Film Nerd 2.0: We finally reach The Moment with 'Empire Strikes Back' on Blu-ray
Before I left for Fantastic Fest, I showed the 1977 "Star Wars" to my boys.
I left the Blu-ray box set sitting on the shelf where I have all of my "to be played" discs, standing up so the boys could see the cover. I did that specifically to torture them. I wanted them to itch every single time they walked in the room while I was gone. And I know them well enough to know that they would manufacture reasons to be in my office to do things, because that's what they do every day all day. My shelves are a constant source of discovery for the kids, whether it's books or movies or games or music. They're always asking to sample something.
And after I left for Fantastic Fest, I talked to the boys on the phone, and each phone call would begin with Toshi saying some variation on "Daddy, when you get back, it's going to be Friday, and on Friday, it's going to be too late, and on Saturday, we're going to watch 'Empire Strikes Back,' right?"
"How many days is that?"
"So it's one two three four and then five is Friday and then six is 'Star Wars'?"
He needed to schedule it. He needed to know concretely when he was going to see the film. That's important, and it allowed him to plan and to budget just how impatient to be. Remember… I'm a first generation ground zero "Star Wars" kid. I was seven for the first film. Ten for "Empire." Thirteen for "Jedi." I had three years to wait between movies, and when "Star Wars" came out, there was no guarantee that there would ever be a sequel. In fact, "sequel" wasn't really in my vocabulary yet. For me, the news that "Empire" was coming was like a promise someone made that I didn't even realize I could wish for. It was this gift, this amazing present that came at the end of three long years of me going totally absolutely batshit wackadoo crazy for the merchandising empire that George Lucas was pioneering. It was his way of saying, "Oh, you liked that? Well, there's a whole lot more where that came from."
But for my kids, they walk in knowing there are six films and all six of them are in the house right now. They could theoretically sit on my couch for fourteen or so hours and watch all of the movies in a row. That is possible. It's not going to happen, but they know that it COULD. That was not an option for me experiencing the films. I had three years, three years, sixteen years, three years, and three years. 28 years from the release of the first to the release of the last. That's the most sustained case of cinematic blue balls that anyone will ever pull off, I'm guessing. I can't imagine anyone else ever having quite the same hold over pop culture. Not for that long. And not with that big a break in the middle.
So I told Toshi every single time we talked that, yes, we would see "The Empire Strikes Back" on Saturday.
So of course, that didn't happen.
Let me explain. I didn't mean to do it to him. And it was really only Toshi who was put out by this. Allen is pretty zen about when he sees something. He's down for it the moment I ask, but until then, he's got plenty of serious Matchbox car and pillow fort time to put in and he's in no hurry.
But Toshi? He's got the bug. He's the one who is really having the religious experience here. I feel like Allen's taking some cues from big brother, and Toshi's got a lot on his mind as he's been thinking about "Star Wars." He had questions for me on Saturday morning on the way to flag football, where his team the Eagles had a pretty rousing game that was 0 to 0 until the last two minutes, when the other team finally scored. He didn't care. As soon as we were in the car, the loss of his game was forgotten, and he had more questions about both "Star Wars" and "Empire."
"Daddy, is Yoda in this one?"
"Is Darth Maul in this one?"
"Is Darth Vader in this one?"
"Is Darth Vader and Darth Maul, are they both trained by the Emperor and good fighters like him?"
"Are they in a movie together?"
"Is Anakin Skywalker in this one?"
Now, that last question and answer became important later, as you might imagine. Because he remembered what I said.
"Is Anakin Skywalker in this one?"
We had every intention of watching the film, and my goal was eat some lunch, put on the movie, enjoy it, have some after-movie time to go for a walk, and then leave for my screening of "The Thing." The new one. And instead, Toshi and his brother decided to get in the pool after lunch with my sister-in-law, and while I think that's awesome and they had a good time, when they finally came in and Toshi asked when we were starting the movie, it was not awesome to have to explain to him that I was going to have to leave in about thirty minutes to make it to my movie.
Oh, the tears.
