Eric: Nick, it’s been two weeks now since our chat about the first Star Wars radio drama and, of course, since the release of The Force Awakens. Readers should know that there we will be talking about our impressions of the new movie, with no particular qualms about spoilers. Because, if you haven’t seen TFA yet, I’m quite frankly surprised you were interested enough to click on the link to this review.
Let’s actually start there—talking about the movie. Now obviously we don’t want to dominate this article with a conversation about the movie, but Nick—just briefly—are you a changed man? Is this what you were expecting?
Nick: I was not disappointed. That’s what I told all of my colleagues after seeing a Thursday night showing. I have never been so relieved a movie was not terrible. And, while not perfect, the broad strokes were everything I hoped for.
I’ve since seen it a few more times and it holds up. After the second showing I realized I’m going to be watching this with my kids some day. And I won’t have to be ashamed or make excuses like we have to do with the prequels.
And I’m very encouraged by JJ Abrams walking away from directing for Episode 8. The big knock on this movie was lack of originality, and while I think he did a fantastic job, the next film needs to feel much more fresh and new
Eric: I was impressed as well. And while I mourn that the Disney assets probably aren’t going to be released for another run of radio dramas, there was a hell of a lot to love.
Nick: Again, we could go on, but I haven’t been so pleased with a strong female lead in a sci-fi/fantasy movie in a long time.
Eric: There are thousands of places that dive in to all of the great stuff that was happening in seeing characters like Rey and Finn in such a massive blockbuster, so I suppose we should burn to much daylight on the subject. But, likewise, I was pleased.
Not revolutionary of course, I don’t want to oversell a strong female lead with no obvious love interest as progressive, but it did feel sort of _watershed_ in a way to see that kind of thing in the biggest movie of this decade, particularly of this genre, when the entirety of the original trilogy fails the Bechdel. And to Finn, it is hard to point to many blockbusters in which the lead male character is a black man whose defining trait is his sense of “because it is The Right Thing to Do”
On your note about seeing it with your kids, that part of the film was particularly heartening. And, to be honest, something that probably didn’t have to be there for the film to be successful and well-remembered. Again, I don’t want to oversell it as massively forward-thinking or anything, but those tiny incremental steps in mainstream cultural items is a big deal
Nick: I totally agree. They focused on developing real and strong characters, sometimes at the expense of the overall plot, but the most important piece of this movie was the new set of leads, and those were handled masterfully. Again, I think the next film needs to show a stark tonal shift with a much more original take on the actual plot that is driving the narrative forward, but we’re well set up for a fantastic sequel. I’m excited.
Eric: Really. It was delightful. Okay, let’s talk about some audio. I think starting where we did last time on the strengths worked well, so let’s go ahead and start there again.
Nick: I think the supporting voice actors improved this time around. It may be a symptom of a more varied cast and set of locations, but the Imperial officers and the members of the Rebel alliance all sounded much better than our friends back on Tatooine.
Eric: I agree, no question about that. And I don’t know if it was a product of feedback or the product of the new film with a new setting, but Leia felt like a whole new woman. Stronger, capable, in charge of things, much more like I envisioned her, rather than the damsel under threat of bad marriage.
Nick: Yes on the whole she improved tremendously.
Eric: Han, on the other hand, felt a bitter flatter, except in his scenes with Luke. But that also might be the fault of The Empire Strikes Back love plot.
Nick: Yeah it’s as if they needed to keep their overall talent level at some ceiling. His delivery was strange; most lines sounded like they were being delivered in a bedroom scene from an amateur play or something.
Eric: Yoda… uh, I know my view is colored by being a kid growing up with Sage, Composed, Hero Yoda as my first exposure (from the New Trilogy), but he felt _way_ crazier that I remember him in the film. That could be a bad memory on my part, or a directorial choice, or some voice acting quirk, but I don’t know that I really liked the direction. It felt hard for me to believe that he wins over Luke’s trust.
Nick: So, there’s a very big difference in Yoda before Luke knows he’s Yoda, and after. And this is slightly less pronounced in the movie, just because there’s a little less time with them interacting before the reveal. Yoda intentionally acts crazy and annoying to test Luke. However, I think the voice acting was a little stranger than I expected for this part.
I admit, I was a little concerned when I first heard Yoda speak. I just held out hope he would get better once he switched into normal speaking. Because Yoda legitimately gives the most comprehensive speeches about what The Force actually is. His dialogues with Luke shape the fundamental component to the entire Star Wars universe.
It’s part of why Empire is usually considered the best of the movies.
Eric: Right, the lines that differentiate the Force and magical nonsense that can do anything.
Nick: Exactly. His descriptions of the Force are what separate a believable mystical power from Space Balls.
Eric: So were you satisfied with the rendition of those speeches here? With Yoda’s transition?
Nick: It was good but not great. I came away with a much stronger appreciation for Frank Oz’s line delivery in the film. But overall, it was good enough. And in audio, you aren’t distracted by him looking like a weird green puppet.
