What We Talk About When We Talk About TV


I’ve written tens of thousands of words of episodic TV reviews and recaps, and I think they’ve almost all been a waste.

It took me a while to arrive at this conclusion. Years ago, probably 2005-2006, I would occasionally check out Television Without Pity, and their multi-page, highly detailed episode recaps cast such a shadow that I aped the format (as others did elsewhere) when I started writing about Lost for Pajiba. I would talk about story and mysteries and theories, but I also recapped every bit of each episode. They took hours to write, but when it came time to write up the series finale, I pulled back and talked on a broader level about storytelling, production, what we want and expect from televised narratives, and more. It was a kind of awakening: I’d wasted what had to be a total of days of my life transcribing plot details for people who’d already seen that particular episode, when I should’ve been thinking more critically about what was happening and why.

As I moved onto other shows and outlets, I worked to write reviews, not recaps: to try and find a hook within each 22- or 44-minute episode of whatever was in front of me and write critically about it. Sometimes this was possible, like when I wrote about Community or Breaking Bad. Other times, it was fruitless, like when I wrote about American Idol or Dancing With the Stars. (For reality show write-ups, I was actually tasked with being extra snarky and sarcastic and “jokey,” which quickly grew exhausting. The tone of the final products veered between self-loathing and fatigue; they’re not even usable in my mind as clips, and I don’t send them out.) But I still felt like I was wasting everyone’s time. It’s impossible to break down the meaning or importance of a fragment of a story, and writing about a highly serialized drama like Breaking Bad only got harder to do as the seasons went on. Every episodic review’s through-line must, by necessity, be one of two things:

1. “That was neat, and I have no idea where things are going”; or
2. “That was confusing, and I have no idea where things are going.”

I tried to find a way out of the problem as I wrote about “Breaking Bad,” but I couldn’t do it. Most of my reviews circled back to “Well, that was good, and it underscored the same themes that have been developing for five years now, which I’ve discussed ad nauseam, so … yeah, see you next week.” Criticism can only function when you’re able to look at a work in toto, or at the very least on a more comprehensive level than an individual episode, which is why no one writes reviews of the middle 20 minutes of a movie or the first 12 chapters of a book. Writing about a particular episode of a TV series can be a great way to illuminate the show’s themes and execution, but those discussions are only possible when you can put the episode in the context of the show itself: when you can talk about how the show got to that episode and where it went after, or why that episode was such an anomaly, etc. I think I made some good points in some of those pieces, but usually only in the ones about the season premieres and finales.

This usually holds for comedies, too, even though they’re usually less serialized. It’s incredibly easy and tempting to dig into the meatier comedies — Girls, Louie, etc. — and pull each episode apart, but you also run the risk of missing the bigger stylistic picture. Girls follows a pretty regular season-long plot structure, with each year building on the one before it, while Louie, though more fragmented, also gains power from being viewed in the aggregate. What’s more, any attempt to review a series, whether drama or comedy, based on just the pilot or first few episodes will inevitably come up short. It takes more time to get a handle on a series because they grow and change in the telling. It’s not until a season’s over that you can really look back and see what’s happened, what mattered, and the skill with which it was done.

Additionally, many series, comedy or drama, often find themselves breaking down into season-long stories within longer ones that span a series. Some shows have been incredibly direct about this: Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduced a new major villain and themes every season, while The Wire similarly moved to broader stories every year. In this way, it’s possible to perform valid criticism and analysis on the season level, even in the midst of a show’s run, because seasons are often intended to hang together as a package.

Part of the reason critics fall into the trap of blindered, weekly TV reviews has to do with the way TV disrupts the usual division between viewer and critic. A film is a single thing, and critics and regular viewers approach a film the same way: by watching it from start to finish and forming opinions about it. TV, though, spools out its story a little bit at a time, relying on weekly teases and shocks to keep viewers coming back for more. As critics, we often find ourselves defaulting to the viewer experience (ride the wave one episode at a time) when, to actually write engagingly or to properly address the show on a larger scale, we need to lean toward a more truly critical experience: examining the work as a whole, or as discrete seasonal chapters within that whole.

