But yeah, that’s some of my musings on it. More on this subject later.

  10. Mystery Man Says:

    Now you’re just toying with me, as you KNOW those are my biggest pet peeves. Hehehe…

  11. Joshua James Says:

    ;)

  12. Qui Nguyen Says:

    This is an awesome post, man! Really loved it. I’m obviously a huge Star Wars geek and can’t agree more.

  13. Andrew Bellware Says:

    Interestingly the death star ending of episode 6 was always intended. Lucas apparently put the death star being destroyed at the end of episode 4 because he realized he needed something big to end that movie with. But he didn’t then go and change the end of 6 to be anything different.

  14. Joshua James Says:

    I did not know that, Cat-Daddy.

    Makes sense, but yeah, they should have come up with something new for 6 to end with a bang . . . like a huge, I don’t know, monster SUN that eats galaxies, right?

    Heh

  15. NLP Zine Says:

    Great blog. Do you know of any relevant NLP forums or discussion groups?

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