Heart of an Empire
June 29th, 2007
They are the scorned, the mocked, and the socially iffy. They are "Star Wars" geeks, and at times it seems the whole world is against them. "Heart of an Empire" peels away the layers of plastic, pulls off the helmets, and sets down the lightsabers to take a look at one group of superfans who have decided to use their passion of all things George Lucas and try to better the world.
Directed and hosted by Jay Thompson, “Empire” has a very clear agenda: this documentary trusts the average viewer will learn to appreciate what kind of person it takes to dress up like a fictional fringe character and do good deeds. It’s also a film that’s exceptional at selling this argument.
The story starts with Albin Johnson, a mild-mannered father of two who discovered the enjoyment he found suiting up as a Stormtrooper was shared by thousands across the country. Thus the “Fighting” 501st Legion was born. Coming together to share their fandom for the holy trilogy and assorted “Wars” knickknacks, Albin took this modest collective and gave it purpose, ushering in an order of sorts; bringing calm to costumed chaos if you will.
The 501st took their passion to the next level. Of course the group still gets their Yoda on at conventions and other sci-fi entanglements, but the 501st has grown throughout the years to be a force for the people, often called in to help those in need or just to paste a professional face on the whole costumed scene. “Empire” shows us these two sides of the 501st, warts and all.
First and foremost, “Empire” is a cheery film with a good message to spread about volunteerism and enjoying life’s unconventional pursuits. The first half of the picture is devoted to a basic understanding of the common member, traveling around the globe to meet the individuals who pack themselves into tight plastic for pleasure. Out in public, it’s easy to see the appeal of the pursuit – I mean, everyone loves a Stormtrooper, right?
Glad-handing the hordes while scaring a few kids for good measure, the 501st are often made to feel like rock stars at events; a point explicitly made in a terrific scene where members are called in to oversee the coin toss at an arena football game. The crowd goes all wookee and you can sense the electricity shooting through the troops as they storm the field.
“Empire” sobers up pretty quickly when it comes to detailing the connection the 501st maintain with pediatric facilities and sick children. There are moments of levity watching the kids react with slack-jawed wonder to Darth Vader entering their hospital room; to one of the more fearless kids, he’s the hulking coloring partner that dreams are made of. Scenes of that heartening nature are priceless to behold, and propel “Empire” to a rare area of flagrant heartstring tugging that is entirely earned.
However, “Empire” goes from this feathery collection of oddballs and backlash generals (embodied by Scott Allen, a Gollum figure who hates Albin and his tight control over the 501st) to a stark portrayal of parental grief, and the curve of that turn is quite severe.
A chunk of screentime is reserved for the tale of Christian, a young boy who was suffering from Leukemia but maintained his spirits through his everlasting love for “Star Wars.” Through home movies and interviews with Christian’s father, “Empire” explores Christian’s hospital-bound misery and the lengths the 501st and George Lucas himself went to keep the young boy as happy as can be. The segment is quickly followed by Albin’s own personal pain watching his daughter diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, only to follow a path similar to Christian’s.
Truthfully, this is difficult footage to watch; downright impossible to some I’m sure. Thompson’s point is made cleanly and I can understand the desire to follow the theme of generosity for as long as he can, but back-to-back stories of this grave nature are emotionally taxing (I feel like a goblin for even mentioning it, but pace is pace) and tend to blur the fizzy feelings from the first half of the picture.
Thompson recovers in the end by tying together the heartwarming attitudes and messages of the 501st in a neat bow, leaving the door open for anyone to join these men and women around the globe as they battle ridicule and mean-spirited gawkers to make the world a better place. “Heart of an Empire,” as mawkish as it might sound, is a sweetly clear blue sky piece of filmmaking, and encapsulates a rare breath of gee-whiz, irony-and-politic-free perspective that could do the world some good.
My rating: A-