It makes sense, then, that it was the series finale of Lost that started pushing me in this direction. Finally, after six seasons and an almost innumerable amount of plot lines, the story proper had been brought to a close. It was possible to talk not just about that episode but about what the show was trying to do all along, and about how successfully it managed to do it. I’d spent years recapping while spinning my wheels, because there was nothing else to do. Here, though, I could actually think about the meaning of televised story and what it looked like in the specific context of this sci-fi/mystery show. It was the beginning of a more challenging but more rewarding way of doing things. When I watched True Detective earlier this year, I found myself excited at the end of each episode to see where the next one would lead. But I also didn’t want to write anything about the show before the season ended. It would’ve been too easy to jump down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and miss what turned out to be a somber, compelling story about two self-destructive obsessives coupled by fate. Similarly, when I found myself exploring The Newsroom a few years ago, specifically within the context of creator Aaron Sorkin’s broader body of work, I knew I wouldn’t be able to begin making any kind of argument without at least seeing the entire first season.

In their own way, though, those old recaps weren’t a total waste: I had to write them to realize I didn’t want to write any more of them. One of the great things about being a critic is pushing yourself to constantly check and shape your worldview, and I never would have arrived at this particular belief without walking the long road to get here. But I’ve had to turn my back on them, and assignments like them, because I don’t think they’re good for the viewer or the critic. They teach us to pay attention to everything except what matters. And I want to hold the work in my hands and try to understand it; I don’t want to tear it apart and find nothing but bloody pieces.

Books, Passages

Passages: The Pale King

From David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, posthumously published novel. The rhythms catch my breath every time:

Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Comedy, TV

Leslie Knope and the Limits of Resistance

I’ve been rewatching bits and pieces of the fifth season of Parks and Recreation recently, mostly to pass the time while I eat breakfast, but also to try and figure out exactly when and where the show changed. Broadly, the show’s defining and greatest years — the second, third, and fourth seasons, which saw Leslie Knope rise from middle management to city council, all while finding the love of her life — are about resilience. The government of Pawnee is almost never able to do all it wants to do, and many of the show’s plots revolve around Knope and her team working to find a kind of compromise that pleases as many people as possible. Indeed, the arc at the beginning of the third season, where the gang oversees the Harvest Festival as a way to boost the town’s economy, is one of the most gratifying because the characters get to do the things they’re clearly born to do.

The fifth season, though, is when the show stops being about resilience and starts being about futility. After joining the city council, Leslie is almost immediately slammed by the greed and gridlock from the other council members, and by the increasingly difficult challenges presented by obstinate members of the town. The show had previously commented on real-world political circuses (Leslie finds out she was born in Eagleton, not Pawnee, leading to comments about birth certificates and places of origin), but by this point the show starts to feel infected by a sense of weariness at the prospect of one character, even a fictional one, fighting battles that can feel all too real to viewers. Leslie’s efforts to combat STDs at a retirement home by distributing condoms is rebuffed by a hyper-Christian husband and wife who are partly afraid of sexual intimacy because the husband is closeted and abstinent. A story about a failing video store becomes a prickly satire of “bailouts” in general. Personal stories get rougher, too: Leslie’s run-ins with Eagletonians, previously played for exasperated laughs, feel crueler as Leslie is openly mocked for being from Pawnee. (Additionally, her earlier fight with an Eagleton leader, played by Parker Posey, was contextualized as being the fallout of a former friendship that had gone south; here, things are just mean for the sake of it.) Leslie and Ben travel to Ben’s hometown, where he was briefly mayor at age 18, only for the entire town to make him the centerpiece of a celebration of his incompetency. One of Leslie’s council rivals, Jamm, actually crashes her impromptu wedding and instigates a fistfight. And the season ends with Leslie inexorably losing traction with the citizens of the town she’s spent years serving, her popularity tanking while other council members remain comfortably entrenched. Half a dozen episodes into the following season, she’ll be recalled from office and returned to her old job. Years of her life, and several seasons of the show’s plot, undone in a few hard twists.

