Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (a 15-Minute Force production): Chapter One: Meet the New Base (Same As the Old Base, Only Colder and Whiter)

15minutetauntaun

00:00:00 – 00:15:00

At long last, we arrive at the Empire Edition of 15-Minute Force. Not to be a nerd-lemming, this movie has always been my favorite of all the Star Wars movies, and as we begin this, my umpteenth viewing of the movie, I believe that this assessment still holds true. Yes, I like it even more than Rogue One, The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi. Even more surprising, to me, I like it more than Star Wars: A New Hope.

I must qualify that last statement. No other Star Wars movie gave me the same sense of exhilaration and joy that A New Hope gave me, that same feeling of experiencing the world for the first time. Empire is just a better movie in terms of structure and dramatic storytelling. Where the first movie offered the Rebellion a new hope, the sequel seems to take all hope away, just as a good second act is supposed to. Plus, I was a teenager when this movie came out in the theaters, and the tone of the film was a perfect fit for my growing teenage angst. It never occurred to me until years later that A New Hope was a children’s movie because it seemed grown-up to me when I was a child. Empire is somehow more mature, darker and more pessimistic, as was I when it was released.

Only recently did I hear all the rumors that this was George Lucas’s least-favorite Star Wars movie. I won’t Lucas bash here, because the first movie was truly his vision, however much it “borrowed” from existing science fiction, and it was, and is, still an amazing movie. The fact that Lucas was much less involved in Empire and I liked it the most may just be a coincidence. I believe that Lucas thought all of Star Wars should be frenetic, nonstop action, like the first movie, and this one has a much slower pace and much more drama. More adult, in other words, which is not the direction that Lucas wanted to take the franchise, it seems. This is an educated guess, based on the teddy bear planet that’s introduced in Return of the Jedi.

Watching, and writing, about Empire, brings back a flood of memories, of course. Because of the size of our classes at the time, school was structured so that our true freshman year of high school, the 9th grade, was still at the junior high school. My friends and I didn’t actually transfer to the senior high school building until the beginning of 10th grade, our sophomore year. So, this movie came out around that in-between time. Moving to join all of the older students gave us the feeling of growing up, of moving into young adulthood. And, Empire was a part of that rite of passage for some of us.

That same summer, I also accidentally got the lead role in a summer stock play being produced at the local university extension. Seriously, it wasn’t by design. I had a friend from the neighborhood who was a couple of years younger, and I joined him and his mom for his audition. I also auditioned because my friend’s mom encouraged me to. We both ended up getting parts. The name of the play, as I recall, was “The Bad Children,” and I was some sort of wizard. The female lead was a witch, I think, and the young lady playing that role was later my first real “date.” Ah. Memories. [editor’s note: The Bad Children was a 1959 one-act musical written by the author of “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson]

Just as I was the exact right age for the first movie when it came out, I hypothesize that I was the exact right age for Empire as well. My world was changing, my hormones raging, and I was probably more than a little crazy, to tell the truth, as most teenagers are. AC/DC would release Back In Black later that same summer, and my musical tastes would continue to get harder and darker as well, at least for a decade or so. Where my life and this movie intersected was kind of a perfect storm.

I was also much more prepared for this movie than the first one. I was reading magazines related to its production, and I’d seen images of various characters, droids and vehicles. I’m not sure if I saw images of Yoda before I saw the movie. It seems that was a big reveal. But, I clearly recall seeing images of Luke in the bacta tank and of the ice planet Hoth. I may have read the novelization by Donald F. Glut before seeing the movie as well. I know I read it at some point, and I don’t think I worried about spoiling movies for myself in those days. Suffice it to say that I was looking forward to this movie with much anticipation. We all were.

And now . . . 20th Century Fox logo with searchlights and music. . .the Lucasfilm Ltd green-to-silver-to-gold logo . . .

And then, in blue letters—

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . .

[cue the John Williams orchestral score] and then in yellow letters against the mostly black starfield

STAR WARS

Episode V

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

It is a dark time for the

Rebellion. Although the Death

Star has been destroyed,

Imperial troops have driven the

Rebel forces from their hidden

base and pursued them across

the galaxy.

Evading the dreaded Imperial

Starfleet, a group of freedom

fighters led by Luke Skywalker

has established a new secret

base on the remote ice world

of Hoth.

