A Study in The Force: Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

02 May


Majority rule basically dictates that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the all the Star Wars movies and, yes, I happen to belong to that majority.  This is a much darker story, a story that digs deep into the buried myths of the Star Wars lore.  With A New Hope we discussed that the groundwork had been laid, but the actual functions of The Jedi and The Sith weren’t completely fleshed out.  There are ideas present, but their actual application seemed to exist as a “Stay Tuned.”

What’s great about The Empire Strikes Back is that the vagueness of the Force and of the Jedi order presented in A New Hope are off the table.  There’s a sense of “let’s get into it” that carries those ideas outward.  For one thing, the idea of The Force is much more practical here.  It’s not just a Zen philosophy that somewhat suggests a manipulation of one’s immediate surroundings.  The movie is hardly 10 minutes along before we get full-on evidence of what The Force is capable of.  Alone in an ice cave, strung upside down, Luke spots his lightsaber stuck in the ice.  He calms himself before reaching out for it and finds that, through The Force, he can move objects.  This was an idea that was barely present in A New Hope.

On the other end, we find that Vader has amped up his destructive power.  In A New Hope he briefly gave a mouthy Imperial Officer the business by choking him just by raising a hand.  Here he has honed that power and one of the great running gags is Vader’s persistent demotion of senior officers by choking them to death via The Force.  He’s gotten so good at it, in fact, that he doesn’t even need to be in the same room with his intended victim.

Much of Empire is given over to the cosmic education of Luke by The Jedi Master Yoda who is not mentioned in A New Hope for whatever reason, and whose presence is only revealed to Luke as he lay dying in a blizzard.  This education encompasses a much more comprehensive training session than Ben was able to get into.  While Ben’s brief training focused on settling the mind, Yoda’s training focuses on the muscle strength of The Force like lifting objects with one’s mind by way of controlling emotions.

Emotions are a huge introduction to the lore of The Jedi in Empire especially if you follow the child-into-man motif of Luke throughout the Original Trilogy (he a child in A New Hope; an adolescent in Empire; and an adult in Jedi).  In Empire, Luke’s demeanor is that of a sullen and uptight teenager which makes Yoda’s job all the more difficult, he calls out his new charge by reminding him that “You are wreckless!”

Ben makes the point that This is a dangerous time for you, when you will be tempted by the Dark Side of the Force.”  In A New Hope this was an idea that was not presented, but here it becomes essential to The Jedi.  Fear is presented as the ultimate trap for a Jedi despite the fact that we understand that it can also be a safety mechanism.  The manifestation of Luke’s fears are presented in a scene in which he comes to understand that he is, in essence, his own worst enemy.

It is also very lightly suggested that Jedi training begins at a very young age.  Dismissing Luke’s potential as a candidate, Yoda says he is “too old to begin the training.”  Later, in the prequels and in the Expanded Universe, we come to understand that children are taken for training at a young age.  There is a process of becoming an Initiate before going through the Jedi Trials and then becoming a Padawan.  None of that is mentioned here, though Yoda’s brief comment may suggest it.

The familial aspects of The Force are not present either, we don’t get that until Return of the Jedi.  The major bulletpoint of Empire is the newly developed idea that in The Force there is a light side and a dark side and that everyone starts off in Jedi training and, somewhere along the way, follows one path or the other.  The difference being that the light side takes time, discipline and work while the dark side requires vast amounts of negative energy.  These are aspects not presented in A New Hope.

It is also suggested that a Jedi is turned to the dark side by a kind of mental seduction, in Luke’s case, the revelation that Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker are one in the same.  Luke is young, ill-tempered, and emotional and Vader plays on that much like a young person is drawn into a life of crime my a criminal who offers him power and money.

In A New Hope we discussed the introduction of the idea of Jedi immortality that giving one’s self to the force at the moment of demise means that you can come back, apparently as a ghost.  We see that first here as Ben appears to Luke in ghost-like form to give advice.  If you can be everywhere and see everything and relay important information back to your allies, the movie doesn’t mention it.  We’ll discuss more on this later.

It is also introduced here that Jedi and Sith are telepathic, not in the way of speaking from one mind to another but in a way of transporting messages through feelings.  In Empire this happens twice.  Luke calls out to Leia who doesn’t seem to hear his words but who seems to understand his situation.  Then Vader calls out to Luke as a last ditch effort to pull Luke to his side.  Added to this the Jedi are also able to see images of the future despite it’s erratic nature.  The seduction aspect of the dark side comes into play from this idea as we sense that Vader is manipulating the fate of Luke’s friends in an effort to draw him out.

The master/student relationship is interesting too.  We see Luke with Yoda, but we also briefly see Vader with The Emperor.  The difference is that Vader’s approach to his master is must more subservient: “What is thy bidding, my master?”  Meanwhile, Luke’s approach to Yoda is much more open, he calls him “Master” but the dialogue is much more liberal.  Vader’s conference with The Emperor is designed so that his master can give an order, but when Vader makes a suggestion of turning Luke rather than killing him, it almost comes off as weak and fearful.  Vader’s attachment to The Emperor is almost military, like an advisor speaking to a General.  Luke’s attachment to Yoda is more academic, like a student regarding a teacher.  Note that when Luke tries to leave, Yoda’s reaction is a stern suggestion that he stay and finish the training.

Of the original trilogy, Empire seems to be the one with the willingness to delve into the mysteries of The Force and of the nature of the light and dark side.  It’s less vague than the previous film but it is far more important to the main story than in Jedi.  We’ll get to that tomorrow.

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Posted by on 05/02/2016 in Star Wars week


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