Part of this can probably be chalked up to the show’s age: it’s now aired six seasons and more than 100 episodes, with its seventh and final season (consisting of 13 episodes) arriving midway through the 2014-2015 year. That’s a lot of story to tell, and more than most shows ever even dream of telling. And part of it can be attributed to the fact that this is a highly story-driven show, with multiple interlocking arcs over multiple seasons (the Harvest Festival, Leslie’s courtship of Ben, Leslie’s run for office), each joined by smaller, overlapping arcs (friendships and relationships in the supporting cast). Installing Leslie in office is effectively the moment the show said “It is finished.” But I also think that part of it has to do with the creative staff and showrunner Michael Schur trying to make a softly political comedy in an era of seemingly limitless bitterness and division and squabbling. You want to see Leslie Knope win office? OK, they say: then you will watch her suffer for her dreams. You want to see Ben become the prodigal son? You will watch him be laughed right back out of town. There’s a sadness, a sourness, to much of the fifth and sixth seasons. Leslie’s defeat and return feel like Schur’s own admission of his flagging spirit. In the sixth season finale, Leslie is given a dream job at the federal level and the show itself jumps forward by three years. It almost feels like it was meant to be a series finale in the event the show wasn’t renewed: Leslie riding off into the sunset, energized and recharged once more, crusading the way she’s always done. It’s the kind of Hail Mary that usually signifies an admission that everybody was out of ideas or just tired of the world they’d built, but it wasn’t jarring for the way it skipped through time: rather, it was for the way it attempted to inject a sense of optimism and wonder into a narrative world that had almost forgotten what that looked like. After years in the trenches, it was a surprise to see the sun.


Scattered Thoughts on The Paper Chase


I recently rewatched The Paper Chase, currently streaming on Netflix. This is one of the many movies my dad recommended to me when I was in my teens and starting to get interested in older and different types of movies, so it’s one I tend to associate pretty strongly with him. (When I imagine my dad in college, the image is partly informed by Timothy Bottoms in a mustache and corduroy.) Most of dad’s recommendations were from the 1970s, especially the middle of the decade, which makes sense now: he was then in his early 20s and paying attention to pop culture in a way he wouldn’t when he started a family. Among his other recommendations when I was young: The Conversation, The Sting, both Godfather movies, All the President’s Men, The French Connection.

The Paper Chase is still pretty good, and it holds up more than 40 years later thanks to the dynamic between Hart (Bottoms) and Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman). It’s a little loose around the edges, and it paradoxically feels a little less structured even as it works toward the final exam that provides the story’s main goal. But this kind of looseness also makes for a nice parallel with the inner lives of the students in the movie, who start out so bright and sharp and slowly lose their way as the first year of law school makes dull tools of them all. The relationship subplot between Hart and Susan (Lindsay Wagner), Kingsfield’s daughter, which seemed so impenetrable and adult the first time I saw the film, now feels thin and one-sided. Wagner gives a few great moments that provide some sad depth to her character, but the story doesn’t quite know what to do with her, and the film is weirdly silent on Hart’s apparent inability to recognize the perverse, possessive thrill he gets from intimately knowing the offspring of the teacher he will never figure out. To writer-director James Bridges’ credit, though, Hart’s pretty clearly a dick for most of his interactions with Susan, and he pays for it. He’s not made out as a hero or anything.

It’s a solid movie, though, with some good performances and a good story. It’s shot by Gordon Willis, so there are some gorgeous compositions you might not expect, from the dim, cool look of Hart’s room to the nice positioning and sizing of Hart and Kingsfield throughout the film as their relationship changes. (The score’s also vintage mid-1970s adult-contemporary, which is probably the most dated thing about it.) Definitely worth revisiting.


Scattered Thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier


• Captain America: The Winter Soldier is barely a movie as we understand them. It doesn’t stand on its own in any way, and it ignores basic storytelling and entertainment ideas so it can focus on brand management and delayed gratification.

• Like most sequels, the problem here is with bloat. There are actually two fully formed plot ideas competing for space here: 1) the spread of double-agents within S.H.I.E.L.D., the government-run force for good; and 2) the assassin known only as the Winter Soldier, his actions and history, and how his identity and destiny are tied to Captain America. Either one of those would be a totally workable story and give filmmakers and the audience plenty to explore and enjoy for two hours. Yet instead they’re jammed together haphazardly, the cracks pasted up with bad dialogue and cheap, half-hearted nods to what in another, better film would be storytelling.

