Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Randomised

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Continuing the occasional series of Star Wars Randomised posts (see here if you need to know what these are), I come to The Empire Strikes Back. This was the first Star Wars film I remember seeing in the cinema. My family was on holiday in Dublin, and I and my siblings were taken to see it as an evening treat. Mostly what I remember was Yoda, who I assumed was a member of the muppet family and therefore entirely hilarious at all times. But my memory of the story was bolstered by a second viewing (on a double bill with the earlier film), and by the toys, books, trading cards and magazines that help to extrude the afterlife of the film and embed it firmly in the brain.

The numbers randomly generated are: 25, 89, and 101. I take frame grabs from those minute marks and use them as prompts for discussion. The bonus number is 40: that’s the one I’m handing over to you, readers, so dust off your critical faculties and get ready to tell me stuff…
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 25th minuteThe Star Wars films move from planet to planet with the greatest of ease. This is not the barren, vast space of 2001 or Alien: it’s a galaxy teeming with life, each new world a monoclimatic, colour coded waystation for a a section of plot. There’s Endor, an entirely forested moon, Tatooine, the desert planet, Coruscant, its whole surface urbanised, and this – Hoth, all snow and ice. Its white surfaces are a retina-searing place for a battle, a bright open space that offers no shadows in which to hide. The Rebels troops are massively outgunned. They’ve just spotted the Imperial forces’ giant walking troop carriers (AT-ATs, if my memory of the action figures serves me right) approaching, their eyes aimed at the distant enemy. They know they’re pretty much screwed. It’s just a matter of buying some time while the Rebels evacuate their base. Writing this down, it sounds pretty trite, but the spectacle comes from the succinct reduction of the conflict to its powerful visual elements: definite lateral movement (the Rebels face and fire in this direction, the Empire advances inexorably from the opposite side), a diagonal composition in this shot scatters the troops in a loose, rather scrappy and pathetic formation. This will be intercut with the assured march of the Empire towards them. And when, oh when, will we get these wrist-mounted intercoms that science fiction has been promising us for so long? Again, there are few true gaps between places in the Star Wars universe: spatial gulfs can be spanned with this proliferation of communication devices, or hyperspace jumps that collapse huge distances in seconds. Scenes of isolation, out of radio contact or away from other people, are almost always scenes of isolation and fear.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 89th minuteFor a smart-mouthed gun-slingin’ hero, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) certainly suffers a lot in this film. Here he is in a prison cell shortly after being tortured with some kind of electroshock machine, and shortly before being encased in carbonite (all of the nonsense science in Star Wars is stated with casual confidence – there are few astonishing “new” technologies for the people involved, rarely even any expressions of surprise as they arrive on strange new worlds): I remember seeing this as a six-year-old and asking my mum if Solo was dead. Whatever they were saying on the screen about his life signs, I couldn’t imagine how being “in a statue” was not the same as being dead. In this shot, though, Han is on the way to his statue-state. The torture has knocked the swagger out of him. The smirk has fallen from his mough, and the dark shadows emphasise the sag in his face, the pallor of his skin, the frown on his brow that expresses disappointment that his roguish heroism has been met not with a similarly spry, moustache twirling villainy, but with a medieval set of restraints, jabs and agonies. Why won’t the enemy spar with him on his own terms? the stark, corugated iron (?) backdrop and the off-centre framing accentuate the disempowerment. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has been moved to his defence from his earlier standoffish flirtation. Her hair is gradually evolving from the tight buns she wore in the previous episode, snaking down the sides of her head as her affection unfolds: sad to see that her initial assertiveness is being equated with tightness, a quality to be outgrown rather than one to direct productively. In the flirtation that characterises their relationship during most of The Empire Strikes Back (and reminds us that it shares a co-screenwriter with The Big Sleep), they are equally matched: by this point, he has gained the sympathetic highground by getting the crap kicked out of him, but he gains it at the expense of his agency and heroic prerogative.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 109th minuteThe darkness of the film is often cited as its strength, positioned between the boyishness of the previous and the teddy bears’ picnic of the subsequent episodes. The shadiest chiaroscuro effects are reserved for the scenes of Oedipal revelation as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) battles the arch-villain who turns out to be his father (he has, by this point, stopped coming onto his sister…). Here, Luke looks down into the pit where he has just thrown Darth Vader. The low shot and confident stance seem to give him a superior positioning, but his size within the frame, and the prominence of opaque spaces in the frame suggest that he is still in danger. The lightsaber is another bit of impossible science that makes perfect sense – it works like a sword, and permits the film to borrow the intimate aspects of swordfighting (the proximity to an opponent, they attempt to inflict injury directly to their bodies) as opposed to the remoteness of gunplay. Hence, emotional conflicts are usually manifest as sabre fights; they evoke a chivalrous age at the same time as their alien technology suggests an unfathomable futurity for the films’ spectators. Plenty of sf technologies aim to provoke the flash of recognition that comes from seeing a gadget that one hopes will eventually arrive to make life easier. Star Wars paradoxically provokes nostalgia instead: its technologies return us to the sword and the cloak. Its inventions are not necessities to one day make our lives easier, but tropes of other genres (pirate, cowboy, knight) shifting to the back and to the side in space and time.

