It is a dark time for the Rebellion. The threat of physical annihilation in the form of the Death Star is gone, exploded in its own little supernova, but the careful planning of the previous installment of this story has turned into desperate scrambling flight. They might have gained their first substantial victory against the Empire, but what looked like a triumph in closeup has turned out, in the hard zoomed-out light of reality, to be a glancing blow. Our heroes are forced to carve out a space to survive in inhospitable environments. The glory of earlier victories is gone; the only real plans they have are to conserve their resources, and to stay alive. It isn’t going well.
The Empire Strikes Back traces the after-image of the explosion, the rubble left over once the plan has been executed and the fire has petered out. It is about doing the work after all passion for that work is gone, about the slow, hard attempts to see a long-term plan through with no hope of success in sight. It is the regroup after the plan fails, flailing for a sense of purpose in the face of insurmountable odds, and confronting our own inadequacies when everything else is stripped away. The story is great precisely because it isn’t a triumph—it reeks of desperation from every angle. The Empire Strikes Back unravels the threads of each of its characters’ aims, picking apart the cords of hope that hold the Alliance together and the grip that the Empire has on its military machine alike, then throwing everyone into a hell of their own making where they must sort out the pieces of who they are and who they want to be.
The Rebellion has been forced into a corner, trapped in the far reaches of the galaxy between the unforgiving cold of space and the unforgiving cold of a snowbound ice planet. They’ve carved themselves tunnels in the glaciers where they take refuge, but even the base where they live is unfinished. The passageways are paved with planks, temporary bridges from place to place that emphasize the Rebels’ tenuous hold on their base and their geographic location. They live exposed on the edge of survival: no food, no plan beyond getting through the next confrontation with the Empire, and nothing to hide them from the reach and resources of a powerful and vengeful enemy. They look so small against the stark plains of snow.
The Rebellion might be united by a single cause, but they’re held together with comradeship and spit and a prayer, addressing each other as “old buddy” in contrast to the strict ranking system of the Empire military that pursues them. Their loyalties are earned and freely given, rather than coerced. But they function primarily in opposition to and on the defensive from the Empire. They define themselves as “not that,” a useful way to draw a distinction between themselves and the all-encompassing other, and a convenient rallying cry in the face of injustice. But stubborn opposition can only carry them as far as their limited resources will allow. It isn’t enough to just fight against the establishment unless there can be a plan to build something else in its place—a difficult task when the struggle against oppression intersects with the struggle to exist at all.
The defiance that defines the Rebellion’s existence in relation to the Empire permeates their ranks as well: fighter pilots question the wisdom of pitting their minimal resources against the might of the Empire, and ranking officers disagree with one another’s decisions, even when they understand the intent is for the good of the whole. When Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) goes missing on patrol, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) decides to go after him into the deepening night and rapidly dropping temperatures. His comrades all know that Luke will die in the hostile environment if he isn’t found, but the deck officer on duty questions whether Han himself will survive the rescue attempt—if they cannot keep their own technology working when the temperature plunges, what hope would a fragile human body have when exposed to the elements?
In response to the deck officer’s reasonable fears about his survival, Han retorts “Then I’ll see you in hell!” before charging out into the night to find his friend. His response is a statement of defiance, not just against the other rebel, but also against the certainty that Luke is going to die if he isn’t found. Han would rather die himself than abandon a friend to a horrible fate; he’s been living with a price on his head for years, and he chafes at being told to stay safe and trust to chance. The odds have been against him for so long that tempting fate is second nature, so he does, stubbornly riding out into the blizzard, then helping a lost-cause escape attempt after the Rebel base falls to the Empire, then pushing his broken-down ship past the Empire forces who pursue him again and again. His stubbornness might make him difficult to deal with, but it’s the trait that keeps him on his feet and free, even after the Rebels are scattered by the Empire.