• There are some laughable jumps in the plot, too. At one point, a supporting character offers to help Captain America, only to do so he’ll need to break into Fort Meade to steal back the special jetpack he used when he was in the armed services. In the very next scene, he has the jetpack. No fuss at all. Apparently, his attempt to infiltrate an Army base was completely successful, and none of the characters need to worry about the Army coming after them for having stolen advanced weapons tech. This is just the kind of braindead plot jump that we get in superhero and Marvel movies. But the real question is: if you’re going to make it so easy for the guy to get the jetpack, why make it sound so hard to get in the first place? The answer: to create false drama and trick the audience into thinking they’re seeing something happen, when in reality they’re being offered a disconnected series of events and told it’s a story.

• Most of the action is needless and gratuitous. Those are two different things, too. Needless action is that which can be removed without affecting the plot of the film. Action scenes can be handled any number of ways, but they all exist to serve the story. Things have to be different when they’re over. Random example: at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, the Empire invades the Rebel base, prompting a series of dogfights between small fighters and massive tank-like walkers. If you cut out that action scene, and simply went from the Rebels walking around their base to everyone scattered around the galaxy, the story would have an obvious hole in it. The action scene is what tells you that part of the story. In The Winter Soldier, most action scenes, chases, and fights exist not to advance the story but simply to fill time. Nothing changes when they’re over.

• The action’s gratuitous aspect comes into play when you start to realize how many people are shot and killed on screen, albeit with a curious amount of blood or actual physical carnage. The death toll here is unsettling. There are the scenes of mass destruction and mayhem that have become standard in CG-driven action films, and there are also plenty of people shot, killed, and crushed up close. This winds up being perversely more horrifying and more desensitizing at the same time: you’re numbed to the carnage even as each death feels more gruesome and ugly.

• There is no happiness or engagement or interest to be found here. Instead, watching the movie is taken on as some kind of cultural duty. The idea is to stay up to date with Marvel’s increasingly complex and arcane cinematic universe, not to have a good time doing it.

• Every studio is out to make money, and most of them want to find nice franchises, too. But what’s so weird about the Marvel movies is that they don’t feel interesting or enjoyable to watch. They aren’t about giving you a good time in the moment. They’re about teasing you along and telling you that all will be revealed in the next film, or the one after that, and that’s when things will really get good, we promise. But it’s just an endless tease. I wrote about this a couple years ago when The Avengers came out, and I’m not the only critic to feel weighed down and exhausted by all this, either. Marvel films, more and more, don’t even try to give you a good time in the moment. They merely promise a bigger bang down the road, trot out characters that only fans of the comics will know and understand, then cap everything with a couple of obscure teases.

• To that end, then, Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t just a bad movie with too many plots and not enough brains. It’s not even meant to be a movie, period. It’s just filler content. It’s random bits of dialogue and exposition meant to string viewers along until the next Avengers movie, or the next superhero team-up, or whatever’s happening on the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. It’s flat, unengaging, uninspired, and pointless. You don’t even have to watch it to know that nothing happens.

Film, Veronica Mars

Scattered Thoughts on Veronica Mars


I watched the Veronica Mars movie last night. It’s cute and fun and has some good jokes, though it’s best viewed as the most expensive piece of fanfic ever made. I was a big fan of the series when it aired, but I haven’t seen any of the TV episodes since the show was cancelled in 2007, so I was lost when it came to certain references or characters or in-jokes. There wasn’t really an attempt to make a movie that could even halfway stand on its own, and I have to chalk that up to the fact that the project was partially bankrolled by Kickstarter backers. Director and co-writer Rob Thomas wasn’t out to do anything other than create a kind of greatest-hits montage for the super fans that gave the series’ characters one last curtain call.

