Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is perhaps my favorite film of all time. I know that many fans feel the same and that others, if they were to be asked, would call it a cop-out answer. Empire is widely regarded as the best of the saga films and is common among most fans’ top three [Star Wars films]. I couldn’t tell you exactly why the fandom is, generally speaking, in agreement about this film. To hear some OT fans speak of it – which is to say, those who were children when the A New Hope (then simply titled Star Wars) released in 1977 – Empire was not wholly well received. The reputation of the film seemed to improve following the release of Return of the Jedi (1983) which ended the original trilogy and whose story helped to strengthen its predecessor. Reviews of Empire continued to improve well into the prequel trilogy era and today is widely regarded as one of the few sequels in movie history to surpass the original.
The Empire Strikes Back is an amalgamation of several great things all happening at the same time. Firstly, the musical score of John Williams is simply brilliant, going above and beyond to create a wonderfully memorable viewing experience. The visual language of Empire, combined with Williams’ score, transports viewers right onto the icy plateau of Hoth in the midst of the great snow battle between the Imperial Walkers and the Rebellion speeders. As the Millennium Falcon tries to escape from the Empire through an asteroid field, the sequence is accompanied by an equally as daring and adventurous [musical] piece. “Han and the Princess” highlights the budding romance between Princess Leia and Han Solo throughout the film. It is, however, “The Imperial March” – otherwise known as Darth Vader’s Theme – which acts as the theme of the film. “The Imperial March” permeates throughout the film as the ever-present threat of Darth Vader looms over the heroes as each make their separate, yet intertwined journeys.
The real heart of Empire lies with the journey of Luke Skywalker. Urged on by the [Force] ghost of Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi, Luke travels to the swamp planet of Dagobah to train under the ascetic Yoda. The Empire Strikes Back was the first time in which fans received any real understanding of the natures of the Force and the philosophies of its practitioners. The Jedi were aggressors who sought conflict and glory, they were guardians and scholars; and the Dark Side was a corruptive power that fostered within a person’s fear, anger, and impatience. Yoda teaches Luke, and by extension the audience, that the Force is not simply a tool to cheat the system or a weapon to be drawn and sheathed when necessary. It does not come and go like the wind or rain. The Force is everything and the Force is. The Jedi simply had the innateness and discipline to see, hear, and experience the Force in ways most sentient beings could not. Luke, however, fails to understand these lessons and begins to prove himself to be an unworthy successor to the Jedi, losing faith in himself and festering frustration. This is best shown when Yoda, following Luke’s failed attempt to raise his X-Wing ship from the swamp, proves abled to do so instead. The philosophies that Yoda teaches in Empire are expanded upon greatly in the prequel trilogy, as they are essential to the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker, and later expounded further in The Clone Wars (2008) and Rebels (2014) animated series.
Aside from Luke on Dagobah, The Empire Strikes Back has a number of great character-driven moments. Princess Leia and Han Solo really come into their own as the deuteragonist and tritagonist of the film, bearing the bulk of the plot on their shoulders. There romance is woven in and out of the story until the two finally declare their love for one another (sort of) in the final act. C-3PO acts as one of the major comedy tethers throughout the film, both in his interactions with R2-D2 and, more commonly in the film, Han Solo. The duplicitous Lando Calrissian is a charming new addition to the cast, portrayed as a smooth-talking con-man who alludes to having had a previous adventure with Han Solo and Chewbacca – a story that would not be told until the release of Solo (2018). Darth Vader, the central antagonist of Empire, much like his musical theme, shines as a figure of absolute power and dominance, cruelly enforcing his will on both his underlings and enemies. Of course, the climactic battle between Luke & Darth Vader, during which the shocking relationship between the two combatants is revealed, remains as one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history.
As a kid growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, I spent a good portion of my T.V. time watching Godzilla films. The Sci-Fi channel (today SyFy) used to have Godzilla movie marathons on certain holiday weekends – I ate those films up. Of course, Godzilla films were aired on other channels too, and I can still remember going to Blockbuster Videos to rent some of the ones I hadn’t yet seen. Plus, I was already enamored with paleontology and dinosaurs, Jurassic Park (1993) and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) having been big influences on me. So in 2006-7, whenever the first trailers for a new supposed-giant monster film hit theaters, and after the attempted reboot of Godzilla in 1998 by Tristar Pictures and the release of Godzilla 2000: Millennium two years later, I was eager for the G-Man’s return. I could not have been more wrong and yet more enthralled by a film.
Cloverfield (2008) is a movie the likes of which had never been seen before or since. Filmed in the style of “found-footage” – perhaps most famously done by The Blair Witch Project (1998) – Cloverfield follows a group of New Yorkers trying to escape the city during the events of a sudden giant monster attack. Some moments throughout the film are taken out of sequence, as the camera being used is recording over (and sometimes skipping between) moments that took place a month prior to the events of the film. Cloverfield mixes elements of paranoia, survival, monster mayhem, and suspense all-in-one, heightened by “found-footage” style of filming. What is perhaps the most exhilarating aspect of the film, however, is the complete mystery surrounding the events. The protagonists appear to be every day New Yorkers, celebrating a going-away party when they experience a heralding earthquake. The resulting monster attack seems completely random and the creature, dubbed “Clover” by fans, doesn’t appear in full frame until the end of film. How and why this creature arrived to terrorize New York City is left completely unanswered. And even the very last scene leaves viewers with more questions than answers. The best that could be said of Cloverfield back in 2008 was that it was what it was always meant to be . . . found-footage.
