Monday, November 29, 2010: The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner died this morning. As it happens, this essay, just published Friday, is probably about as in-depth a paean to that film as I will ever write. As one of the all-time great sequels and the most-admired of the Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back was a constant point of comparison in evaluating other sequels. Few if any films to which it was compared benefited from the comparison. I’d like to think Kershner might have appreciated this essay. (Warning: Spoilers ahoy.
To the unenchanted, myself included, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 plays as a dark, confusing downer without much magic, action or emotional weight. Enthusiastic fans, though, have dubbed it a deeper, more mature film, even going so far as to compare it to one of fantasy cinema’s most revered classics: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
Not that anyone, so far as I know, is actually putting Deathly Hallows: Part 1 in the same league as The Empire Strikes Back. That’s obviously crazy talk. Still, as a dark, penultimate chapter with an indefinite ending setting up the triumphant finale, could Deathly Hallows: Part 1 reasonably be considered, in its own modest way, a loose counterpart to Empire Strikes Back?
Or, failing that, how about a somewhat less revered point of comparison? Say, The Two Towers, another dark prelude that’s cropped up in discussion around Deathly Hallows: Part 1?
Um. No. What makes The Empire Strikes Back so great as a sequel is that it is not only darker and more mature, but also grander, more heroic, more romantic, funnier, richer, and in practically all ways more ambitious than its predecessor. The Two Towers may not outdo its predecessor in the same way, but its inventiveness, visions and vistas take the world of The Fellowship of the Ring into utterly new places, enriching the series with many of its most memorable elements.
Even by the more modest standards of Harry Potter films, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 doesn’t do anything like that. Here are a dozen reasons why.
The HP series has offered magical action scenes in the past — Harry’s battle with the dragon in Goblet of Fire comes to mind, and folks like Quidditch — but what action there is in DH1 is strictly been there, done that: a couple of ho-hum chase scenes, a couple of pedestrian showdowns. Nothing to write home about.
The HP series has taken us to some magical places, above all Hogwarts itself — but DH1 has only one halfway interesting imaginary setting, the Ministry of Magic. Nothing to compare to the eye candy of previous films. (There is some nice natural scenery dimly echoing the rugged beauty of Rohan in TTT, but that’s about it.)
Characters and creature effects, of course, have been a stock in trade of the HP series. For nearly a decade, a who’s who of British thespians sporting outrageous prosthetics and even more outrageous performances have brought to life a supporting cast as colorful as Batman’s rogue’s gallery; and we’ve seen everything from giant three-headed dogs to Hippogriffs.
DH1 is a veritable “Mii Parade” of characters, many familiar, some new — but do we meet anyone here remotely as consequential or memorable as even a Lando or a Faramir, let alone a Yoda or a Gollum? Or, to cite HP touchstones, a Sirius Black or even a Dobby? As for creature effects, we’ve seen big snakes and house elves before.
By contrast, Harry is actually less active and effective in DH1 than, say, a couple of installments earlier, in Order of the Phoenix, where he led Dumbledore’s Army. The new film opens with the Order ignoring Harry’s objections to its decoy strategy for moving him to the Burrow; Hermione doesn’t even ask Harry before pulling the needed strands of hair from his head. Once at the Burrow, Harry immediately wants to leave, and Ron has to talk him down. Hermione covers his butt most of the film; even Ron saves his life at the frozen pond. The one move I can think of that is clearly his initiative — seeking out Bathilda Bagshot — is a disastrous mistake. Not that it’s his fault. I’m just saying.
I won’t defend TTT on this front — the Aragorn–Arwen subplot is surely one of the trilogy’s big mistakes — but I submit that there’s more chemistry even between Éowyn and Aragorn than Ron and Hermione. If anything happened in DH1 to set hearts fluttering, I missed it. At any rate, DH1 isn’t particularly romantic even by the standards of some previous installments in the franchise.
DH1 isn’t without a few mildly funny bits — the polyjuice bits are amusing, and there’s Hermione’s seemingly all-inclusive bag — but I can’t think of a single exchange remotely as funny as Han and Leia’s exchange about discussing things in a committee. Is DH1 even one of the funnier HP films to date? I doubt it.
Past HP movies have offered some insightful thoughts: for example, Dumbledore’s remark to Harry at the end of Chamber of Secrets that “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are, it is our choices.” Does anyone in DH1 say anything likewise worthy of being remembered and quoted?
What’s the emotional climax of DH1? The death of Dobby? A character we know only from the second film, who gets like two scenes here?
What’s DH1 got to compare with any of that? Seven Harry Potters? Harry and friends riding the porcelain express to the Ministry of Magic? Ron Weasley gawking at a vision of Harry and Hermione’s imaginary semi-naked snog? Give me a break.
I know, I know, the filmmakers are following the books, and if only I had read the books, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 would be a better movie. But the fact is, seven films in, Harry Potter feels here like a series that’s about shot its wad. There’s just not a lot here that we haven’t seen before, and certainly nothing obviously going beyond previous installments in the series.
That doesn’t mean Part 2 won’t be a reasonably satisfying, slam-bang finale — something that might plausibly be compared to Return of the Jedi or The Return of the King. That doesn’t make this film anything like The Empire Strikes Back, or even The Two Towers.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.