Now I feel like I overdid it, baited the hook too well, because he was almost inconsolable when he realized he was going to have to wait an entire day to see the movie. Nothing we talked about seemed to cheer him up. I had to leave, and according to his mother, it took much of the evening before he finally relaxed about it, and even so, he insisted on having the Blu-ray box in his room where he could see it as he was going to sleep so that he would see it first thing when he woke up.
On Sunday morning, we started the film at 10:30 AM, and both Toshi and Allen were ready to go. They tried dragging me out of bed a few hours earlier, but I told them they had to wait until I got up. When I put the disc in and they saw the images that played during the menu, they immediately started freaking out. Allen was instantly obsessed with the giant space worm popping out of the asteroid, and Toshi got hyper about the glimpse he got of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker attacking each other with lightsabers. We started the film, and as I did with the 1977 film, I read them the opening crawl in my most dramatic voice.
If you're still debating picking up these Blu-rays, let me tell you that the transfer for "Empire" is one of the most impressive transfers I've seen so far, a gorgeous version of the film. Rich and colorful and deep with detail, I was impressed that I could actually still see things I'd never seen before in the film, like the mud on the bottom of Yoda's feet as he's going through Luke's belongings when they first meet. The sound is also technically impressive, giving my sound system a real workout.
I'm sure the kids didn't notice, though. They were too busy trying to process the expanded details of this world they're starting to get lost in, and from the moment it started, they were totally absorbed. I was impressed at their attention to detail, too. The first time Luke's face was shown, they both knew right away that something was different. They weren't hung up on it, but they definitely could tell that Hamill had changed in some way. I'm not even sure I noticed that when the film first came out, but they immediately picked up on it. The Wampa attack was very upsetting to both of them, and I love how they're still able to believe completely in the peril in a film. They don't know formula or genre convention, and they fully accept that the hero of a film could die at any moment. They were worried for Luke right away, and they were worried for Han when he went after him.
There was also a lovely sense of seeing old friends again each time a character was re-introduced in "Empire," as both boys would react and comment and cheer. Allen is fascinated by "the monster," as he calls Chewbacca, and loves every single reaction shot of the Wookie. Toshi's intrigued by the notion that R2-D2 and C-3PO are the only characters who appear in all the films, and he thinks the near constant abuse of C-3PO is one of the funniest things ever.
The film rumbles along at a preposterous clip, always throwing new ideas and locations at the audience, and it seemed like the boys were on overload trying to make sense of it all. We watched all the way up to Lando's betrayal on Cloud City, and then we had to pause the film for lunch and Toshi's T-ball game and my "Thing" interviews at Universal. During lunch, I got peppered with questions about Lando's behavior. The boys were confused by the idea that someone's friend might betray them, and I could see that it just didn't compute. There's nothing duplicitous about a six-year-old or a three-year-old, and when they encounter adult behavior that they don't understand, they will quiz me on it incessantly. They need to understand why people do these things, and even after I explained that Lando was trying to protect the people who depended on him to run Cloud City, that didn't work for them. They still thought he was wrong to betray Han Solo, and even when we got back to the film later in the afternoon, they weren't ready to forgive Lando. Didn't matter that he ended up helping everyone else. They couldn't get past the betrayal, and they both decided that they don't like Lando at all.
That was nothing compared to their reaction to The Moment, though.
Ever since I first started thinking about showing them "Star Wars," I've been aware that The Moment is one of the central pivots of the entire series, and I did everything I could to protect that twist for them. Because they've seen numerous episodes of "The Clone Wars," the introduction of Yoda didn't really work the same way for them that it did for me in the theater. They were ahead of the reveal, but they got to enjoy laughing at Luke as a result, enjoying the fact that they knew something Luke didn't. With The Moment, though, they were completely and utterly blindsided.
The lightsaber duel was very tense for them. Allen jumped almost every time Vader got the upper hand in the duel, genuinely scared for Luke's safety. They were already emotionally upset by the fate of Han Solo, and by the time Luke found himself out on that catwalk, fighting for his life, both of them were standing up, closer to the TV than when we started the film. I originally thought of videotaping them when The Moment happened, so I could get something like this….
