As we have no new Episode this week, DarkUFO recapper has written IMHO 2 excellent articles that I thought I would share with you all here at DarkUFO. With there being a number of crossovers and references with Lost and Star Wars I hope that some of you will enjoy this. Although not directly tied with Lost those that love either Star Wars or Luhks unique writings or both should enjoy these.
I have lost count of how many times I have seen George Lucas’ Star Wars, whether in part or in full. Even after all these years and so many repeat viewings, the 1977 original still retains the power to entertain, amaze, and inspire like few others. The film has been so influential, and so ingrained in our cultural consciousness, that it can be easy to take the film’s virtues for granted and fix your eyes only on its faults. When I watched it again recently, I tried as best as I could to examine it with a fresh set of eyes. It was bound to be an impossible exercise on some levels, but I did discover some new elements in the storytelling, and in the filmmaking craft, that I had never fully appreciated.
Perhaps more than any other American movie, Star Wars is an exercise on mythopoeia, the conscious generation of myth. It is no secret that George Lucas consulted mythology scholar Joseph Campbell while crafting his screenplay. Campbell is most famous for his seminal text The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which analyzes the common elements of myths across cultures and lays out a blueprint for the archetypal hero’s journey. Lucas borrowed quite liberally from an even wider variety of sources: Flash Gordon serials, King Arthur legend, Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo, John Ford’s The Searchers, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Lucas’ own 1950s nostalgia piece American Graffiti, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Wizard of Oz, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Freudian psychoanalysis, World War II newsreels and propaganda films, the music of composers Richard Strauss and Gustav Holst, the American Revolutionary War, and religions from both West and East. Star Wars is not merely a work of fantasy fiction, but a key intersection within a massive web of cultural storytelling, both narrative and sensory, that stretches across every direction in time and space.
It would be a mistake, however, to regard Star Wars as anything other than an original work. Few films are more imaginative than George Lucas’ seminal work, and one man’s individual personality shines brightly through the entire run-time. Even a mere glance at that list of inspirations above shows a few key insights into how the mind of George Lucas operates. Some of those works affected the film on the large scale, by informing the broad structure of his story; many of those works influenced some very specific details of his film’s production. Lucas’ main strengths as a filmmaker exist on the micro level (the invention and careful planning of thousands of different elements of his universe) and the macro level (arranging those elements into a stylistically and thematically consistent whole). He keeps a keen eye for both the big picture and the small picture simultaneously. Star Wars is a film rich with many layers of possible interpretation, but when I watched it most recently, I was amazed by the central role that size played in the film, both in the screenplay and in the celluloid.
Beginning with the very first shot, the film’s imagery conveys the artist’s unique attitude towards size relationships. After the famous opening crawl, the background of an entire universe of stars and planets fills the screen. Slowly, the camera tilts downward, to reveal one small planet on the right side of the screen and another larger one on left of the screen. Then, a third, much larger planet appears in the foreground, dwarfing the other two objects. This simple visual progression dramatically alters the viewer’s perspective on the objects, by suggesting that the first two objects are moons orbiting around the larger planet. In reality, though, the opposite could just as easily be true. Our assumptions about relative size depend entirely on the placement of the camera. As Obi-Wan would eventually say in the final film of the saga: “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
Next, the Rebel blockade runner enters the screen from the top right. The planetary objects provide a sense of scale, which becomes essential in creating the illusion of tremendous speed. Finally, this setup pays off in a huge way, with the introduction of the massive Imperial star destroyer following closely behind it. The object just keeps getting larger and larger in the frame for a breathtaking effect. With just a single elegant camera movement and a careful choreography of models, Lucas has introduced the audience into the Star Wars universe. The initial shot highlights the vastness of space, a backdrop of planets filled with limitless possibilities. The in-between shot focuses on the planet and moons, and plays with the relationship between perspective and size. The third set of images introduces the two sides of the conflict, with the small collection of Rebels being hunted down relentlessly by the colossal and technologically superior Empire. These visuals also hint at what will become a major motif throughout the story, and perhaps the central element of the Star Wars mythology, the relationships between very large things and very small things.