And here, from the 40th minute of the film, is your turn. What can you tell me about this frame? Anything at all. Surprise me…Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 40th minute

Star Wars Randomised

Star Wars poster
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[For other Randomised posts, and an explanation of the rules of randomisation, go here.]

In a brazenly populist gesture, I thought I’d start a weekly(ish) series applying the rules of Randomisation to George Lucas’ reasonably well-known toyshop sf-western franchise. I’m going to start with the first film, i.e. the one released in 1977, before it was retitled Episode IV: A New Hope in 1981 (I once had a stand-up shouting match with a hardcore fan who swore blind that it had always been subtitled “Episode IV” since it’s first screenings. Thank goodness these days anyone with 30 seconds to spare and access to Google can settle these squabbles with more civility). However, I am lumbered with the 2004 DVD versions, so I’ll have to note “special edition” embellishments/vandalisms should they arise.

In keeping with the traditions of Randomisation, I won’t say much more about the film – I’ll just let the random number generator pick me three numbers, then grab the frames corresponding to those minute marks from the DVD, and get on with it. The numbers are 13, 66, 80. The bonus number is 109; this is a new feature I’m introducing for the Randomised series. I’d like you, dear readers, to fill in the entry for the fourth number for me. Please join in and help out on the comments thread below and see if you can suggest points of interest raised by the image.

Now, on with the pictures:
Star Wars: 13th minuteWell, this is a challenging one. Not the most “active” shot. This is the vacuum tube that is descending menacingly to suck up R2-D2 into the Jawas’ sandcrawler. It fills the dark frame, and the camera tilts down with its movement, in thrall to its big black mouth. It’s like a giant version of those pneumatic tubes they used to use to send messages.:R2 (follow him on Twitter here) is about to be sent like a memo into the inside of the transport. The Star Wars films are filled with shots of people (and other things) getting in and out of vehicles, racing through corridors, trenches, narrow spaces etc. It’s a real tug-of-war between wide shots of outer space or open landscapes, and people being passed from one metallic interior to the next. The Jawas, chirpy little buggers who come off like a swarm of eager market traders, make their living by rounding up and reselling old droids. The reduction of two of the films main protagonists (C3P0 is also picked up) to another bit of second-hand junk is at once a neat comic device for getting them to where they need to be (meeting Luke Sykwalker), and an establishing scene of their singular identity: no other robots in the series are permitted this level of agency, the chance to rise up from the pack, escape and go AWOL. This mammoth suction tube, a reversal of the escape pod that blew them out of the rebel ship at the beginning, is a reminder of others’ perception of the droids status as machines, commodities to be processed and delivered accordingly.
Star Wars 66th minuteHere’s a shot that has been modified slightly for the DVD release. A large pink flash as an Imperial guard is shot in the assault on the detention centre. It seems like an attempt to tone down the violence, to soften the blows of Luke and Han’s rescue of Princess Leia. The guard’s right hand was going for his gun,  so we know that he represented an immediate danger, but this bad guy has been outgunned. In lessening the impact of the death, they could’ve censored the image by erasing the pain from his face, but it’s the pink flash that has been wiped away. That burst of candy-floss pink would, if nothing else, have clashed viciously with the colour scheme of the rest of the shot. The evil of the Imperial forces is suggested in part by their mastery of colour, mostly blacks and greys, with deep red in the back of this shot. See how the guard, in his uniform, almost disappears into the decor. Even the badges that signify his rank (or maybe his scouting abilities?), match the buttons on the consoles around him: he is shown to be another integrated component of the death star, and killing him just a necessary point in navigating the outposts of the space station.

For more on the special edition alterations, some of which continue this project of “cleaning up” the film or mollifying the killings, follow this link.
Star Wars 89th minuteIn the garbage compactor (Brits like me might have called it a “rubbish squasher”) on the Death Star, Princess Leia and Han Solo struggle to get on top of the “garbage”: the Empire clearly has a different kind of garbage to the rest of us. I see no milk bottles, potato peelings or ice-cream tubs. If you want to judge a regime by what it bins, then the Empire is clearly fixated on machines, metal and rubber piping. And you can bet they’re not planning to recycle any of this stuff. The compactor is lit like an infernal backstreet, like the outsides of clubs where you see people get mugged in movies set in New York. And it’s not very well designed: surely a waste disposal unit big enough for people to get inside (there’s a door) could easily be fitted with an emergency “off” switch? But then, the functionality of the Death Star’s equipment is wholly ruthless. Not a single surface, fitting or fixture dedicated to leisure. I say this not as a flippant swipe at the film’s design, but to remark upon its singular efficiency. George Lucas is renowned for marshalling the finer points of design and environment to create an impression of lived-in worlds, but actually I find them to be wholly subordinated to the project of setting up a dichotomy between rustic rebels and machinic rulers. The Empire’s war rooms, detention centres and hangars are fussily clean and smooth, so to find our heroes suddenly in the digestive system of the centre of operations, and for it to still be full of metal, is a nice touch.

Now, over to you. What do you make of this image from the 109th minute of Star Wars? Show me how it should be done:
Star Wars 109th minute