That would have been fine had that been the whole story. Prior to the film’s release, J.J. Abrams, producer and de facto creator of Cloverfield, with the help of Paramount Pictures and the Cloverfield creative team, developed an extensive viral marketing campaign (i.e. an Alternate Reality Game). Yet, the promotional websites that were created seemed virtually irrelevant to what was being shown in trailers. The protagonists of the film were given MySpace profiles, but they only showed pictures from unimportant moments set before the film. More intriguing yet, whatever was to attack the NYC was hidden from sight in all forms of promotional materials, even trailers. Things would start to make a bit of sense, however, once people started paying attention to all promotional multimedia materials that made up the Cloverfield ARG. Careful examination of the ARG websites revealed the existence of a deep-sea mining company with connections to both the monster and Robert Hawkins, for whom the farewell party was being held. Fictional news reports, uploaded onto Youtube, showed the collapsing of a deep sea oil drill into the Atlantic Ocean – Clover can be heard beneath the water as the drill is being submerged. In truth, there were still many questions left unanswered, but the Cloverfield ARG did help to root the story in something bigger.
Still more was soon to come when 10 Cloverfield Lane released in theaters in 2016. A spiritual successor to Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane endeavored to expand the cinematic Cloverfield universe of the franchise despite its seemingly unrelated plot. Then, in 2019, The Cloverfield Paradox released which attempted to establish the origins of its predecessors, while continuing to dive deeper into the mystery and mystique of the franchise. With Abrams proclaiming that a true sequel to Cloverfield is in development, fans should certainly take time to revisit this weird, cosmic horror mythos.
Do you have that one film which you could watch on any day, at any time, regardless of how long its been on? For me, that is Rush Hour 2. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve seen this film and I can hardly believe it is almost 20 years old. Now, generally speaking, I don’t consider myself someone who seeks out comedy films. Sure, there are dozens that I’ve seen and some that I’ve even enjoyed re-watching. If given the choice, however, I would always rather watch a science-fiction or fantasy film than a comedy, especially a buddy-cop film most of which I just find cheesy. Rush Hour 2 is the absolute exception. I find that the comedic duo of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker resonate with what is my kind of funny. It’s really hard to describe the pure enjoyment I get out of this film. I can say that a decent part of that enjoyment most certainly comes from the action scenes in the film. To see Chan perform those stunts on his own and take charge in leading Tucker through those action-packed, yet hilariously choreographed sequences is such a pleasure.
Looking back on it, I’m fairly certain that a big part of why Rush Hour 2 has remained one of my favorite films is because of my childhood. Growing up I was constantly flipping between Fox Kids and the Kids’ WB to watch my Saturday morning cartoons. One of my favorites was The Jackie Chan Adventures, which aired a few years after Rush Hour (1998) on the Kids’ WB. The series, which ran for 5 seasons, centered around a fictitious version of Jackie Chan (originally voiced by Chan himself) and his struggle against supernatural forces trying to take over the world. Suffice it to say, Jackie Chan had become quite a common figure during my childhood, so it’s only natural that I would be attracted towards the Rush Hour franchise.
Of course, while I might love the Rush Hour franchise, it is on my short-list of comedy films that could not have been at released in 2019. The series relied heavily on racial & ethnic stereotypes to support its humor – mostly at the expense of Asian and Black people, though White people are also often joked of in passing – and was quite shameless about it in its first two films. Take Rush Hour for example. Carter (Tucker), after telling Lee (Chan) to “follow [his] lead”, walks into a bar and starts greeting other black people with “What’s up, my nigga?”. True to form, Lee greets the bartender in the same way and a barfight immediately breaks out. In Rush Hour 2 Carter makes a number of Black or Asian stereotype jokes that are typically countered by Lee. When Lee mentions the calmness that Asian people have during dire situations, Carter immediately retorts saying, “Yeah right. When Godzilla’s coming y’all be trippin’. I’ve seen the movie, y’all be ‘Gayaka, Gayaka!'”. Rush Hour 3 relaxed a bit on that type of humor, probably owing to the change in times, as certain jokes had begun becoming less acceptable to the common audience. The playboy nature of James Carter also lessened somewhat, as one of his major character flaws in the first two films was his constant womanizing and sometimes objectification of women (lest we forget Heaven on Earth Massage Parlor).
Regardless, the Rush Hour franchise epitomizes my kind of humor. Sure, I find the stereotype jokes as funny as I do in Galaxy Quest (1999) or Wedding Crashers (2005) – neither film making ethnic stereotype jokes per se, yet are funny nonetheless. There are wonderfully humorous scenes throughout the Rush Hour 2, like Carter singing Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” or when Lee and Carter head into a Versace store before infiltrating the Red Dragon casino. But what really makes it for me is the on and off-screen chemistry of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Those two had so much fun making those films and you can see it in the bloopers shown during the credits of each film. I’m still hopeful that a Rush Hour 4 is in the works and it couldn’t come soon enough.
Categories: Writings & Errata