Only Your Hatred Can Destroy You: The Wavering Contrasts of The Empire Strikes Back

It’s likely that whenever the all-involving topic of Star Wars comes up, one of the first things your mind jumps to are the films’ iconic lightsaber duels. In a series full of space dogfights, light-on-their-feet blaster exchanges, and seedy alien locales, the lightsaber duel is in so many ways the archetypal set-piece of the franchise. We come for the colorful weaponry and acrobatic flair but stay for the ongoing dialogue that has opponents mapping out their own ideologies while testing the psychological borders of one another. The original trilogy saved the lightsaber-on-lightsaber action for the end, a culmination of sorts that challenged or confirmed the ongoing character arcs of the combatants.[1] Conversely, the prequel trilogy spread multiple duels throughout each film to a degree that lowered the stakes considerably, taking a once signature part of the franchise and watering it down in an attempt to give the audience a false sense of momentum. Sure, the action was well choreographed and John Williams’s score has the inestimable ability to make the banal feel monumental. But the ideas were as shallow as a garden variety kiddie pool. This isn’t to say the duels of the originals were doctorial theses on the human condition but they were able to communicate emotional realism through action, an underrated and often neglected component that goes a long way to deepening our connection to the characters onscreen.

And when it comes to memorable lightsaber duels, there is no better example than the climax of The Empire Strikes Back, the middle chapter to the original trilogy. Our hero, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), goes toe-to-toe with the ominous force of villainy known as Darth Vader (embodied by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones). The atmospheric environment within the vast, deserted halls of Cloud City highlight a meeting of the minds that has been teased but yet to be realized over the course of a film and three quarters. Everyone and their mother know of the legendary twist: Vader didn’t kill Luke’s father but he IS his father. As expertly crafted as this conclusion is, it only works because of the film’s interrogation of who these two men are and how they typify their respective factions. Empire’s use of doubling throughout seeds the shocking revelation as a fated truth that complicates a previously clear cut battle between good versus evil.

Much of this comes from the natural progression of Luke’s journey, which was first represented to us in Star Wars. Here, in Empire, he has successfully transitioned from scrappy, naïve farm boy into a more battle hardened commander for the Rebel Alliance. However, our protagonist still has a long way to go when it comes to mastering his connection to the Force. Early on in the movie, Luke is captured by a carnivorous wampa on Hoth, narrowly escaping a horrendous demise after killing the creature with his lightsaber. We see that his Force powers are still underdeveloped, no doubt a result of the aspiring Jedi’s lack of a proper master. A vision of Obi-Wan urging the young Skywalker to train with the ancient master Yoda (Frank Oz) has Luke traveling to the far reaches of Dagobah, a desolate swamp planet that does little to inspire optimism. Our lead’s meager strength (physical and mental) is put to the test by his diminutive taskmaster who pushes the young apprentice to his breaking point. Luke’s victories in the original film weren’t exactly easily won but his marks of success in Empire are even more tenuous.

vader empire

Similarly, Vader is beset by a series of defeats that would call into question anyone else’s position of authority inside of the Empire. His Imperial detachment drive the Rebels from Hoth but the escape of the senior leadership dampens any sense of accomplishment.[2] Vader’s frustrations continue as Han, Leia, and company continually evade a fleet of star destroyers. This eventually leads to the Sith Lord recruiting a slew of bounty hunters to help track down the Millennium Falcon, showing that the Rebellion doesn’t have a monopoly on recruiting monetarily interested soldiers. Despite these less than favorable circumstances, Vader’s standing within the Empire never wavers. In fact, his position seems to have strengthened since Star Wars, as Vader is now leading the mission to capture our heroes personally instead of working under the direct supervision of Tarkin. A notable exception to Vader’s newfound autonomy, however, comes in the scene between the Emperor[3] and himself. The leader of the Empire stresses the danger Luke poses to them, with Vader suggesting that he can be turned into an ally. This is the first instance in the original trilogy of any sort of dialogue about the Force mutually positive amongst the villains, coinciding with Luke and Yoda’s meditations regarding the spiritual on Dagobah. Their encounter is a distinctly brief and cold one emphasized by the remote hologram communications that enable it.