Luke, too, carries that same fire—it’s desperate defiance that fuels the Rebellion, after all—but increased confidence alone cannot save him from failure. He’s a good tactician who’s able to improvise, but he’s only human, and he can barely wield the tools he’s been given: his lightsaber and his connection to the Force. He’s awash with potential, but prefers to rely on his reflexes and his physical body rather than his spiritual connection to the Force. While on patrol, he’s surprised by a wild animal that knocks him out and traps him in the ice of its lair. Luke’s first attempts to escape are frantic scrabbling against the ice, straining to grasp the lightsaber stashed out of his reach—it takes him some time before he remembers to pause, to center himself, then to use the Force to grab hold of his weapon and escape. Luke has no plan and no foresight, only action and desperate reaction.
When he finally gets out of the ice cave, he’s injured and unequipped to deal with the cold and the rapidly approaching fall of night. Half-buried in a snowdrift, he looks up and sees someone else who has already gone over the edge. The ghost of Ben Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) looms over the horizon, larger than life though he’s by now years dead, and tells Luke to seek out another Jedi Master, to present himself for training, to follow in his father’s footsteps; the ghost has a plan for him, but first Luke must survive. Luke collapses and the vision fades just as Han arrives on his rescue mission. The hands of fate and death retreat for a short, precious time, thwarted by Han and Luke’s defiance against the odds.
The hard-won respite cannot last long; the Empire finds the Rebels and routs them out of their base. The discovery spells failure for the rebels, who’d only just managed to adapt to the cold, but it’s also a failure for Darth Vader (embodied by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones), who only has the crumbling ice caves and a blasted-out shield generator to show for his invasion. Vader spends the rest of the story relentlessly chasing Han and Leia across the galaxy, an avenging demon with a single-minded obsession to catch Luke Skywalker.
Even Vader’s troops think he’s lost his mind in his pursuit. He follows Han and Leia into an asteroid field, risking the lives and safety and resources he has on the slim chance that Han and Leia can lead him to Luke. The Imperial forces follow his orders, but they only do so because failure to comply means death. Vader’s immediate subordinates live inside a revolving door, at risk of a crushed windpipe if they are unable to do the impossible things that Vader asks them. And Vader himself lives in an impossible situation—for all the resources at his disposal, he’s trapped at the head of a stiff and unforgiving military enterprise that is unable to improvise as quickly as the individualistic rebellion. He might have the upper hand, but his machine is slow-moving, predictable in their operations,1 and that predictability offers the Rebellion the gaps they must slip through in order to elude him.
After their flight from the Rebel base, Han, Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) skip across space from danger to danger, with Darth Vader haunting their wake. Like Han, Leia nurses her own oppositional streak, responding coolly to Han’s ill-timed attempts at warmth and camaraderie. She’s risked her own life by staying in the Rebel base to verify everyone managed to get out ahead of the Empire as the walls of their temporary hiding place crumbled around her. Han and Leia are the last ones out of the ice planet; they are unlucky enough to be the Empire’s primary target in the following days. They were unable to hold the Rebellion together in the final desperate hours on the planet, and now they’re unable to keep their ship from falling apart, too. Their situation mirrors their shattered long-term plans: Han had always intended to leave the Rebellion in order to pay off the price on his head, and Leia is unable to reunite with the other rebels once they’re off-planet, pursued as they are by Darth Vader.
And against their will, in the worst possible timing, they’re falling in love. Whenever one is feeling conciliatory, the other is feeling combative, with the two taking turns to snipe at each other in the cramped corridors of the Rebel base and the tight crannies of the Millennium Falcon. They feel trapped by their own respective worries and cares, and their plans are at odds with their desires, but they still want each other, backing each other into corners that neither is comfortable with. He’s cocky, she’s practical, and they can’t break the tension, at least until they kiss, their hands dirty with grease. The break doesn’t last long—they’re tactlessly interrupted by an oblivious robot and by the renewed pursuit of the Empire. This kiss, too, is a foiling of plans; both of them fail to resist each other at the last crucial moment. When they limp into Cloud City, governed by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), their attraction to each other and their relief at finding a safe haven leaves them vulnerable: Lando sells them out to Vader in exchange for security from the Empire.2 When the Empire catches up with them, they’re left with nothing except each other, and even then, Han can’t tell Leia he loves her back when she finally spits the words out at him.
