Friday, January 22, 2016

Favorite Scenes - The Empire Strikes Back - The Duel

"The Force is with you young Skywalker..."

"But you are not a Jedi yet."

I love the opening to the duel between Luke and Darth Vader on cloud city. The way the carbon freeze chamber is lit, the way the smoke rises in this room, the fact that music doesn't play at all, we just get sound effects and dialogue.

And the shot of Vader, as nothing but silhouette, that is what The Empire Strikes Back is, this dark ominous and dominating force looming over our protagonists and supremely confident. 

Then you have the way the two duelers approach each other. Luke moves toward Vader, and ignites his saber quickly. 

Vader doesn't move at all, and his blade slowly ignites, and he only uses one hand in this opening sequence. 

Then you have this quick shot of Luke facing down the man who killed his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. No fear here. Just determination. He feels he is ready for anything Darth Vader can dish out.

When the battle begins, Vader continues to fight Luke one handed. This punk isn't worth using two hands. 

Hell, he is able to push Luke back with as single hand. 

But as the battle proceeds, Vader eventually switches to the two handed grip. This kid is more dangerous than he anticipated. 

The scene ends when Vader swings hard at Luke. The younger man ducks and Vader's saber cuts through a conduit sending sparks and smoke into the air. As the explosion echoes around us, the scene abruptly cuts to the Leia, Chewie and C3PO being marched to their doom. 

The contrast between the darkness of the Carbon Freeze chamber and the white hallways of Cloud City is disarming. Notice how the stormtroopers and Leia are also in white. This is almost a visual negative to the silloutte duel between Luke and Vader.

By cutting on the action, director Irwin Kirshner leaves us hanging. What will the outcome of the duel be? Does Luke stand a chance? Or has Vader underestimated him?

The other element to think about is how this duel mirrors the final duel we see in Attack of the Clones, as Anakin and Obi-Wan enter the shadowy cave to duel Count Dooku. But I think the greater comparison is the final duel in Revenge of the Sith between Anakin and Obi-Wan. There too you have orange glowing floor and smoking rising into the air. I've often seen the Carbon Freeze chamber  equated to Luke's personal hell. But in Sith  the lava planet is Anakin's hell, and his final decent from the light side into the dark. But like many visual elements of the entire Star Wars series, this duel is mirrored again and again. 

Do you have a favorite scene from The Empire Strikes Back?

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  1. Well there were many as in the one you cite above. But also Luke dangling from the scaffolding after that scene is also pretty thrilling, and pretty reminiscent of all the old Republic serials that came before it.

    Hans Solo getting frozen in carbonite blew my mind the first time I saw it. I thought, well, did he die? How is he going to get out of that?

    And the landwalkers (or At-Ats) battle scene on Hoth. It was pretty thrilling as the walkers looked so huge, and you wondered how are they going to bring those down or defeat them. I always thought those looked cool and would have made a cool toy.

    1. Yeah "Empire" is filled with great scenes. It was tough to pick just one. Hell, I may do another scene from "Empire" down the line. Han Solo being frozen really shook me up as a kid. I was convinced he was dead. According to my parents (I don't remember it too well) I was in tears. :)

      That scene has some great set up and execution too. I think the "hell" concept works better for Han being frozen compared to the Carbon Freeze chamber being Luke's personal hell. And yeah, those walkers are something else. They actually did make a toy of them. They were scaled down a bit compared to the toy of the snow speeder, but you could still fit two action figures in the head and about five or so in the body. I picked up the rereleased version in the mid 90s, but a friend of mine had the original one from when "Empire" was released.

      It is number 7 on this list.

  2. Lucas always puts thought and tremendous effort into the visuals. Camille Paglia (about whom I wrote last week) praised him for “pioneering boldness and world impact that we associate with the early masters of avant-garde modernism…No one has closed the gap between art and technology more successfully than George Lucas.” She cites the lava river duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin in “Revenge of the Sith” as an example. She was not reviewing the movie as a movie, but was specifically referring to the visual artistry: the live action for that scene was filmed a year before the fx were complete, and those fx combined digital creations, superb miniature modeling, and remarkable photography and editing.

    1. As for Empire scenes, maybe its because I was one of those weirdos who liked school but I'll go with Luke and Yoda in the swamp.

    2. I've got to agree with her on that. Lucas really put amazing amounts of effort on linking all kinds of visual effects (including the new digital ones) into "The Phantom Menace". As much as folks dislike Jar Jar, we kind of forget that he was really the very first all digitally created character with a large amount of screen time. The fact that folks dislike him so much and rarely mention how he looks is really a testament to the skill at bringing him to life and putting him on the screen with the other characters.

      That said, I think Peter Jackson and his team perfected the use of visual effects and making them all work together for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. That series still looks amazing, especially Gollum.

  3. Roman,

    Not that it was your intent at all, but your post here lays out visually and articulates all of the reasons that made this film a classic.

    Indirectly your post points to all the problems with the new film and why it is not a classic in my mind.

    The staging of the action here is superior and visually gets all of it right.

    And Roman, I loved your defense of Jar Jar, but no, that character is simply an abomination. The design of the Gungans may be fine but they were terribly conceived.

    In fact those digital creations don't compare to the care of any one creature on display in the Cantina for Star Wars (1977).

    Take care

    1. I can't speak with much authority on the action scenes in "The Force Awakens". I've only seen it the one time, but I do think the final saber battle between Rey and Kylo Ren was pretty darn good. I was certainly the most brutal looking duel we've seen since "Return of the Jedi". There was a realistic roughness to it that gave it an added element of danger. I'll give it another look when it comes out on home video, but I remember the staging being pretty interesting too.

      From my first viewing, I do agree that "The Force Awakens" may not be a classic. But in all honesty I wasn't expecting a classic. The prequels have done their job well with tempering expectations for just about every movie I see these days. That said, I think "The Force Awakens" may be a better put together film than "Return of the Jedi". I had just watched "Jedi" a couple days before "Awakens" and I have to say the flow of the narrative in Jedi is really rough. "Awakens" certainly moves better (an quicker) than that film. But I also think it may move a little too quickly.

      Jar Jar is not an abomination. Terribly conceived, yeah, that I'll give you. As you'll see in an upcoming blog post, the production design of the prequels is one of the things I like most about that series.

      And I'm going to have to call your nostalgia glasses on the Cantina creatures. I love them all too, but I have trouble defending the two werewolf looking creatures, the fact that you can see light clearly directly through the eyes of one of the masks (making it an empty headed creature) and the fact that a guy in full blown 1970s spacesuit is wandering around with his helmet on. My old video store buddy used to call him John Glen.

      I would say that the Gungans easily out perform any of those four characters in the cantina. But in the defense of the werewolves, I don't think that Mr. Lucas' digital replacements in the Special Editions are an improvement either.

      I won't defend all digital effects, but I think they can be used well and have a place in films. But a good director knows when to use what elements to get the best overall look for his film. As I mentioned, Jackson's work on Lord of the Rings is a great example, but his work on "The Hobbit", well I think he went a little... Ok a lot overboard.

      Anyways, always great to read your thoughts. Thanks for posting!