Eric: Part of me missed the green puppet, but I definitely take your point. Let’s talk a bit about the plot and additional material here. This was about an hour shorter than episode IV, and while I was excited to have the drama a bit tighter, I think what was lost for me was part of what I enjoyed most about the last film: the extra backstory. We learned so much about Luke and where he came from, and bits about Leia and the Empire as well. As a fan, that was great.
This felt far less like a story in new art form, and way more like, I don’t know… an adaptation? The bits that were extra, or additional rather, were around the Empire’s internal politics (who Vader likes and doesn’t, who released the probe) and—inexplicably for me—Luke’s budding bromance with the surgical droid 2-1B.
And that all was fine, but it wasn’t revelatory in the same expository way that I felt it was with Luke.
Nick: I agree that overall there was much less material added, but I enjoyed part of it, the opening scene. We get to see how dire the situation is for the rebels. The Empire’s power is not exactly understood at the end of Episode 4. But they destroy an entire rebel convoy with ease. And we learn that if the rebels don’t make it out of Hoth, it’s basically game over
The scenes with the Empires internal politics are really just reiterating what we are able to see on screen, and they kind of beat a dead horse later [when Vader force chokes someone]: Admiral Ozzel is incompetent. Vader hates incompetence. Bad news for Admiral Ozzel. We get it, Vader is not merciful if you fail him twice. But we already new this side of him.
The Luke-Han dynamic is changed a little bit, too. They seem much more competitive, especially about Leia.
Eric: I did see some paternal, or at least fraternal, side here too though.
Nick: Han saving Luke definitely reflects that. And we really get to see more of the danger he puts himself in to save Luke. It starts to wear down the Han Solo smuggler that only looks out for himself image a little earlier.
Eric: I’m thinking particular of the compassion in the moments of the rescue on Hoth. Because you can’t see the violence when Han kills his mount to warm Luke inside of its carcass, the true affection in the lines have a lot of weight, without the same mercenary counter balance.
Nick: And maybe that’s why Han is so hurt when he sees Leia choose Luke. He cares about Luke maybe even more than her, or anyone except maybe Chewie.
Eric: Right, that’s a good point.
How did you feel about the pinnacle scene—the confrontation between Vader and Luke in Cloud City?
Nick: The loss of the visuals from that scene hurt it more than I expected. And compressing the confrontation—in the film there is a little more cutting between that scene and the escape by the others—removes a little bit of the suspense and tension.
Eric: It was interesting hearing Luke describe his decision to jump from the bridge, rather than succumb to his father. As I recall in the film we don’t get that internal exposition. That is to say, the jump/fall moment is left ambiguous.
Nick: Yes, he really thinks he will likely die. And that’s more powerful. The strongest theme of this film, and maybe even Star Wars, is confronting fear. And Luke shows how he has conquered his fear of Vader, without turning to the dark side, a little more visibly in this version.
Which I enjoyed. The flip side, is that the radio drama version of Darth Vader is much less frightening.
Eric: True, but — and I think it is important to say — less laughable than in the previous iteration
Nick: Oh, yes. I actually forgot about that even being an issue this time around, which is a great sign.
Eric: One of the most striking parts of this episode for me, was how differently it related to its counter-part film. We talked at length about the incredible score (which, as far as I am concerned, is equally strong here) and the impeccable sound design, which with some of the mixing and, to speak generally, layering of noise here was just beautiful; I’m thinking particular of the Luke/Vader lightsaber fight.
But “The New Hope” (yes, the radio drama really uses the definite article for some reason) didn’t really need the visuals to convey its most important moments in a way that, it seems, The Empire Strikes Back did. And while maybe it could have been done through sound alone, I think ultimately the adaptation fell short. I’m thinking most particularly of the moment when luck as been imprisoned on Hoth by the giant ice beast, when he uses the force to summon his lightsaber from the snow so he can cut himself free. The saber wiggling, wiggling, and finally coming free is a great cinematic moment, and having him narrate it just didn’t work in the same way.
Nick: Yes, that’s true, but overall I think the story still works well, mainly because the script is so strong. But yes, as an adaptation, it doesn’t succeed as much the last time out, because other than the Vader scene, and the Battle of Hoth, I think the audio portions of Empire are most important.
Eric: That seems right to me. I think, as far as my recommendation, I would say—short of a cross-country drive—it might be okay to stick to just the first adaptation. But if you do have four hours to kill, you could do much worse than this. Particularly if Star Wars is your thing. It doesn’t slouch as far as providing the things fans love from the franchise.
Nick: Yes, and even you Star Wars fans may want to figure out a way to just use the audio from the film—just so Frank Oz and James Earl Jones stick around.
Eric: Any parting thoughts?
Nick: Even more than last time around, this adaptation made me appreciate new elements from the film more than I did before. The visuals from the Cloud City Luke-Vader confrontation, in particular. As well as Frank Oz as Yoda, like I said before.
Eric: I’m still up for the next one if you are.
Nick: I’m definitely game to round out the Trilogy, but I fear Jedi may be the worst adaptation of the three, as it is in my mind the most visual heavy…
Eric: I suppose we shall see! Until next time.
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