The evil lord Darth Vader,

obsessed with finding young

Skywalker, has dispatched

thousands of remote probes into

the far reaches of space . . . .

As ever, the opening crawl dispenses with a lot of exposition we would have had to glean from lame “as you already know” conversations. This device has been parodied often but never equaled. The crawl gives us just enough info to kick off the story.

The Rebels were forced to abandon the Yavin 4 base because Leia led the Empire to their front doorstep, even after admitting she knew they were being tracked. Luckily—or, thanks to the Force, whichever you prefer—Luke Skywalker managed to blow up the Death Star by dropping a torpedo through the womp rat-sized exhaust port that led to Galen Erso’s built-in flaw. Now, we’re told, Darth Vader is obsessed with locating Luke. Is it because he sensed that “the Force is strong with this one” and somehow deduced that Luke was his son, whom he assumed had died when Padme Amidala died? Or, is Vader just trying to exact revenge on the Emperor’s behalf because Luke blew up their spherical battle station?

It never occurred to me when I watched the first movie that the Death Star exploding didn’t mean that the Rebel Alliance were now the clear victors in their war with the Empire. That was just a battle. The Battle of Yavin, in fact, a historical marker against which all else on the Star Wars timeline is judged. Winning a single battle doesn’t mean that the war is over. I have to imagine that as soon as the medals were hung around Luke and Han’s necks, everyone scrambled to pack everything up and hurriedly leave the Yavin 4 base. No one seemed to be in a hurry during the ceremony, but we can gloss over that.

I’m not sure if this is officially a part of the canon, but convention holds that three years have passed since the Battle of Yavin and the beginning of Empire. Since three years passed in real time, I always accepted this. Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie have known each other for a while now, and it feels that way in the movie.

As the yellow letters of the opening crawl fade into the starfield, the camera pans down in a familiar way and we see a planet and an Imperial Star Destroyer. A gaggle of space probes are released from the huge hole in the destroyer’s belly, one of which heads for the mostly-white ice planet Hoth. We stay with the probe as it descends through the planet’s atmosphere and lands in a puff of surprisingly dark smoke on a snow covered ridge. From the resulting crater, the probe rises. In my memory, I’ve always thought of the probe as spider-like, but see now that it has a silhouette that is more squid or jellyfish-like than spider. Since there are only four visible appendages dangling below the bulbous body of the probe, I can’t even compare it to an octopus. Squid-like. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

We switch to a long shot of a white-garbed figure riding a tauntaun across a snow plain. This shot is a throwback to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion epics. The tauntaun appears to be a weird hybrid of kangaroo, lizard and yak. We have it on good authority that they smell bad. In close up, the rider pauses long enough to remove his face covering and goggles so that we can see that this is Luke Skywalker. At that very moment, Luke sees the flaming contrail of what we can safely assume is another probe falling to the surface. Since old habits die hard, he pulls out the binoculars to get a closer look. The electronic view through the binoculars doesn’t reveal much.

Luke uses his wrist comm to contact Echo Seven (he refers to himself as Echo Three) and then abandons code names altogether when he uses Han’s name. He also calls him “old buddy,” which is another clue they’ve known each other for a while now. Han still calls him “kid” when he says he’s reading him loud and clear. Luke says he’s finished his circle and hasn’t picked up any life readings. Han quips that there isn’t enough life on this planet to fill a space cruiser, then adds that his sensors are placed and he’s going back. Luke mentions seeing the meteorite land nearby and says he’s going to check it out.

Immediately after Luke shuts off his comm, his tauntaun reacts strongly to something. While Luke tries to calm the creature down, he is swatted off his saddle by the Abominable Snowman from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer show. Okay, not that, nor a yeti nor wendigo. This is a wampa ice creature that’s native to Hoth but apparently doesn’t show up on the Rebellion’s obviously inferior life form detectors.

Following the lead of Bruce, the shark from Jaws, the makers of this movie go with the “less is more” approach, showing the wampa in quick cuts and segments. A hairy arm with a clawed hand here, a close up of a scary-looking face there. Very fragmented so that it never looks like an empty gorilla suit or a puppet. Pretty effective. Both Luke and the tauntaun are knocked to the ground. Then we get a shot of a bloodied Luke being dragged away.