The next sequence introduces the audience to the story’s first characters, R2-D2 and C-3P0 (and then Princess Leia soon after). The little astromech Artoo enters as the smallest and most insignificant element of this movie universe, but he becomes the focal point around which the whole story revolves. In a small compartment, inside the smallest droid, in the halls of a tiny Rebel starship, trapped within a huge Imperial ship, near a massive planet, somewhere in a wide galaxy; there resides the information upon which the fate of all of those planets depends. The Empire captures every Rebel onboard, and only the two droids can escape, because they are small enough to avoid detection. Darth Vader, the biggest and strongest character in this battle, with the might of the Empire at his disposal, is undone by the efforts of the two little droids and the young princess. As their escape pod drifts away, C-3P0 comments on the battle: “That’s funny. The damage doesn’t look as bad from out here.” The audience will not hear Obi-Wan’s initial explanation of the Force for another thirty minutes. Well before that explicit explanation, the film has already offered the first of many illustrations of the film’s philosophy.
“The Force is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
Both the visual power and the narrative power of Lucas’ film reside in its ability to shift the viewer’s perspective on size. If you examine the smallest characters in the galaxy (little R2-D2 and young Luke and Leia) from up close, then they appear larger than life. If you look at the biggest elements of the universe (Vader and the Imperial war machine) from far enough away, then they appear small enough to be beaten. If you compare both the Rebellion and the Empire against the vastness of space, then the difference between them seems pretty insignificant. The film’s entire narrative arc can be seen as an epic struggle between two machines: R2-D2 and the Death Star. Common sense would dictate that the Death Star is a much more significant element in the universe than R2-D2, but in this story, the opposite proves to be true. We can conceive of the Star Wars galaxy as one giant organism, in which the Death Star functions as a cancerous growth that threatens it, and R2-D2 and the rest of the Rebellion serves as an immune system to protect it. The story does not necessarily serve as an allegory for good and evil (and this idea becomes even more apparent in Lucas’ prequel trilogy), but instead a story of small things overcoming large things.
As the script unfolds, its preoccupation with size becomes even more apparent. R2-D2 soon finds himself captured by a band of Jawas, creatures even smaller than himself. The message inside him contains a hologram of Princess Leia, which delivers life-altering orders from her miniature form. Artoo goes off to find Kenobi after Luke supposes, “I guess you’re too small to run away from me”. Obi-Wan quite ironically warns the alien thugs in Mos Eisley that “this little one [Luke] is not worth the effort”. The Millennium Falcon successfully escapes capture from two Imperial cruisers, only to be lured into a trap by one tiny TIE fighter, which is “headed for that small moon”. The heroes eventually escape the Death Star, but the Imperials rely on a hidden tracking device. The Rebels attack the Death Star with one-man fighters, small enough to avoid the barrage of large-scale defenses, and target a 2-meter exhaust port. The mighty Imperials can only defend themselves by resorting to even smaller fighters, the smallest and deadliest of which is piloted by Vader. Again and again in the story, the smaller elements of the universe prove to be the most significant.
Lucas conveyed this recurring motif of size relationships not only through the screenplay, but also with his filming technique. This effect is more obvious in space, but it also applies on the ground. Specifically, he used different camera placements to affect the size of characters in the frame, and then he used the size of the character in the frame to convey its relative importance in the story. The best way to maximize the physical size of a character on screen is to shoot a tight close-up, from a lower angle, with the actor centered. Throughout the film, four characters receive the greatest number of such shots: R2-D2, Leia, Luke, and Obi-Wan (although Vader receives quite a few himself). This choice creates a twofold effect. First, it establishes a strong sense of empathy and intimacy between the audience and those characters. More importantly, though, this visual cue serves as a symbol for the metaphorical size of these figures, a measure of their courage and their high ideals.
A few scenes in particular illustrate the almost-subliminal effectiveness of this technique. When Luke and Obi-Wan first meet Han Solo in the Mos Eisley Cantina, the two sides of the bargaining table are filmed differently. Luke and Obi-Wan repeatedly appear in the center of the frame, from a low angle, and up close. Han is frequently shown from a more mid-range distance, from a higher angle, and offset to the left side of the screen. Chewbacca towers over him on the right side of the screen, and makes Han appear even smaller in context. At the same time, the dialogue of the scene highlights the differences in their motivations. Han’s materialism and self-interested behavior contrasts against the idealism and altruistic behavior of the two Rebels. The physical size of the characters in the frame depicts the difference between their worldviews.
