Over the weekend I caught some of The Empire Strikes Back on television. It was chopped apart with commercials and heavily edited and I turned it on about halfway through and yet it still managed to suck me in. I’ve seen it at least a billion times and I’m always amazed.
As for the other movies in the series? Well A New Hope is a classic as well and Return of the Jedi certainly provides enough fun and adventure to be enjoyable. And that’s all I’m going to say about that because I try my hardest to pretend like the other movies never happened. Though they do sneak in at the end here.
Empire, though, is just magic. You have the battle on the ice planet Hoth, you have Yoda’s unique brand of instruction, you have Han and Leia’s utterly bent love story. It has everything, perfectly balanced, with nothing overplayed or left on the burner too long.
And, on this my one billion and first viewing, I was surprised to discover that this whole movie is set in motion by the simplest of plot points. A broken engine.
The Millenium Falcon (could you imagine naming your car something like that and not getting the crap kicked out of you? “Yeah this is my car, The Infinite Eagle.” “That’s a Honda.” “Yeah but I painted Infinite Eagle on the side so now we’re calling it that.”) can not make the jump to hyperspace. And this lack of a functional engine drives everything. As soon as everyone leaves Hoth the movie splits into two stories with Luke and Yoda on one track and and Han and his crew on the other just trying to stay alive. We move from asteroids to Imperial Cruisers to cloud cities and all of this happens because Han and Chewie can’t get the hyperdrive on the Falcon working again. To be more precise, they can’t get it working again after Chewie, presumably because he was bored, decided to dismantle it while they were hanging around on Hoth to begin with.
My point here is simple. I admire the script of Empire for it’s ability to take a really, really, mundane plot point, the inability to fix an engine, and use it to orchestrate an entire movie. If the engine works in the beginning then Han gets Leia to safety before moving on to pay off Jabba all the while staying happily out of the clutches of Darth Vader. The same can be said for every other subsequent attempt to jump to hyperspace (I think there are three or four more failed attempts). If the engine is fixed, if they happen to have the right spare parts, if Chewie can cross-hypobulate the shmander rod or whatever, they escape. And if they escape Vader never gets to put his plans for them into motion. No interaction with Vader, no pain and suffering. And if they stay away from the pain and suffering Luke, sweating away at Degobah U, never had reason to worry about them and never reaches his main crisis in the movie which is whether or not to continue on with his Jedi training or rush off half-baked to try to save his friends. And without a half-baked and half-informed Luke rushing off to confront Vader we would miss out on probably the greatest movie moment of my childhood and Luke would keep possession of both his hands.
I mean seriously, how boring would it have been if the Falcon was carrying the proper spare parts?
All of this comes about because of a broken engine, something so deceptively simple that we never question it for a moment. Hell, why wouldn’t you do some repairs or upgrades on your ship while you’re stuck at Hoth? For that matter when Han first yells at Chewie to stop futzing with the Falcon and put her back together, before any of this starts to unravel, it seems like a nice little bit of comic relief.
A lot of times when I’m trying to steer a story in a particular direction, or I’m trying to build up to what, in my mind, is a large scene, the impulse is to use huge brush strokes, large plot points, big hairy important things because otherwise I might lose the impact of my big hairy important scene and not get through to my readers. This is, almost always, a massive mistake. Oftentimes the simple little plot point is the most effective. Partly because it sneaks up on the viewer/reader, and partly because it’s so much more accessible. A giant speech from one of the characters to provide motivation for their actions could never carry as much weight as the instantly accessible, “Something’s wrong with the engine.”
Of course, with the addition of the numerous plot holes that the prequel/trainwrecks add it could be argued that Chewie is the ultimate rebel spy and the only one who actually knows what is going on, that he is completely rogue at this point in the story, and that he quite possibly orchestrated the entire thing.
Not to mention the fact that either the Falcon spends weeks and weeks dodging those asteroids or Luke’s Jedi training takes all of six hours.
But we’re not going to go into that here.