Han arrives back at the Hoth Rebel Base on his own tauntaun. This base looks very similar to the one on Yavin 4 with the various vehicles and cables snaking everywhere. Only everything here is coated with snow or ice. This is an ice planet in the one-biome-per-planet trope, and this base appears to have been carved out of the ice itself. There are rebel soldiers and droids galore, and, as the camera pans, we see the Millennium Falcon in the distance. Chewbacca the Wookiee is on top of the Falcon, welding something. Chewie has goggles but is otherwise unprotected. I bet he singes a lot of his fur.

Han calls out to Chewie, who in turn growls a complaint back to Han, obviously saying that he needs help because Han tells him he’ll be right back to give him a hand.

We stay with Han as he moves deeper into the base. He and Leia look at each other across a crowded control room. There’s something in the look that they share, but we don’t know what it is yet. Han continues on without speaking to Leia. Han tells a general about Luke checking out a meteorite, then says it’s time for him to leave; he can’t stay any longer. The general says he’s sorry to hear that. Han reminds us all again about the price on his head and having to go pay off Jabba the Hutt. I mean, the man’s stayed with them for three years. They can’t expect much more from him, can they?

Leia is listening to all of this, as we can see in intercut shots of her emoting with her eyes. There are suggestions that she’s developed feelings for Han. We saw that coming, didn’t we? Always the bad boys. And Han cuts a dashing figure even after trading his vest for a Members Only jacket.

After speaking to the general, Han goes to Leia.

Well, your highness,” he says, “I guess this is it.”

That’s right,” Leia responds dispassionately.

Her lack of emotion evokes petulance from Han. “Well, don’t get all mushy on me. So long, princess.” And then he walks off.

Leia catches up to him in one of the base’s many ice hallways. She thought Han had decided to stay. Han tells her that the bounty hunter they ran into in Ord Mantell changed his mind. More evidence that things have happened since the medal ceremony. Leia says that “we” need you, but that’s not good enough for Han. He wants her to tell him that “she” needs him. Leia’s in denial. She wants Han to stay because the Rebellion needs him. He’s a natural leader. Han suggests that she’s just afraid he’s going to leave without giving her a goodbye kiss.

When Leia says she’d rather kiss a Wookiee, Han naturally says that he can arrange that, and, from off-screen as he continues along the hallway, says that she could use a good kiss. Which is as close as you get in the Star Wars universe to saying someone needs to get laid.

One horizontal screen wipe later, we get our first shot of C-3PO and R2-D2 in this movie. They, too, are coming down one of the ice hallways with all the snaking cables. C-3PO is complaining because R2-D2 turned on a heater which caused the princess’s clothes to get wet. From the melting ice, I would assume. This bit of conversation seems to have no bearing at all on anything else that happens afterward.

As the two droids are approaching the Falcon, we hear Han giving Chewie a hard time, asking his co-pilot why he “took this apart now” when he’s trying to get them out of there. I think Chewie is in less of a hurry to leave the Rebellion behind, and his sabotage is calculated.

C-3PO, in his inimitable fussy way, tells Han that Leia has been trying to contact him on his communicator. Han, who’s still maintaining his side of the argument with Leia, tells the protocol droid that he switched off his comm because he didn’t want to speak to her.

C-3PO tells him that Leia is worrying about Luke. He hasn’t returned and no one knows where he is. This compels Han to call for the deck officer repeatedly. The deck officer doesn’t know where Commander Skywalker is either, which confirms that he is part of the “no one” crew. He does suggest that it’s possible that Luke came through the south entrance. Han doesn’t like the world “possible” and brusquely orders the poor deck officer to go find out. It’s getting dark out.

When the deck officer can’t confirm that Luke came in by the south entrance, Han asks if the speeders are ready. A rebel soldier says they’ve had some trouble adapting them to the cold. Han says they’ll have to go out on tauntauns then.

It occurs to me now that this means they’ve had trouble adapting speeders for three years, only to get them up and running just as the Empire discovers their secret base. That Force stuff is a handy thing to have around.

Han is officially worried about his friend now. One of the rebels warns Han that the temperature is dropping too rapidly and that his tauntaun will freeze before he reaches the first marker.

