Study Guide

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Analysis

  • The Cave

    Luke's brief foray into the cave on Dagobah isn't just an important scene in The Empire Strikes Back. It's one of the trippiest scenes in the entire Star Wars series.

    Spelunking

    Before we get too deep into analysis, let's take a look at the scene itself. Luke crawls down into a dark cave, hears a splash in the distance, and sees Vader emerge. They have a duel, which Luke handily wins: He decapitates Vader in about fifteen seconds flat. To his (and our) horror, however, Vader's helmet explodes to reveal Luke's own face underneath.

    Freaky stuff, huh?

    On one level, the symbolism of this scene is pretty straightforward: it foreshadows the revelation that Luke and Vader are related. There's something a bit deeper going on here, though—you just have to listen closely to Yoda's warnings to Luke before he enters the cave to understand it.

    Anger Management

    The first is Yoda's statement that the cave contains "only what you take with you." This establishes that the manifestation of Darth Vader within the cave isn't caused by an outside force—it's something that exists within Luke himself. What's more, this shows us that Luke has all of the same emotionality, passion, and—yes—anger that caused Anakin to fall prey to the dark side of the Force.

    The second is Yoda's warning to Luke to leave his weapons behind—a warning Luke ignores. Contrast this with Obi-Wan in A New Hope, who allows Vader to kill him rather than give in to anger towards his former apprentice. Luke, on the other hand, won't stop swinging even when he knows that Vader is imaginary.

    Skywalking the Line

    This, along with Yoda's warning that Luke's early departure will lead him to the dark side, shows that our hero is swimming in dangerous waters. He's a good man, true, but so was Anakin—even good men can fall prey to the dark side. Regardless, Luke's experience in the cave shows him that he'll need to better control his emotions to meet his destiny of becoming a too-legit-to-quit Jedi Knight.

  • Luke's Hand

    In the Star Wars series, losing a hand is pretty much a rite of passage. As a result, Luke's dismembered hand doesn't just hold symbolic value within this film, but also within the series as a whole. Sometimes, guys, a hand is more (or should we say less?) than just a hand.

    Luke's hand gets cut off at the tail end of his duel with Vader. In fact, it happens right before Vader's revelation that he's Luke's father. By looking at these two events together, we see that losing a hand represents Luke's feelings of powerlessness, not just in terms of Vader's clearly superior skills, but also in reaction to this shocking turn of events.

    As it happens, Luke isn't the only character in the Star Wars series to lose a few digits. Just check the list if you don't believe us:

    • Count Dooku cuts off Anakin's arm in Attack of the Clones.
    • Obi-Wan cuts off Anakin's other arm in Revenge of the Sith. Oh yeah, and his legs too.
    • Obi-Wan slices off a dude's arm in Mos Eisley in A New Hope.
    • Luke doesn't just lose a hand in The Empire Strikes Back—he slices off a wampa's arm in the opening scene.
    • Luke cuts off one of Vader/Anakin's artificial hands in Return of the Jedi.

    Those are just the notable hand-losses. While you might chalk this up to the reality of film-making—after all, nothing's an easier visual for the power of a lightsaber than a severed arm—we think it's clearly an important symbol in the Star Wars series. After all, we're used to thinking of "hands" as synonymous with "utility"—just think of the nautical expression "all hands on deck," the adjective "handy," or the idea that someone could be your "right hand man." If hands = utility, then lack of hands = lack of utility.

    Interestingly, the movie ends with Luke's hand being replaced with an artificial replica. This has a few different symbolic meanings. First, it represents hope: It shows that our heroes have re-built themselves after the painful events of the film.

    It also implies something darker: After all, Anakin Skywalker (who became Vader) also had his hands replaced with artificial ones. While this second interpretation obviously didn't exist until the release of the prequel trilogy roughly twenty years after the release of The Empire Strikes Back, it provides a darker take on an otherwise hopeful image.

  • The Force

    The Empire Strikes Back features the Star Wars series' most iconic and detailed depiction of the Force. Taking cues from real-life religions, the Force perfectly toes the line between sci-fi mumbo jumbo and an imaginative reinterpretation of existing belief systems.

    Jedi Studies 101

    Here's Yoda's description of the Force, for context:

    YODA: Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere! Yes, even between this land and that ship!

    This description paints the Force as some sort of spiritual substance that connects all things, living and non-living—an idea that's super deep. This hints at animism, the belief that non-human beings have a similar spiritual essence to humans. Ultimately, however, this is only one of the many connections we can draw between the Force and real-life religions.