I found myself thinking of Joss Whedon’s Serenity while watching Veronica Mars. Whedon’s movie was also a continuation of a cancelled TV series (Firefly), and it was also heavily dependent on viewers having seen the original show beforehand. But Serenity also attempted to function as a cohesive film and, if not stand apart from the series, at least establish its own identity. Whedon’s movie opens with a nested series of adventures and flashbacks that provide context for the story, and the central narrative (one big chase) works on its own. You occasionally get the sense that things mentioned in the movie are fleshed out in the series, but it mostly hangs together. Thomas’s Veronica Mars, though, is on the other end of the spectrum. It would be impossible to enjoy it without watching every episode of the show, preferably right before watching the movie. It’s like a glossy and truncated version of the fourth season that Veronica Mars the TV show never got.

(Minor spoilers ahead.)

That feeling of fan service and instability also made for some weird character moments. Veronica hasn’t been back to her home town in almost a decade, having moved on to a new life and relationship with a guy she met in college. But once she gets back home, she realizes she still kind of has feelings for her old high school flame, and she sticks around to help him out, eventually breaking up with her boyfriend, sleeping with her old one, and solving the case of the day. This feels like something Thomas felt he had to do — reunite two characters who used to date — rather than anything that made sense in the story. Veronica’s new relationship seems to be going fine: she and her boyfriend have chemistry and energy, and his parents are flying in to meet her. She experiences no remorse or conflict about breaking up with him, and she beds the old flame pretty quickly. She doesn’t even look back. This is the behavior of a liar or sociopath, and in any other movie people would say “Wait, what?” But because this whole project is pitched as fan service, it’s like we’re not supposed to wonder how point A leads to point B. We’re just supposed to cheer that these people are walking and talking again. I get the enthusiasm — like I said, I was a fan of the show, and its first two seasons are very good — but the film often feels like a cheap trick. The series itself ended on a cliffhanger, as Thomas and company fought and ultimately failed to keep the show alive. But seeing how they’ve updated things, I almost wish the film hadn’t been made. The unanswered mystery was so much more promising.


Not This Crude Matter


(A few years ago, I wrote about The Empire Strikes Back. Today, May 21, is the 34th anniversary of the film’s original theatrical release, so I’ve decided to repost the essay. I’m reconstructing it here and not simply linking to the old post because, for whatever reason, the images won’t load properly on the other site, and a lot of what I talk about deals with the film’s visuals. Nothing online lasts forever, I guess.)


Gaining any kind of distance on George Lucas’ sprawling Star Wars film universe is no easy task; the series kicked off in 1977 and broke ground in the arena of pop genre movies and pretty much defined the modern blockbuster, and the plots and quotes are so deeply carved into the collective subconscious of moviegoers that it’s easy to forget there was a time when kids didn’t know what a Jedi was. (If in the course of this retrospective I don’t enumerate certain plot points well enough or find myself skating over others, I can only ask forgiveness for being so caught up in a genuinely beautiful film that I forgot to heed my own warning.) And though that kind of ubiquity is in many ways a testament to the films’ sticking power, it also makes it easier to overlook just what really happens in the films, and how. The absolute best of the lot is 1980′s The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the original trilogy, and as is often the case with the works of art that matter most, its existence and effect are matters of layered dichotomies. It’s not just its place in pop culture history, its achievements within its genre, its technical breakthroughs, or its stylistic marvels. It’s one of those handful of films that managed to put the lightning back in the bottle and become something greater than its first chapter could possibly have hinted at or imagined. Namely: It’s a sequel that bests its forerunner yet wouldn’t be possible without it, and it’s a visual revelation that nevertheless places a premium on character and story.

The best sequels are the ones that deepen the stories set forth by their predecessors, taking an already powerful tale and giving it newfound weight. In fact, the whole reason sequels are generally derided in the first place is not (just) a reaction to what’s usually a bald-faced attempt to cash in on a built-in market by churning out an ancillary story; it’s because deep down we know that the new film will in all likelihood not live up to the original, and that those characters and moments that became part of our cinematic history will have to suffer through something almost apocryphal in the way it dares the viewer to forget it and focus only on the older story. That’s why films that come to be universally regarded as good sequels — The Godfather: Part II being right up there, for instance — are so adored. They managed to stumble once again upon the glory of their own origins while taking the story to new heights; they did the impossible.

