A long time ago, in a city far, far away…….I saw ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ for the first time, 30 years ago this weekend. And I haven’t been the same since. But probably not for the reasons you’d think. I was already committed to the ‘Star Wars’ saga by the time this film rolled around at the ripe old age of nine. I had eaten, slept and worn ‘Star Wars’ since the summer of 1977, and to say I was excited for ‘ESB’ is the understatement of my lifetime. But that’s also why the damage was done that fateful weekend.
This won’t be one of my usual long-winded blog entries, because I just felt that I wanted to get some thoughts down in honor of ‘Empire’ on it’s anniversary. And since I have the amazing AFI platform to do it with, you all get to suffer.
I went to see the film at the Har Mar Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. My good buddy, Mark Pakulski, who lived down the block, went with me. Mark was (and probably still is) a couple of years older than me, and I looked up to him slightly. He always got the ‘stuff’ a few weeks or months before I did, and he was kind of my barometer of what was cool. So, I’m about 9, he’s about 11 or 12. We got our popcorn and goodies from the concession stand, but he takes it a step further, and gets the ‘Official Souvenir Magazine’ for ‘Empire’ with whatever extra cash he had. I was jealous, sure, but I knew I’d get to have a gander at it in the theater after he’d had first looks. And then the trouble started.
You see, I loved ‘Star Wars’, like all kids, but I was obsessed with Han Solo. He was the single coolest character I’d ever come across in any medium, and that’s even over James Bond, who I thought could do no wrong. I wanted to BE Han Solo, I read the spin off books, followed his adventures in the comics, and the only ship I cared to own was the Falcon, the only play set I wanted was the cantina. You can probably guess why.
So when I come to his bio page in the magazine, I read through the synopsis of his character. And the last sentence caught my eye: “Has Han Solo’s luck finally run out?” it said. “Well, no, of course not,” I thought to myself. “He rules.” Then about mid way through the magazine, there was a weird looking picture on one of the pages, on the right side, I believe. I couldn’t quite make it out, the theater was slightly dark even before the lights went down, but I started to decipher a face in there somewhere, which seemed to be in agonizing pain. “What’s this?” I asked Mark. Having already studied the terrain, he said “Well, read it,” referring to the caption below the picture. (I think you can already tell where I’m going with this piece). What it said shocked me; the only words I caught were ‘carbon’, ‘Solo’, and ‘hibernation’. What the proverbial eff?
The movie starts, we all go insane, the grin on my face can be seen from Minneapolis. The movie’s great, Hoth is cool, Yoda’s slightly disturbing, Fett’s in there, Vader is better than ever. But above all, my man Solo is the coolest bad ass in the galaxy. Then, things get weird on Cloud City. The Cloud Car pilots are being totally uncool to him, Lando’s sarcasm and attempt at a joke fall completely flat on my ears, and Leia, well, she’s playing a little too hard to get for my liking. But when those doors open, and Han shows why he’s the fastest gun in the ‘verse only to have Vader swat his blasts aside like so many gnats, I knew we were in trouble.
You all know what happens next. Han is not only tortured; he’s tortured and screaming down the hallway in unbearable pain throughout. And simultaneously, Vader, Fett and Calrissian are having a conversation, like no one cares! Lando even gets a few laughs from the audience. “What’s going on here?” I’m thinking to myself. “This can’t be right. He must be faking, there’s a plan here somewhere.” And then it gets worse. He gets back to his cell, Lando comes for a chat, and yes, Solo gets a good sock to the jaw in, but then gets a beat down with gun butts by two Bespin jerk offs. Really? This CAN’T get worse.
And then it does. Han gets frozen. But, you know, with his face frozen into the hideous death mask of agonizing, hibernated uberpain. Now, I’m stunned. Shocked, stunned, and frankly, the rest of the film goes by in a blur. Except, of course, Vader’s revelation, which sucked the air right out of the room. After picking my chin up off the theater floor, I was glued to that hovering slab of carbonite. I kept checking my watch, knowing that most movies were two hours, and thinking that he HAS to get out of this. But there just doesn’t seem to be enough time. They’re going to catch Fett, save Han, end of movie and let’s hurry up and get to the mall for a giant pretzel and Orange Julius. But that didn’t happen, did it? ‘Empire’ ends on one of the greatest cliffhangers in history, which in hindsight is an incredible feat, but at the time, sent me into a summer long depression.
No, seriously. A depression. Ask my mother. She still talks about the ashen little face that came through the door that day 30 years ago, and she holds George Lucas personally responsible for putting me and kids all over the world through such a mind mess. And I haven’t even mentioned what happens to the rest of the cast: Luke’s dismemberment, Chewie’s torture, Threepio’s amputations. With Yoda’s unsettling droopy eyes and Vader’s batshit scary presence, this was most definitely NOT the good guys vs. bad guys of 1977, where everyone lives happily ever after, far, far away.
I saw ‘Star Wars’ about 13 times in the theater while it was out. I saw ‘Empire’ twice. It really was a horrible experience for me. Had I been a little older, maybe it wouldn’t have shaken me up the way it did. I remember distinctly going to the mall with Mark afterwards, and he asked me what I thought. I said I didn’t like it, and he looked at me like I was speaking Russian. “Really? I loved it.” Of course you loved it, Luke’s your hero, and well, you’re 12. By the time ‘Jedi’ rolled around, and I started to see pictures of Han in the swing of things, I was ready to forgive. But it wasn’t easy.
Now, of course, I love ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, it gets better with each viewing. It’s bold, dark, ugly and ‘tails’ to the ‘heads’ of ‘Star Wars’ cookie cutter heroes and villains. And I appreciate it more and more for just those reasons. But I still can’t watch it without getting a twinge of sadness and a chill when Han gets lowered into the carbon freezing chamber. I know he lives, I know he’ll be alight, and the Rebels will emerge from this mess victorious. But for those few seconds I’m all the way back at the Har Mar Theater in 1980, scarcely believing my eyes. Happy 30th Birthday, ‘Empire’. You messed me up but good.