Review by Logan
Darth Wrinkles. The Abominable Snowman. A midget green alien space ninja. The biggest plot twist in cinematic history. Of all the films in the Star Wars legacy, The Empire Strikes Back had the biggest task at hand. Having introduced the concepts of the jedi and The Force in the first film, it now had to open the universe up to a much larger, more expansive world, with some pretty fantastical elements, and still leave us saying that was pretty cool. Amazingly, it’s often touted not only as a good film in the series, but some arguing that it’s the best of the series.
Now, for the record, A New Hope is my favorite Star Wars film. So I’m not here to make the case that it’s the best (although my favorite personally and the best film cinematically aren’t necessarily the same thing). But even with a cursory glance, it gets right what many sequels do not. It introduces new characters, but in the context of the first film, not just for the sake of having something new. It introduces completely new landscape with places like Cloud City, Hoth, and Dagobah rather than revisiting the places the made the first film great. And, finally, it embraces a new and distinct conflict in addition to the one that dominated the first film.
But the thing that truly amazes me, even watching these films as an adult years later, is how far the theology of the Star Wars universe is removed from the films themselves in our minds. Yes, we talk about the Force, and yes, we remember that it’s called the jedi “religion,” but we still don’t think of the Force as an impersonal god. It’s just a fantasy story element.
Nate did a good job of touching on this theology and the problems with it in his review of A New Hope, so I don’t believe it’s necessary for me to go into a great deal of detail on this. But it is an idea that progresses in this film. Not just on the idea of an impersonal “Force,” but the rejection of attachment, and of emotions generally. This becomes more readily apparent in the second act of the film, while Luke is training with Yoda on Dagobah.
After the Empire deals a heavy blow on the Rebel Alliance on the planet Hoth, Luke goes off to train while Han and Leia seek the help of Lando on Cloud City. When Luke arrives on Dagobah for his training, the first thing that strikes me is the sheer hilarity of the situation: Yoda’s crazy old geezer act is still the funniest scene in all of Star Wars, and there’s a personality that’s brought to Yoda that exceeds nearly every character in the series. That makes the film so much more interesting and compelling.
But then there’s what Yoda says. He has many a complaint about Luke, from how easily he’s distracted, to how he doesn’t have any faith in the Force (“there is no try”), to how wrong of him it would be to go save his friends.
Yeah. That last one threw me a bit, too. But to understand the context of Yoda’s opposing Luke running off to save his friends, we have to remember something else that Yoda said, back in Revenge of the Sith: that “attachment leads to fear, fear leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
So, Star Wars has a lot of epic stuff going for it. Lightsabers, James Earl Jones, and of course the absolutely amazing plot twist (let’s remember that it wasn’t cliche when Star Wars did it, everyone else just copied them). But this whole idea that emotions are somehow inherently bad, that attachment is a vice, is very troubling, particularly coming from the most respected jedi of all time.
But that’s not the end of the story. Because Luke does leave. And he does save his friends. And he does learn something very important about Darth Vader – that his enemy is his father. That changes the entire game. And what’s more, we as the audience are supposed to support Luke in his decision. Sure, Yoda has a point that Luke isn’t all that patient. And yes, he has some anger issues (I would too, if my family was murdered and I later discovered my real father was a murderous psychopath). But more than that, Luke is a hero. And at the end of the day, it is neither asceticism nor callousness that wins the day, but good old-fashioned selfless heroism, and the concern for the individual’s life as important, not just “the cause.”
We all know about the cool sci-fi elements that make The Empire Strikes Back a great film. But the thing that makes it truly great, from a worldview perspective, is that it does the most to counteract the potentially damaging aspects of an impersonal Force theology. In spite of the obvious problems that come from that perspective, heroism wins the day. Virtue wins the day.