  • The Little Green Buddha

    The religion we can draw the most connections to is Buddhism. Specifically, Yoda's little platitudes are reminiscent of Zen kōans, which are short sayings used in Zen Buddhism to illustrate hard-to-grasp spiritual truths. These sayings are typically used to show the uselessness of human logic when comprehending spirituality

    Sound familiar? It should—it's the same tactic used by Yoda here:

    LUKE: All right, I'll give it a try.

    YODA: No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.

    And here:

    LUKE: I don't believe it.

    YODA: That is why you fail.

    In both instances, Yoda twists Luke's logic around on him to highlight his lack of faith. While this can be frustrating for Luke, it reminds him (and, by extension, us) that the Force can't be comprehended through logical means.

    Also, Yoda defines the light side of the Force as being passive and emotionally detached. Although similar concepts can be found in countless religions, we again find the most similarities with Buddhism, as the religion states that all pain is caused by our attachment to people and things—because everything is impermanent, all attachment inevitably leads to pain. Sounds like the whole path to the dark side thing, huh?

    While our understanding of the nature of the Force changes over the course of the Star Wars series, its depiction in The Empire Strikes Back is perhaps the most significant, as it set the standard that launched this sci-fi religion into real-life fame.

  • Darth Vader's Meditation Chamber

    The quick shot of Vader's exposed head in his meditation chamber is our first glimpse of this inhuman villain's humanity. It also hints at the revelation that Vader is Luke's father, which culminates in his eventual redemption in Return of the Jedi.

    The scene happens in a flash: An Imperial officer approaches Vader as he's sitting in the chamber, facing the other direction. We see his human head, pale white and scarred. Then, just like that, it's over: Vader's iconic helmet descends and clicks into place over Anakin's head.

    This strange image of Vader as half-man/half-machine is one that simultaneously freaks us out and makes us more sympathetic towards him. Remember: At the time of Empire's release, people didn't fully grasp that Vader was a person, much less Luke's dad. This image of Vader's exposed head, however, gives us our first hint that a man still exists beneath that mechanical skin.

    This conflict—between Vader the evil machine and Anakin the good man—is one that becomes key to the Star Wars series. We'll eventually see this thread reach its conclusion in Return of the Jedi, with Anakin finally shedding Vader's skin and redeeming himself.

  • Hero's Journey

    Although Star Wars helped bring the concept of the hero's journey into the public consciousness, The Empire Strikes Back poses some unique challenges in this context. That's because the film is merely the first half of a story that'll be concluded in Return of the Jedi—you'd need to look at both films to get the full picture. Despite this, we can still see a form of the hero's journey in the plot of Empire… though it sometimes hits those marks in unexpected ways.

    Ordinary World

    The movie opens on the freezing cold planet of Hoth, where the rag-tag Rebel Alliance has holed up following the destruction of the Death Star, a WMD created by the evil Empire. Luke Skywalker, the hero of the first film, has settled into the life of an ordinary Rebel soldier, rather than the Jedi warrior we know him to be.

    Call To Adventure

    After spotting an Imperial probe crash into the planet's surface, Luke is attacked by a wampa (a fearsome yeti-like creature), and dragged into its cave. Luke uses his telekinetic Jedi powers and lightsaber to slay the beast, but he's still in a tough spot—night is falling and it's freezing. Before he passes out, however, he has a vision of his now-deceased mentor Obi-Wan telling him to go to the planet Dagobah, where Luke will learn from the Jedi master who taught him: Yoda.

    Refusal Of The Call

    Although he's rescued by his buddy Han Solo, Luke doesn't immediately go to Dagobah—he stays behind and helps the Rebels hold off an Imperial assault while they evacuate. They just barely do it: Luke's friends Han, Leia, and Chewbacca leave on the Millennium Falcon with the Empire in hot pursuit.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Luke doesn't rejoin the Rebel fleet, and instead heads for Dagobah, a swampy planet full of life but bereft of civilization. He crash-lands, which is a bummer, but Luke quickly sets up shelter. Suddenly, a strange green creature appears and subtly implies that he knows Luke. Annoyed by the intrusion but intrigued, Luke agrees to eat dinner with the creature if he introduces him to Yoda.

    Crossing The Threshold

    Surprise—this green goofball is Yoda. However, Yoda is so annoyed by Luke's rudeness that he almost refuses to teach him altogether, saying that he is too emotionally volatile, just like his father Anakin. Luckily for Luke, the ghost of Obi-Wan appears once again and convinces Yoda to change his mind. Then, just like that, Luke starts his training to become a Jedi.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    While Luke begins his training, his pals are in some serious trouble. After hiding in an asteroid to escape the Imperial forces, the crew of the Falcon is shocked to learn that they're not in a cave at all—they're in the belly of a giant space worm. Luckily, they get out in one piece. Meanwhile, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, the rulers of the Empire, observe Skywalker's growing strength and discuss their plan to turn him to the dark side.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    Luke starts acting strangely after a day of training. Observing this, Yoda explains that they're standing near a cave that is steeped in the dark side of the Force. Guess what? He wants Luke to go inside. After warning Luke to leave his weapons behind (a warning that Luke ignores), Luke crawls down into what is quite literally the inmost cave.

