Audiobook Review: “The Empire Strikes Back” Seen “From a Certain Point of View”

Audiobook Review: “The Empire Strikes Back” Seen “From a Certain Point of View”

If I had to pick a specific date when I officially became a Star Wars fan, it would be forty years ago this month: December 25, 1980. I was five years old, and one of my Christmas gifts from Santa was a selection of action figures. Combining my memory with research in archival Sears Wish Books, I’m thinking it was probably the four-pack including Darth Vader, Boba Fett, IG-88, and Bossk.

Until then, my focus had been firmly on Lego (and there wouldn’t be licensed Star Wars Legos until The Phantom Menace); playing with those figures on the landing of our St. Paul staircase, I thought, “These are pretty cool. Maybe I should get into Star Wars.”

Except for Boba Fett, those bounty hunters just get a few seconds of screen time in The Empire Strikes Back; it’s testament to the tug the original trilogy exerted on the imagination of a generation that they’ve fascinated fans ever since. That’s the beauty of George Lucas’s fleet-footed approach to space opera: his camera trips lightly over characters and effects that would demand entire sequences in lesser films, leaving viewers with the sense that the movies’ heroes and villains are moving through a real world with limitless boundaries.

Hence the warm reception fans gave to Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, the 2017 anthology revisiting the events of A New Hope through the eyes of the story’s minor characters: the Jawas, the Cantina aliens, Imperial stormtroopers, Rebel pilots and support staff. Even for characters that didn’t have action figures (but especially for those who did), longtime fans felt they knew these characters. As a 40th anniversary tribute, dozens of writers including many standbys of Disney-era Star Wars storytelling took deep(er) dives into the lives of characters who only briefly intersected with onscreen action.

Now, as the sequel’s 40th anniversary year comes to a close, From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back makes similarly effective use of that concept for stories about snowy Rebel troops and sniffy Imperial officers, desperate Ugnaughts and subversive stormtroopers. Even the wampa ice creature, a tauntaun, the space slug, and — wait for it — Yoda’s haunted cave get their own stories.

As with the preceding volume, the new book finds wells of empathy for personalities that had only bit parts to play in the movie. The wampa turns out to have been a family man (oops), the two frozen tauntauns are revealed to have a family relationship, and haughty Imperial admirals think of their lost loves as their lives flash in front of their eyes. (As you may recall, the attrition rate among Imperial officers is unusually high in Episode V, even by wartime standards.)

The book also answers some questions that, depending on how many times you’ve seen the movie, you may or may not even have realized you had about The Empire Strikes Back. Why was Vader mad at Admiral Ozzel for coming out of hyperspace too close to Hoth? How was there atmosphere and pressure inside the space slug? Who cooked the Cloud City dinner where Vader ambushed Han and Leia, and what was on the menu?

Reading both books (or listening to the carefully produced audiobooks) illuminates just how different the two movies are. Whereas Star Wars was teeming with life — the diverse Cantina denizens, the Death Star staffers, a giant hanger full of mustachioed Rebels — Empire Strikes Back is a much more intimate story. The Certain Point of View contributors duly take us into the Echo Base trenches and explore the life of Bespin (several different characters hear Lando’s public-address evacuation order), but they also venture much farther beyond the film frame than the preceding volume’s writers did.

In “Lord Vader Will See You Now,” John Jackson Miller explains what Imperial captain Rae Slone (familiar from a range of stories and games) was up to while her peers were fighting the Battle of Hoth. In “Faith in an Old Friend,” Brittany N. Williams imagines what role Lando’s former copilot (see: Solo) played in the Millenium Falcon’s escape from Cloud City. Several stories center on characters you’d never know from the movie, although we now learn they were hanging around…although in keeping with the previous volume’s approach, the editors don’t neglect blink-and-you’ll miss them characters like the Rebel who impatiently walks right between Han and Leia when they’re having a lovers’ spat in an icy corridor.

Once again, the Random House Audio producers have corralled an all-star cast of readers to bring the audiobook to life. They include Jon Hamm returning from the previous POV audiobook to again voice the internal monologue of Boba Fett, along with star readers like Emily Woo Zeller and January LaVoy…and of course Marc Thompson, the John Williams of Star Wars audiobook readers. Soundscapes, effects, and authentic Episode V music create an immersive world, including long stretches spent in a Cloud City evacuation that turns out to have had far more distant, frenzied screams than the movie suggests.

As the recent death of David Prowse reminded fans, the actors and filmmakers who originally brought these characters to life aren’t quite as immortal as their fictional creations have proved. Fortunately, their legacy is secure. With creators and characters evincing welcome diversity and boundless creativity, that long-ago, far-away galaxy has never come so gratifyingly close to our own.

Jay Gabler