… but they're both much too aware of the camera, and to be honest, I didn't want to make it feel artificial or forced, so I just sat back and watched them closely as they watched the build-up to The Moment. I think they forgot how to blink during the fight, and when Darth Vader cut off Luke's hand, they both yelled, shocked and even more nervous about what might happen. Allen asked me, tense and nervous, if Luke was going to fall and die. I told him to listen closely and watch closely.
And then Darth Vader stepped up, hand out, and laid some cold truth on Luke Skywalker, and as he did, I felt like time slowed down a little. I saw both of their faces as it sunk in about what Vader said. Their eyes went wide, their jaws dropped almost in synch, and they both turned to look at me, dawning outrage setting in.
And in their eyes, I saw something I've never seen there before. And it hit me so hard that I suddenly felt like I was about to cry, because what I saw there was distrust. They suddenly realized that adults might not be telling them the truth, and that the world might not be what I told them it is.
As soon as Luke let go and fell all the way down to the antenna on the bottom of Cloud City, I paused the film, and both of the boys started peppering me with questions.
"How can Anakin be a bad guy, Daddy?"
"That's a good question. We'll have to see the next three films to figure that out."
"What happened to him to make his head all burned and gross?"
"That's in the next three movies, too."
"Why did you say Anakin isn't in this movie if Darth Vader is Anakin and he's in this movie."
I didn't really have an answer for that one. Obviously, I fibbed to protect the twist, but that doesn't change the fact that I fibbed. And we've had long talks with Toshi about the importance of honesty, so he knows that we don't want him to tell lies for any reason. Now he had concrete proof that I had lied to him, and I was fully aware of the irony that it was over a moment in a film involving a lie.
We watched the rest of the movie and they loved it, but the conversations afterward kept coming back to The Moment and what it meant. They really can't imagine the idea of a good guy who turns into a bad guy, and they kept trying to reconcile the hero from the "Clone Wars" shows with this ominous bad guy who attacked his own son and tried to kill him.
It was Toshi who asked the question that stung the most as I was helping him put his shoes on a little later. "Daddy, you wouldn't ever be mad at us and kill us, would you?" How do you answer a question like that for a child? How do you try to explain to them that there are people in this world who hurt their kids, but that they should rest easy because you would never do that. The mere possibility is enough to create anxiety for them, and once they started to consider it, they didn't seem able to shake it. They've asked me about Han Solo's fate once or twice, but they are still really hung up on the idea of a father who fell so far that he was barely the same person, able to kill his own son if need be.
On the way to a screening of "Real Steel" last night, with my wife and both of the boys, all they could talk about was "Empire," and Allen decided to assign each of us a part to play.
"Daddy, you're the monster, and I'm Luke Skywalker and Toshi is CP3O and Mommy can be the girl!"
And for a little while, I was happy to roar like Chewbacca every time Allen barked an order at me in his adorable three-year-old voice. "Chewbacca, go fast! We have to fight with the bad guy ships that are behind us! Toshi, you have to be silly. And they're shooting on our ship, and it's the Mellinum Falcon and it's super fast. Super fast, okay, Daddy?"
And finally, after about twenty minutes of that (we live in the boonies, and it's often at least an hour to get to a screening from my house), my wife had to put a moratorium on "Star Wars" talk in front of her. She was so confused about the films, firmly convinced that Anakin Skywalker was the star of "Star Wars," and the first film showed him killing Darth Varder. She explained it to Allen gently. "Allen, that's a boy thing. Mommies like other movies, and we can watch those." She is not a film geek, which is one of the reasons I married her. I need to have someone close to me in my life who isn't wired to be interested in movies every single second of the day, and in this case, I like that she's willing to let me indulge my own "Star Wars" fandom with the boys without interference.
We're not watching our next film, "The Phantom Menace," until this coming weekend, but they've already started asking questions, and I get the distinct feeling that until they see Anakin's rise and fall, they're not going to rest easy.
"Star Wars: The Complete Saga" is now available on Blu-Ray.