Everything about The Empire Strikes Back feeds into those ideas of challenge and loss, and the sense that nothing in life will ever turn out quite like you’d hoped. From the very first frame, it strives to recreate the authenticity of the first film while simultaneously shattering any expectations that things will be the same. After delivering a seemingly fatal blow to the evil Galactic Empire at the end of the previous movie, the ragged band of rebels have fled to the frozen ice planet Hoth, whose wintry climate isn’t just a reversal from the desert location that opened the previous film but also an intentional tonal shift into something cold, blistering, and uncompromising. The main characters are all still around — Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the hotshot pilot destined to lead the Rebellion; Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the arrogant smuggler turned mercenary; and Leia (Carrie Fisher), a princess whose home world was destroyed — but there’s a sense of disconnection between them and the world around them. It’s not that the characters aren’t as tightly bonded as before; it’s that they’ve had to move on from the afterglow of an apparent victory and once more take up arms against a swelling enemy. There’s an undertone of defeat to the Rebels’ decision to keep fighting, and that sense of weariness adds fantastic depth and resonance to the story, turning the characters into actual people who can tire, suffer, and be wounded.

The film’s first major action set piece is a battle on the ground of the ice planet between the Rebels, who are fighting even as they evacuate with plans to meet up at an established rendezvous point, and the oncoming Imperial forces, who have bolstered their army since the last go-round. The sequence is an impressive one considering the budget and technological restraints on genre filmmakers in the late 1970s, tightly edited by Paul Hirsch (with uncredited assists from George Lucas and then-wife Marcia) and propelled by John Williams’ influential symphonic score. But it’s also the film’s opportunity to begin to show the influence of screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. Brackett, a career sci-fi author, also wrote the scripts for a number of Howard Hawks’ Westerns, including Rio Bravo and El Dorado, and the script she turned into Lucas is a genuine space opera that mixes the sensibilities of both genres. After her death in March 1978, Lucas enlisted Kasdan to revise and finish the script. Kasdan would go on to write, among others, Raiders of the Lost Ark from a story by Lucas, but The Empire Strikes Back was his first screenplay, and it already showed the energy, buoyancy, and commitment to character that would define his best work. When Kasdan did Silverado a few years later, it was almost like he’d circled back to the story Brackett had begun.

The point is that the Hoth sequences that open the film aren’t just skillfully written or paced but that they demonstrate a classic economy of scenes and locations rarely seen in modern mainstream films. The first act of the film plays out on Hoth over the course of just a couple of days before Han and Leia take off in his ship, the Milennium Falcon, to evade the pursuing Empire while Luke travels to the planet Dagobah to be trained as a Jedi by an old master named Yoda. The lengthier second act cuts between these two settings — Luke on Dagobah, Han and Leia aboard the Falcon — before reuniting the storylines when Han and Leia eventually journey to the planet Bespin. Luke also travels there when he feels his friends are in danger, and it’s on Bespin that the film ends, with the capture and imprisonment of Han Solo and a gloomy, harrowing duel between Luke and Darth Vader, the dark lord second only to the Emperor. That’s it. Four principal locations: Hoth, Dagobah, the respective decks of the Falcon and enemy ships, and Bespin. The screenwriters have crafted a legitimate Western chase movie and set it in the stars, and the simplicity of the narration allows for a more direct and emotionally powerful film than one that shuttled between dozens of seemingly impressive planets or locations. It lets the story come shining through.

Those scenes with Luke and Yoda — a puppet brought to convincing life by technician Frank Oz — underscore the theme of change that dominates the film and that would eventually be subdued by 1983′s Return of the Jedi, which traded Luke’s introspective complexity for a flatly drawn savior. The power of The Empire Strikes Back is that it raises the stakes for Luke (and the others) by showing him just how far he has to go to begin being able to fight against the enemy that will never stop hunting him. What’s more, it takes a character who was narratively worshipped in the first film and puts him in stark isolation away from his friends, forcing him to grow up on his own as he struggles to control the Force, the unseen energy that binds all living things. Yoda warns that this is a “dangerous” time for Luke because it’s when he’ll be most tempted by the dark side of the Force, and the story forces Luke to deal with the choice between the quick and the good. Perhaps the best character moment for Luke is when he discerns that Han and Leia are in danger and worries with whether he can intervene in time to save them. Yoda counsels him: “If you leave now, help them you could. But you would destroy all for which they have fought and suffered.” This is the true meaning of tragedy: When attaining what you most desire leads to its very destruction.