    Ordeal

    After crawling down into the cave, Luke is shocked to see the evil Darth Vader appear. Egad! The two men pull out their lightsabers and fight—Luke wins handily, decapitating his foe. To our horror, however, Vader's helmet explodes to reveal Luke's own head underneath. Luke, naturally, is tripping out.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    Although Luke improves after his experience in the cave, he continues to struggle in his training. In particular, he has an extreme lack of faith, a failure Yoda highlights when he lifts Luke's ship out of the swamp with the flick of his wrist. Once he focuses on his newfound powers, however, Luke has a strange vision of his friends in danger...

    The Road Back

    That's because they are. After going to Cloud City in the hopes of finding refuge with Han's old friend Lando, the crew of the Falcon is led straight into Vader's trap—a trap, it must be noted, that's meant to snag Luke. It works like a charm. Terrified at the thought of losing his friends—and against Yoda's vehement protestations—Luke decides to return to civilization and rescue his friends from Cloud City.

    Resurrection

    Luckily, Leia and Chewbacca are saved when Lando switches back to the good team. (Han is frozen in carbonite and shipped off to the ruthless crime lord Jabba the Hutt.)

    Meanwhile, Luke meets the real Vader in the lightsaber duel that ends with Vader cutting off Luke's hand and pushing him to the edge of a balcony. That's when he drops a bomb—he is Luke's father. For real.

    Horrified by this revelation, Luke tosses himself off the balcony and is shot out a hole on the bottom of the city, though he manages to grab hold of a stray antenna before falling to oblivion.

    Return With The Elixir

    Somehow, Luke is able to telepathically contact Leia and the Falcon picks him up. Thanks, Kenobi! After escaping the Imperial forces, they then rendezvous with the Rebel fleet, where Luke gets a new mechanically reconstructed hand. Meanwhile, Lando and Chewbacca are preparing the Millennium Falcon to undertake a perilous rescue mission to save Han Solo.

  • Setting

    As with all Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back is defined by its settings. The three disparate vistas we encounter—the icy wastelands of Hoth, the mystical marshes of Dagobah, and the hyper-modern, almost clinical hallways of Cloud City—take us on a journey that reflects that of our heroes.

    The Wild Unknown

    First off, we've got the icy planet of Hoth, which should be intimately familiar to anyone who's poured countless hours into Star Wars: Battlefront. This is a harsh planet with such cold weather that some of the Rebel's equipment isn't even able to function, forcing them to hole up indoors during the brutally cold nights. Oh yeah, and did we mention the ice monsters? Ultimately, these factors show us how desperate the situation is for the Rebels despite their victory in A New Hope.

    Although Dagobah is also pretty inhospitable, it's distinct from Hoth in every other way. This swampy planet is teeming with wildlife and vegetation, for example. Also, the strange cave where Luke encounters fake Vader gives us a sense that there are even greater mysteries lurking beneath the muck. This mystical nature makes sense, as the planet is home for Jedi Master #1, a.k.a. Yoda, but it's also connected to the overabundance of life on the planet too—a reflection of Yoda's observation that the Force bonds all life in the universe.

    Big City Lights

    After a quick pit stop in a space worm's belly (another reminder of the strangeness of the universe) we arrive at Cloud City, a mining facility floating in the atmosphere of Bespin. This is completely different from the two previous settings we've encountered: It's technologically complex and bustling with people.

    In fact, its stark white halls even remind us of a hospital. Not a compliment, folks. Although Cloud City is a cool place, this strange sterility should be a hint that the Empire isn't far behind.

    Within this setting, we spend a great deal of time in the eerie, red-lit carbonation chamber. This, obviously, is where Han Solo gets frozen into a block of carbonite, but it also provides the setting for Luke's battle with Vader. Here, we feel like we're in the deep, dark underbelly of Cloud City—the creepy guts beneath its glossy interior. When contrasted with Dagobah, this setting illustrates the conflict between technology and organic life, a conflict that will be explored more deeply in Empire's sequel, Return of the Jedi.

  • Point of View

    A Semi-Serialized Narrative with a Wide Scope

    The narrative technique of The Empire Strikes Back is kind of like a cave on a meteorite—it may look sorta normal, but it's actually as bizarre as a giant space-worm's belly.