For his part, Luke is left to fend for himself, separated from the friends who share his cause, unaware of how closely danger dogs his footsteps. After the Rebels are driven out of their base, Luke peels off from the rest of the Rebellion, following the directions of his dead mentor. He expects to find a great warrior in the Dagobah system. Instead of an easy journey, he crash-lands into a swamp, his engines and his hopes both doused in muddy water. Trees hang oppressively over the space, dank and dripping, casting blue-green shadows into the gloom. Unseen creatures cry out in the surrounding woods—evidence of life, large and wild and ominous. Luke’s flight suit is a muddy orange, the only spit of color in the heavy air. Immediately upon arrival he’s forced to admit to R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) that he’s not sure what he’s even doing there. He has no plan, and no idea what he’s gotten himself into. Whatever he expected, this planet isn’t it.
Nor is the Jedi Master he came to find: instead of a great warrior, he encounters a tiny green trickster gremlin who immediately begins to disrupt the order of his camp. Yoda (Frank Oz) responds to Luke in riddles, sidestepping Luke’s questions about him because Luke immediately assumes that this creature can give him no help. Yoda tests Luke and his patience by being deliberately obtuse, stealing his food and his lamp, strewing his personal effects around; only after declaring Luke unfit to be trained as a Jedi does he reveal his own identity. Yoda knows who he is, and he knows who Luke is, and he refuses to define himself in terms of reactionary opposition, only in terms of action and in relationship to the Force. “Luminous beings,”3 he calls Luke and himself—full of potential and light, creatures of wisdom and action, not fear.
But fear is difficult to shake. Yoda’s reliance on instinct and pacifism runs counter to Luke’s desire to jump feet-first into whatever situation looms on the horizon. The Jedi Master is a reluctant trainer; he knows that Luke’s desire for action is unstudied and unaware, borne out of a reactionary fear of what might happen rather than a grounded sense of self and the present. The Jedi Master chastises Luke for living up to his name, keeping his head in the clouds rather than where he is and what he is doing in the moment. Luke is limited by his fears; he’s unable to use the Force to lift his crashed ship out of the swamp. When Yoda does it for him, Luke slaps the side of the resurrected ship, then circles it, shaking his head with doubt, unable to believe what he has just seen.
Luke’s disbelief haunts the rest of his training. Yoda takes him to a cave that is soaked with the power of the dark side of the Force, then tells him he must enter without his weapons. Luke straps on his blaster and lightsaber anyway, unable to imagine a world in which he wouldn’t need to use violent force against a threat—more reactive, aggressive action, even after Yoda counsels him to use the Force only for knowledge and defense. Luke brings the potential for violence with him, and in return the cave grants him a violent vision of things to come: the specter of Vader rises from the shadows, brandishing his lightsaber, and Luke beheads the shape, only to see his own face staring back at him from Vader’s shattered helmet. Yoda refers to the incident as a failure, foreshadowing the fact that Luke’s thoughtless rush toward action and heroics will cost him.
What Luke does not know is that his teacher weighs the fate of the Force against his actions. Yoda resists training this new pupil because Luke is too old, too impulsive, too likely to abandon his hard work when something new comes over the horizon; he only agrees to teach Luke because the ghost of Ben Kenobi once again interferes, pushing the two together. Yoda and Ben both know that Luke is in danger of falling prey to the dark side; Ben plans to forestall this fall by teaching Luke to harness his abilities, while Yoda prefers not to present Luke with the risk of failure at all. Both know that training him is risky, because his talent, half-formed, only makes him more vulnerable.
When Luke has a vision of Han and Leia captured by Vader, everyone’s worst fears are realized: Luke’s, because he is not present to help; Ben and Yoda’s, because Luke’s sense of self has not yet taken full root in the present, nor in the Force. Luke still defines himself in opposition to Vader, abandoning his training in order to rescue his friends. Yoda and Ben urge him not to leave, then give him advice when they realize they cannot persuade him to stay, an echo of the deck officer on the ice planet cautioning Han not to dive into the blizzard to rescue Luke. Luke promises to return to finish his training, but insists on rescuing his friends despite his inexperience. He’s doing the right thing in a difficult situation, but his timing and his reasons are all wrong. He speeds off to Cloud City in his newly resurrected ship, unaware that he is flying headlong into a trap set for him by Darth Vader.