Additionally, creator George Lucas’ world, so pristine in the 1977 film, has become grimy and lived-in for the second installment. Part of that can be attributed to a tonal shift in science-fiction spearheaded by Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979, but it’s largely the work of gifted cinematographer Peter Suschitzky under the direction of Irvin Kershner. The film is gorgeously lit and beautifully shot, a triumphant and genuine work of art whose composition shatters that of every other film in Lucas’ franchise. Suschitzky is probably best known for his collaborations with director David Cronenberg, who started using the d.p. on 1988′s Dead Ringers and has relied on him since. Suschitsky’s camera work and staging are immaculate, using oblique angles and lovingly adorning every inch of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio with bold dashes of light and shadow. The original Star Wars, shot by Gilbert Taylor, had a much flatter look that relied too much on bright, cheap lights, and though part of that can be chalked up to the fact that Lucas was working on a shoestring budget with the first film, it still gives the first chapter the feeling of something ultimately amateurish, no matter how polished the final product. But Suschitsky and Kershner’s work was infinitely more visually complex, utilizing depth of field in a way that radically matured the fictional universe and made it more cinematically compelling and visually stimulating. The bold lighting choices, with characters often lit sparsely from beneath, also highlighted the emotional upheaval and change present in the story, serving as subtle cues that things will quite literally be turned upside-down for the characters. Suschitzky loads the film with amazing compositions:




Suschitsky relies heavily on blues and whites to emphasize the coolness (temperature-wise) of space and its environs, and he turns the main deck of the Falcon from a basic set to a living, breathing thing, pulsing with energy and heat. But it’s his compositions in the film’s third-act confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, and the sad fate of Han Solo, that truly set the film apart from the rest of the series. He mixes blues and oranges to dazzling effect, tossing in elegant strokes of green and white to create something altogether breathtaking:





That epic confrontation between Luke and Vader contains no music until the very end, focusing solely on the intensity of the sequence and the dazzling sound design. The silence of some of those moments, and the abject failure of Luke’s attempt to defeat Vader, drive home the film’s lesson: Sometimes you have to fight your battles alone, and sometimes you will lose. Big. However, the absence of music in certain scenes also serves as a reminder of just how good composer John Williams’ score is for the entire film. This is the entry in the Star Wars series where Williams introduced the Imperial March, the piece of music perhaps most easily identifiable from and closely linked to the films outside the opening fanfare. The march is a stirring and iconic theme, and it’s no coincidence that it’s the calling card for the bad guys. However, Williams’ real stunner is the suite “Han Solo and the Princess,” which is woven throughout the movie as Han and Leia spend more time together and eventually realize they’re in love. It’s put to heartbreaking use at one of the darkest moments of the film, when Han and the rest are captured by Vader’s forces and Han is frozen in a stasis-inducing chemical before being turned over to a bounty hunter. He kisses her as he’s pulled away, the music swelling beneath them in a moment of bliss and loss. The suite is romantic and lush but never quite resolves, always landing somewhere minor or discordant; like the film itself, it’s propulsive but dark, resonant but unresting.

It’s difficult — almost impossible — to imagine modern mainstream film without the influence of Lucas’ original Star Wars, but it’s The Empire Strikes Back that’s really the keeper. Its existence is impossible without the first film, but it’s infinitely superior to its predecessor in every way: The story is more willing to take emotional and physical risks with the characters, and to wonder what it means to keep fighting when defeat is all but guaranteed. It’s a solid sci-fi action movie, a tale of doomed romance, and a coming-of-age story all in one. It’s a neo noir that bravely takes its narrative into dark and foreboding territory unmatched by its bookends and not even remotely copied by Lucas’ prequel trilogy two decades later, which boasted more special effects than anyone could have dreamed of in 1980 but never recaptured the fidelity of character and genuine heart of the earlier stories. The Empire Strikes Back is a dark tale of bruised heroes, a genre story of defiance in the face of death and of the bittersweet union of love and death. It’s a stunning sequel because it manages to recreate the splendor of its source, but it’s a magnificent movie because of what it achieves all on its own.