    The Empire Strikes Back employs some unconventional narrative techniques that earned it criticism during its initial release, but eventually helped build its reputation as perhaps the greatest film in the Star Wars series.

    First off, the film begins—and ends—in medias res, which is a fancy Latin phrase that means "in the middle of things." It opens with Luke performing reconnaissance on Hoth and ends at the onset of Han's rescue mission.

    This totally reflects the influence of serialized sci-fi stories on Star Wars—Lucas is giving us the sense that this is but one small glimpse of our heroes' many adventures. Also, it establishes that The Empire Strikes Back represents the first half a story which will be concluded in Return of the Jedi. In other words, we get a nutso cliffhanger.

    In another departure from the first film, we don't follow a single story—we're generally cutting between two or three distinct story lines at a time. Sometimes we chill in one location for a few minutes, but, for the most part, we cut between these stories at a frantic pace, reflecting the urgency the characters feel. These stories eventually come together and culminate in a harrowing showdown in the bowels of Cloud City.

    No matter which way you slice it, The Empire Strikes Back's semi-serialized narrative structure and expansive scope give us an even more intimate look at this fascinating universe than the first film. What's more, it establishes what we're seeing is just the beginning of the story—all the dominoes set up here will fall in Return of the Jedi.

  • Genre

    Space Opera, Fantasy, Science-Fiction

    Despite popular belief, the term "space opera" has nothing to do with that scene in The Fifth Element when the blue lady sings. Sorry to disappoint.

    Instead, space opera is a sub-genre of science fiction that first emerged in the 1930's. Although these early works utilized the advanced technological settings of classic sci-fi, they abandoned the scientist's obsession with accuracy in favor of melodrama, adventure, and grandeur. In other words, it wasn't exactly high art. In fact, space operas were seen as "pulp fiction" at the time (which doesn't have anything to do with John Travolta, and is instead an insult to the book's quality).

    That's why it's not quite right to call Star Wars "science fiction." After all, the revelation in The Phantom Menace that Force abilities are caused by microscopic organisms caused a huge uproar in the Star Wars fandom, because it invalidated the mystical bent of the early films. (You wouldn't hear someone complaining about too much scientific detail in a Star Trek movie, would you?)

    That's because The Empire Strikes Back is a classic example of fantasy. Sure, it features advanced technology, but what we're dealing with are mythical archetypes, not super-complex scientific truths. There are even swords, for Windu's sake!

    This makes a lot more sense when you realize that Lucas was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell's famous studies of mythology, leading him to recreate ancient, mythic structures in Star Wars.

    You know who else was obsessed with recreating myths? A dude by the name of J.R.R. Tolkien. Although it uses the tropes and thematic elements of science fiction, The Empire Strikes Back is as much of a fantasy tale as anything from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    After their unmitigated victory in A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance is once again in dire straits.

    Three years after the destruction of the Death Star, this small, ragtag force has been forced into hiding, eventually settling on the remote, harsh planet of Hoth. Not exactly a great situation. To make things worse, the film opens with the Empire deploying probes in the hopes of locating this secret base and getting their revenge for the destruction of the Death Star.

    In other words, the Empire is about to strike back. In addition to explaining the literal situation in the film, this title also gives us a hint that this is going to be a darker, heavier affair than the first film. The good guys may have found themselves A New Hope, but they better get ready before The Empire Strikes Back.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    After the shocking revelation that Darth Vader is Luke's father, the ending of The Empire Strikes Back might seem a bit anti-climactic. You're right—but that's actually what the filmmakers intended. The Empire Strikes Back is merely one half of the story, and you're going to have to see Return of the Jedi to witness its conclusion.

    After losing the duel, his hand, and his mind, Luke throws himself from the balcony where he fought Vader and manages to grab hold of an antenna before falling to oblivion. He then telepathically contacts Leia (a hint that the pair are siblings) who picks him up in the Falcon and they escape Bespin with the Empire in hot pursuit.

    From there, we see our heroes re-establishing themselves: Luke gets himself a brand new artificial hand, while Lando and Chewie take the Falcon to rescue Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. That's it. After all of that non-stop tension building from the film's opening moments, we don't actually see any major plot threads resolved.

    Again, this shows that this film is but the first part of a longer super-story. This is another glimpse of the influence of serialized science-fiction on Star Wars but, perhaps more importantly, it gave moviegoers a really good reason to come back in a few years and spend the dough to watch the final film in the trilogy.

  • Shock Rating

    PG

    The film is certainly shocking in some ways, but not the ones that matter here. Warning: It does contain the use of the slur "nerf-herder," which we in the Nerf enthusiast community consider terribly offensive.