Then I’ll see you in Hell,” Han says. I always thought Han was an atheist because he didn’t believe in the Force. Turns out that he may be a Christian, however. Or an adherent of some other religion with a concept of Hell. Or maybe he was just joking.

Things are looking a little bleak for Luke in the next scene. He’s hanging upside down in an ice cave like a side of beef in a meat locker. Which is a pretty apt description. To the wampa, he is fresh meat. There’s a shot of the wampa munching on fresh tauntaun chunks that I think was a special addition change. I don’t remember getting that good a look at the creature in the original movie.

Luke attempts to free himself, demonstrating admirable core strength as he reaches for the ice ceiling holding fast to his feet. He fails, of course. Then he notices his lightsaber hilt partially buried in the snow, just out of reach. Luke concentrates, closes his eyes, then uses the Force to make the lightsaber jump into his hand. He blazes up immediately and cuts himself down just in time to confront the wampa, using the lightsaber to sever the creature’s arm, the same way Old Ben did to that dude in the Mos Eisley Cantina.

Luke escapes from the cave, only to run foolishly into a snowstorm. And it’s getting dark and the temperatures are plummeting. Okay, maybe not so foolishly. The wampa is injured and still deadly. What other choice did Luke really have? He could have stood his ground and finished the creature off. That way, he’d still have some shelter in the cave. Plus, wampa pelt looks pretty warm. But, we must keep in mind that Luke is injured, too. Maybe he didn’t have the strength for a full-tilt battle with an amputee wampa. Who can say?

Speaking of injuries . . . Luke’s face seemed to have been injured when the wampa swatted him off his tauntaun. The popular rumor at the time of the movie, and for many years since, was that this was written into the script because Mark Hamill himself was injured in a car accident in-between the first and second movies, and that his injuries included some major facial reconstruction. Hamill himself has since downplayed this rumor, but I still think that his face looks different from how it looked in the first movie. His California pretty-boy looks seem to have been altered.

We get a couple of quick shots next. Han, mounted on his tauntaun, searching for Luke. Then, R2-D2 worrying about Luke and C-3PO reassuring him, just outside the base entrance door.

Luke is having a difficult time of it, trudging through the snowstorm and falling down several times. He’s going to freeze to death. I just know it.

Back at the base, we get to see Leia worrying, now about both Luke and Han. One of the rebels tells another that all of the patrols are back but still no sign of either men. One of the rebels tells Leia, calling her “your Highness,” that there’s nothing more they can do tonight and that the shield doors must be closed. Leia reluctantly nods her assent.

R2 calculates the odds of survival at 725-to-1, which C-3PO translates for Leia. I assume that’s 725-to-1 against survival, although the fact that both men survived calls that into question. Maybe the odds overwhelmingly favored their survival, and R2 knew this.

The shield doors slowly come to a close. Chewie gives a mournful ululating wail, then hangs his hairy head in grief. Leia looks stricken. This is a bad thing.

Luke seems down for the count when he has a sudden vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Force ghost. Ben tells him that he will go to the Dagobah system, where he will learn from Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed him. Well, he instructed Qui-Gon Jinn, who instructed him, I think. Splitting hairs, again. We all know that Obi-Wan lies all the time. As the ghost image fades and Luke loses consciousness, Han rides up on his tauntaun.

Just as Luke’s rescue appears imminent, Han’s tauntaun keels over and dies. I guess he froze to death. I’m not sure why Han and Luke didn’t freeze to death before it did, but logic has no affect on fiction. Always thinking on his feet, Han uses Luke’s lightsaber to slice open the tauntaun, which was a neat, rather disgusting effect, though bloodless. He comments on the bad smell while he puts Luke inside the tauntaun carcass to keep him warm while he puts up the shelter. Luke is talking deliriously about the Dagobah system.

And here is where we conclude the first chapter of the Empire Edition of 15-Minute Force. We’ll have to wait until next week to find out if our heroes manage to survive the night (Hint: Yes, they do). I don’t think we make the turn into Act Two until after the Battle of Hoth and we change settings. But, we’re already setting the next act up with Obi-Wan’s message to Luke about going to Dagobah.

Until next time. . .Let’s Hope The Rebels Get Those Speeders Adapted to Hoth’s Frigid Environment Before the Imperial Forces Attack . . . And May The 15-Minute Force Be With You.

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