October 6, 2012

The Haunted House in the Clouds

by Mark Paglia

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - dir. Irvin Kershner

The Empire Strikes Back is filled from beginning to end with monsters ready to leap out at us. A routine tauntaun patrol ends with a mauling by a wampa. The sanctuary of an asteroid cave turns out to be a hungry space slug. Landing on a swamp planet to find a Jedi master gets your trusty R2 unit immediately swallowed and spat up by who knows what creature lurking beneath the water’s surface. And the hollow under some trees on said planet…well, there’s a reason Yoda says you’ll be scared if you enter. But none of these incidents match the extended haunted-house sequence that is Cloud City.

Cloud City is by far the nicest-looking place we see in the original Star Wars trilogy. The usual aesthetic of dark, worn industrial backgrounds gives way to shining white buildings full of windows. It’s jarring how bright the interiors are compared to the rest of the sets, which makes it all the more disturbing when we see the city’s underside.

Like C-3PO’s appearance and Luke’s mechanical right hand, Cloud City echoes elements of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. On top is a clean, pleasant city, and below is the industrial dungeon that allows the luxurious upper part to function. The undercity of Metropolis may have its demonic hallucinations and non-OSHA-approved labor practices, but the lower levels of Cloud City are downright creepy. They have the familiar industrial aesthetic of much of the Star Wars universe, but are darker and more cluttered and often blanketed in a mysterious fog.

Our introduction to this realm comes as the ever-hapless C-3PO wanders away from the others as soon as they enter the city. A doorway opens and he sees his own doppelganger, who speaks unintelligibly before leaving. (Admittedly, doppelgangers must be less disconcerting to mass-produced droids, but we in the audience still feel the uncanny effect.) Once C-3PO is through the doorway, an inhuman voice barks out, “Who are you?” and then our favorite protocol droid is blown to pieces. This disturbing welcome is followed by Chewbacca retrieving C-3PO’s parts in one of the harsh industrial areas while a bunch of gremlins (er, Ugnaughts) play keep-away with his head. It’s the macabre played for laughs.

What other horrors does Cloud City have in store? How about walking into a banquet hall for a fancy dinner and finding Darth Vader sitting at the head of the table? It’s the weirdest scene in all of Star Wars: an elegant all-white room with this pitch-black figure in the middle of it. A pitch-black figure who blocks laser blasts with his freakin’ hand and then invites you to sit down. As is the case with many fine villains, Vader’s utter calmness makes him so much more sinister.

So then we get some torture, some freezing Han Solo alive (a scheme worthy of any 1950s mad scientist), and then it’s time for the terrifying climax in which Luke fights Vader. The movie has set this fight up carefully: we’ve seen Luke’s training, we’ve seen the room in which they will duel, we’ve seen the trap that Luke will have to escape. He escapes and fights Vader to a draw, and then…end of movie, right?

Oh, most certainly not. Luke follows Vader and the movie takes a hard turn into horror territory. The carbonite-freezing room was eerie with its fog and red lighting and skeletal metal structures, but we as the audience were already familiar with it. When Luke follows Vader, we join him in disorientation. Mark Hamill’s body language demonstrates perfectly how lost he is in this new space full of corridors and uneven lighting. Luke and Vader resume their duel, but this time Vader simultaneously flings heavy metal objects at Luke and eventually lowers his lightsaber as if to indicate that he’s barely even trying. This is the great unspoken horror of the scene: Luke didn’t match Vader earlier—Vader let him win to lure him in past the point of no return. Luke can’t possibly hope to win. He should have left the carbonite-freezing room and met up with his friends; instead he thought he could defeat the monster inhabiting the haunted house, and soon regrets that decision.

The scene ends with a flurry of horror-movie images. Luke is sucked out of a window and winds up hanging over a bottomless pit. He climbs back into a corridor, and this time Vader leaps out from nowhere (unlike previous instances where his breathing always gave him away first) swinging his lightsaber with all the manic energy of an axe-murderer. Then the behanding, then the revelation of paternity (quite a bit of heavy psychological horror) and Luke’s realization that suicide is the only way out of the haunted house. Except that he improbably survives. But then the ground beneath his feet literally disappears and he’s left dangling upside down from a glorified TV aerial with nothing below except a vertiginous drop to the surface of a gas giant. What could possibly be more acrophobia-inducing?

The Empire Strikes Back is frequently described as being “darker” than the rest of the Star Wars movies. This is in part because of the downer ending: Han frozen and Luke losing a hand. But the darkness of the movie extends far beyond those two plot points. The film is dark because in it every shadow hides a monster and the most hospitable houses turn out to be haunted.

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