Last night with my wife I re-viewed Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.1 This was only my fourth time seeing it — yes, in my lifetime — which gives me a slight advantage.
Whereas some if not most of Star Wars fans may occasionally wonder if they overvalue the original films based partly on nostalgia, as a newcomer to the saga I might help confirm something for you.
No, your fandom is not based primarily on nostalgia. Yes, the original trilogy really is that awesome.
And yes, Empire in particular is an absolute masterpiece. Once Luke Skywalker experiences his first real battle with Darth Vader, the film gets even better, with stellar and rightly iconic cinematography as well as top storytelling.
This time I particularly noticed Luke’s response when he learns the shocking truth from Darth Vader. I think familiarity and repeat viewings may have dulled the startling nature of how this is shown. Internet memes and parodies also make the scene into a perennial joke, perhaps based partly on Luke’s bizarre facial contortions.
But isn’t that what makes this moment all the more shocking? Luke has just lost this huge battle, lost his hand, lost all his young Jedi dignity and bravado, lost any illusions about Darth Vader being pure evil, and heard the shocking news.2 And if the film were made today, even a great actor might struggle to show all this crashing in at once. I’m not knocking today’s actors, only saying that the scene would be shot and directed differently. Luke’s grief and despair and horror would be much more stylized.
Mark Hamill seems to have chosen differently. For his fantastic performance he seems to realize that Luke could not have stylized or restrained responses.3 He should have a complete breakdown of emotion leading to utter misery and despair. His grimacing face should scrunch into unsightly creases while his mouth twists open in a scream. (If this were done in anime there would be a little bubble coming out his nose, and it would not be funny at all.)
For this fourth viewing, and as a Star Wars newbie who first saw the original trilogy in 2008, I still find this one of the most gripping film scenes I’ve ever seen.
Now for the exploration questions for all of The Empire Strikes Back.
- If you can recall when you first saw the sequel to Star Wars, what was it like?
- Three years later. Much has changed since the last Star Wars Does that leave you wondering what we missed? How does what we don’t see strengthen the story?
- Ghost guidance. Obi-Wan Kenobi, previously only a voice (possibly a memory) from the first Star Wars, now upgrades to visual appearances and new directives. If this were to happen in the real world, we would say he was a “ghost” or worse. In Scripture we find warnings against seeking special knowledge through fortunes or from the dead (as in Deut. 18, where God says He speaks only through His priests and His final Prophet, Christ). Knowing this, how should we view guidance from ghosts in this faraway galaxy?
- Learning and wartime. Star Wars shows its first ground conflict as Imperial Walkers and troops storm the Hoth rebel base. X-wings fly, soldiers shoot, explosions explode. With war in the news even more recently, due to the potential Syria conflict, how do you react to onscreen wars? What are risks in seeing them? Can they be helpful?
- Down to Dagobah. Following ghost-Kenobi’s instructions, Luke arrives on the swamp planet and meets Yoda, and here The Force philosophy occupies much of the story. Any more thoughts on this impersonal, mystical “magic” in the Star Wars world? Good/bad?
“Size matters not.” Yoda goes on to say, “Judge me by my size, do you?” Specifically in the perspective of the story, why is it important that Yoda isn’t a strong huge warrior?
- “Crude matter.” Yoda says, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” Thoughts?
- Enter the Emperor. Darth Vader, a prime villain (along with Grand Moff Tarkin) in Star Wars, is seen here answering to another evil, apparently a greater. How may this change how we see Darth Vader, who in Star Wars seemed more like a simple, total-evil villain?
- “What know you of ready?” Yoda goes on to say, “Adventure, heh, excitement, heh — a Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless.” Why does he warn against this attitude?
- “Beware of the dark side.” Bad character qualities make up the dark side, Yoda says. He also says it’s not stronger than (presumably) the “light side,” but that it is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” Why is Luke curious about the dark side? What do we see later?
- “I know.” Han Solo famously gives this reply after Leia says, “I love you.” What does this show about his character? What do you think of Han’s actions and changes in this story?
- “No, I am your father.” After Luke’s training and recklessness, why is this so shocking?