This interchange is a stark contrast to Yoda’s mentorship of Luke on Dagobah. Instead of reveling in superficial lessons on lightsaber etiquette that would prove immediately helpful in his inevitable battle with Vader, Yoda spends his waning moments of life teaching Luke about the traditions and the power of the Force. The master warns that giving into shadowy emotions like fear and anger could lead him down the very same path Vader did. In a telling moment in his training, Luke asks Yoda if the Dark Side is stronger, to which Yoda quickly brushes the question aside with an emphatic “no” but admits its seductive nature can lead to confusion over which is the more righteous discipline. Yoda commands his apprentice to clear his mind with questions just seconds before Luke becomes enamored with entering a cave strong in the Dark Side. When Luke inquires as to what’s in the cave, Yoda poetically mutters “Only what you take with you.” Luke brings along his lightsaber after Yoda urges him not to, with the young Skywalker eventually encountering Vader in what looks like a hypnotic fever dream that ends with the Sith Lord’s decapitation and the revelation of a visage that mirrors Luke’s. The hallucinatory complexion of this sequence (enabled by slow motion photography, shadowy lighting, and an eerie score) forces Luke to confront truths that he is unwilling to grapple with: the line between good and evil is much less pronounced than he previously thought. If a once prolific Jedi like Vader could become a villain, what’s to stop Luke from a similar fate?

empire duel

It’s this internal struggling of faith that allows the finale between Luke and Vader to serve as a brilliant piece of catharsis. The duel between father and son is much more expansive geographically and stylistically than the one in Star Wars with Vader and Obi-Wan, taking the pair through various corridors throughout Cloud City. Much of the fight feels like an extended taunt on the part of Vader to exert his power over Luke, which the villain argues is fueled by the Dark Side. At a few points, Luke is left searching for Vader throughout the facility: wide shots of Skywalker in sweeping industrial spaces draw attention to his dwarfish stature in comparison to Vader. The swift reappearance of the Sith Lord play like jump scares that draws connections to contemporaneous slashers like Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees. Irvin Kershner’s wise decision to treat this battle as more horrific than heroic adds a subversive touch to a sequel already prized to be a box office juggernaut.

It’s this brand of tragic fatalism that has helped The Empire Strikes Back endure as not only a great sequel but an arguable improvement over its predecessor. For a movie as successful creatively and commercially as this, it’s important to remember that much of its brilliance stems from its obsession with failure. Luke escapes Vader not by genuinely besting him in battle but by throwing himself from the heights within Cloud City, proving that he would rather die than join the Empire. Meanwhile, Vader is unable to convince his son to join his cause, relegating him back to being a valuable but impersonal lackey to the Emperor. Middle chapters to long form stories are usually darker but Empire plays on this trend in spades. Audiences had to wait three years to see how these galactic conflicts and thorny relationships resolved themselves. Now, through the ease of home video, we can immediately reprise the dangling cliffhangers before the day is done. Maybe a more extended period of time is the better option, affording the melodramatic pull of the story the ellipsis it deserves.

[1] I promise that the alliteration in that sentence was unintentional.

[2] But it’s not like you can expect the Empire to be big on celebrating victories like the Rebels. Morale boosting in the Empire seems to emanate from the cautious joy that it a fellow officer got chocked out for failing Vader instead of you.

[3] This is where citing an actor gets confusing. The original version is portrayed by Elaine Baker, then wife of legendary make-up designer Rick Baker (who also engineered the look of the character). In post-production, the eyes of a chimpanzee were included to give the Emperor a more inhuman look. The voice came from actor Clive Revill. Later, Lucas tinkered with the original cut by replacing this one-of-a-kind collaboration in favor of Ian McDiarmid, who played Palpatine in Return of the Jedi and the prequel trilogy.

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