In the end, the fraying threads of failure twist together to become a rope snare. Idealistic, confident fool that he is, Luke rushes in, a figure in tattered fatigues storming an abandoned white city, small and vulnerable and alone against the pale background. He catches a glimpse of a captured Leia, and unknowingly watches as Han’s frozen body is carted away, exchanging fire with the bounty hunter who captured him without realizing the significance of the encounter. Luke has no plan, only an eager desire to run in and rescue his friends.
Vader has a plan.
He knows that Luke is a creature of action-as-reaction, unflinchingly loyal and youthfully thoughtless. He knows that the boy will come running to confront him if Han and Leia are threatened, and he knows that if he can overcome Luke, he can break his spirit and the plans of the last remaining Jedi. He waits for Luke in the jaws of the trap, and Luke takes the bait.
At the bottom of the city, Luke finds himself in the crude, intimate hell of a carbonite freezing chamber, face to face with the enemy he’d encountered in the vision in the cave. Here, as there, the world is a cold, dark blue, but instead of swampy vines and creeping life, the chamber is full of steam and machinery, lit from below in blazing orange: the fires of the hell that Luke is about to be put through. Luke stands alone, a pale, slight figure against the massive shadow of Vader’s bulk, and he stands in defiance—light against dark, youth against cunning, guerrilla fighter against organized might, a stark contrast to the enemy against whom he defines himself.
Luke starts the fight, but he’s unable to finish it. He confronts the dark shadow of Vader with a lunge and a flash of blue fire, but he’s no match for Vader’s abilities. Knocked down, backed into corners, and forced to flee through the inhospitable maze-like corridors that had funneled him in Vader’s direction only minutes before. Battered and tired, separated from the friends he’d come to rescue and in no position to help anyone, Luke finds himself on the edge of a catwalk, his hand severed and weapon gone, Vader’s lightsaber at his throat. Here he learns the awful truth that had been hinted to him in the cave on Dagobah: Luke is family to Vader. He’s suddenly become, and always been, the very thing he’s fought against this entire time.
At the crucial moment, Luke stops reacting, stops trying to control his situation. He’s lost his hand and his sense of self in one moment. Instead of fighting, he folds in on himself and lets go, falling off the edge of the city in one last desperate attempt to escape. All hopes of rescue and all confidence, all plans and dreams and ideas are gone, except for the devastating knowledge that he comes from Darth Vader.
No one wins in The Empire Strikes Back. The Rebellion is scattered after the loss of their base; Han is frozen and en route to the gangster who put a bounty on his head; Leia has lost him so soon after losing the battle to keep from falling in love. Lando loses the city and the life he made there. Ben and Yoda nearly lose their pupil to the dark side; Luke loses his hand, his lightsaber, and his sense of self. He’ll heal, but there will be a scar—a sense of caution where there wasn’t one before, a lesson learned about diving headlong into danger, and the knowledge that looking away toward the future can cost him in the here and the now.
At the last moment, Vader loses the Millennium Falcon, and with it, Luke. The ship, finally fixed, jumps to hyperspace, stretching the stars along with it into long, thin lines as it leaps from the Empire’s closing fist, leaving an awful silence in the space it occupied moments before. The bridge of Vader’s ship falls quiet, expecting the worst—the death of a scapegoat, a murderous rampage, anger to break the tension. Instead, Vader pauses, then turns, pacing the long length of the ship; the rebels may have escaped, but they’re bruised and unfit to fight. In the meantime, plans thwarted, he’ll wait for them in the empty blackness between the stars.
- So predictable, in fact, that Han is able to improvise another in a string of escape attempts based on the knowledge that Empire ships dump their garbage before deploying.
- This plan also falls through, overturned when Vader decides the details of the deal he made with Lando aren’t to his taste, and Lando in turn realizes that his discomfort with betraying his friend outweighs the false promise of security for the city he leads.
- Yoda uses short, declarative sentences and auxiliary verbs: “Luminous beings are we,” with a focus on the present and on his own location. He rejects Luke’s instinct to keep looking toward the future and to far-off places, urging his pupil to keep his mind present on the here and now and concrete details rather than planning to meet an always-changing future.