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No. 35: The Empire Strikes Back

OPEN BOOK, Views & Reviews, No. 35
Copyright (c) 1997 Biblical Horizons
October, 1997

The Empire Strikes Back is a movie most of us have seen more than once. It is generally regarded as the best of the three Star Wars films, which is probably due to the fact that unlike the other two, The Empire Strikes Back made use of the services of a professional science fiction writer, Leigh Brackett, a veteran of the SF golden age of the 1940s.

If we look past the special effects and the overall drama of the film, however, we notice some curious symbolism, which it is my purpose here to explore briefly (and which is probably due to the talents of Brackett.)

The Stars Wars trilogy is a heroic tale with two heroes. Han Solo is the action hero, while Luke Skywalker is the spiritual hero. As is typically the case in heroic narrative, the first part of the story deals with the initial triumphs of the hero(es), while the second part deals with defeats and tribulation. Only after such a trip through the valley of death is the hero ready for the final victory in the third part. Part of what makes the second film of the Star Wars trilogy the most attractive of the three is that suffering creates a more sympathetic response from the audience/reader than does victory.

As a signal of the valley of death that our heroes must pass through, The Empire Strikes Back employs the symbolism of caves. Three times the significant events for both heroes happen in caves. Considering our action hero first, we find that the story of Han Solo involves his romance with the heroine, Leia Organa. The first cave is the ice-cave in which the rebels are holed up at the beginning of the film. Han heroically saves Leia when the cave comes under attack. They have several lovers quarrels as Leia pretends not to be interested in Han.

After escaping from the ice planet, Han and Leia enter a cave in an asteroid. There they have their first kiss. The cave turns out, however, to be a giant space monster, from which they barely escape due to Han’s heroically quick responses. This Jonah-like story hints at death and resurrection.

The third cave into which Han enters is indeed a death. He is lowered into a quick-freezing apparatus and is encased in carbon ice. As he descends into this last cave, Leia professes her love for him. Like Jesus on the cross with His mother and John, Han gives Leia into the hands of his compadre Chewbacca for safekeeping.

The three caves into which Han and Leia enter have to do with their blossoming love, which is threatening to each of them emotionally: confusing the self-controlled Leia and melting the tough-guy Han. The cave is risky, and becomes a place where one dies to one’s old self and begins to come to life again as someone new.

Let us now turn to the three caves entered by the spiritual hero, Luke Skywalker. Han’s weapon is a blaster, but Luke’s is a sword — indeed, a sword of light, the weapon of a Jedi mystic. While Han must conquer his arrogance and fight bad guys, Luke must conquer his soul and bring peace.

The signal that something important is going on in the caves is this: In each case the hero, Luke, is hung upsidedown. How often have you ever seen the hero hung upsidedown even once in a film, or read of it in a story? This is quite deliberate, and symbolizes the inversion of fortunes. The hero is experiencing a reversal. Note that Han, the action hero, is not inverted. Inversion is thus a sign of spiritual trauma rather than of physical. (It would have been a simple matter for Lucas and Brackett to have shown Han Solo lowered into the carbon freeze apparatus upsidedown. That they did not do so is significant: Han’s crises are not the same as Luke’s.)

First, Luke is captured by an abominable snowman and hung upsidedown in the ice to be eaten later. He is badly bruised and bloodied, and this scene at the beginning of the movie anticipates the last cave scene, wherein Luke loses his hand.

Second, Luke goes to a swampy, mystical planet to be trained in spiritual arts by Yoda. The whole planet is like a cave, and twice we are shown Luke trying to learn the mystic arts while suspended upsidedown. Then Luke is sent underground into a cave to face his worst enemy, who turns out to be, despite appearances, not the evil Lord Darth Vader, but Luke himself. Luke’s apparent failure to learn what this confrontation means dismays Yoda. This scene also foreshadows the third cave scene.

The third cave is the inner core of Cloud City. There Luke fights Darth Vader and loses his hand, but saves his soul by being willing to die rather than join with evil. Flinging himself from a bridge, Luke drops down through the cave and emerges to hang suspended upsidedown on the spokes of an antenna that looks like a cross, from which he is rescued by Han’s friend and symbolic surrogate Lando Calrissian. The cross is here not a symbol for Luke’s willingness to die for his friends, but merely of suffering.

Luke’s rescue by action hero Lando corresponds to his earlier rescue by Han Solo. After the first cave incident, Luke used his light sabre to escape the abominable snowman, but nearly froze to death until Han found him.

It seems that the spiritual hero needs the action hero, and vice versa. Luke’s freezing in the cave at the beginning of the film foreshadows and balances Han’s being frozen at the end. Han rescued Luke, and at the beginning of the third film, Luke will rescue Han.

Yoda’s lesson to Luke at the second cave was this: "Your weapons — You will not need them." Luke carries his light sabre into the cave anyway, but it proves useless in fighting himself. In the final confrontation with Darth Vader in the caverns of Cloud City, however, Luke’s hand is cut off and his light sabre is lost. Now he does not have his weapons. If he has not learned Yoda’s lesson, and still relies on the power of weapons, he will have to surrender to Vader, who tells him that the power of evil is greater than the power of good. At this point, Luke is not facing Vader but himself. What will he do? Happily, Luke has learned his lesson, and rejects the way of power and evil for the way of wisdom and love, which he employs to save Darth Vader in the third part of the story.

To be sure, from a Christian standpoint there is a lot lacking in this narrative; yet, there is much to appreciate as well, especially when we note how carefully the story has been crafted.