Lucas maintains this pattern in subsequent philosophical conversations between Obi-Wan and Han. When the two characters debate each other inside the Falcon and on the Death Star, Obi-Wan features prominently in the foreground while Han is marginalized in the background. (During the first scene, Obi-Wan comments that Luke has “taken [his] first-step into a larger world,” despite Han’s pessimistic influence.) Over the course of the film, the mercenary Solo is usually filmed from a more distant perspective than the Rebels, and thus made to seem smaller. He appears in more mid-range shots, frequently off-center, or turned to the side, hunched over or leaning back, and very often with a larger background characters looming behind him. Of course, this trend eventually breaks down as Solo evolves into a Rebel. When Han returns to rescue Luke in the Death Star trench, the camera shows him larger than ever before, as the visual and ideological equal of Luke and Leia.
Another primary character in the story, Governor Tarkin receives a similar visual treatment. Tarkin serves as the secondary villain in the story, but he is first in command on the Death Star. Tarkin can be seen as the film’s chief emblem of military power, in control of what appears to be ‘the ultimate power in the universe.’ Despite this status, he remains a relatively small visual object in the camera lens. It is almost impossible to find a frame in which Tarkin’s face occupies the center of the screen. In most of his scenes, the mystic Darth Vader towers above him with a dominating presence (in the same way that the noble Chewbacca overshadows Han). One of my favorite shots in the entire film occurs just before the destruction of Alderaan: Tarkin stands before a massive viewing screen, looking out at a vulnerable blue planet much like our own. Tarkin at once appears quite large in relation to the planet but quite small relative to our screen. The image conveys the tremendous destructive power of man, with the smallness of mind that accompanies it.
Perhaps even more powerful images, though, can be found in the mirroring scene in the climactic battle. The Death Star appears far into the background on the left of the frame while the Falcon and three other Rebel fighters race towards the camera. As the ships move closer, they also dominate more space in the frame, one-by-one growing larger than the Death Star itself. The camera cuts to a brief shot of Tarkin’s profile, peering off-screen, pensively awaiting his “moment of triumph”. In contrast with the massive, centered close-ups of Han and Luke, Tarkin’s last breath suggests powerlessness and the failure of his vision. The film cuts back to the Death Star, now zoomed even further away. The station assumes the same space occupied by Tarkin’s face in the previous shot, conflating the two figures, just before the two detonate.
Lucas’ Star Wars is often accused of being a childish film, and many people treat it as a scapegoat for the transition from the dark and serious American films of the 1970s into the commercial blockbusters of the 1980s. On the surface level, it is true that the film’s form makes it accessible to viewers of all ages. Mythology scholar Roland Barthes argued that truly successful myths operate through second-order signals, coded messages that become our assumptions of truth about the world. The Star Wars myth conveys its own particular worldview in precisely this manner. To a large degree, the film reflects many of the most serious issues that America faced in the late twentieth century.
Advances in science and technology make our world smaller and larger at the same time. As Americans and Soviets raced to the moon, photographs from space transformed people’s perspectives about exactly how small, fragile, and interconnected out planet really was. Star Wars extended this idea into an entire galaxy of life forms intimately tied together in the same fashion. During the Cold War, our planet was struggling to adapt to the reality of nuclear annihilation, the world’s supreme destructive force derived from elementary particles. Star Wars again shifted this realization outward, with the Death Star serving as the ultimate symbol of escalating military force. Over the previous decade, though, America itself had received a harsh lesson about the limits of technological superiority. The same U.S. military that had defeated Germany and Japan with conventional and atomic weapons in World War II proved to be no match for the power of human will in the jungles of Vietnam. Americans understood exactly what Vader meant when he warned his fellow Imperials: “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” We may be accustomed to seeing ourselves as the Rebellion, but in reality, the Empire might serve as the more accurate mirror. (The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, explores this concept more fully.)
George Lucas was a visionary filmmaker on many levels. He imagined an entire galaxy from the largest planets down to the smallest creatures. As a craftsman, he intuitively understood how to use the camera to shape human perception. He knew how to make the smallest objects appear to be colossal, and to make the largest objects appear to be insignificant. This understanding not only informed the technical aspects of his work, but it also became a central aspect of his art. At one point in the film, Obi-Wan Kenobi instructs young Luke: “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.” The visuals of Star Wars depend upon our acceptance of countless optical illusions. The mythology of Star Wars, however, asks the audience to distrust our own limited senses in favor of a larger perspective on the forces at play in our universe.
Three years after the original Star Wars closed on a triumphant high note, the sequel redefined the tone of the series, beginning with this simple sentence: “It is a dark time for the Rebellion.” For financial reasons, the majority of movie sequels are formulaic. Studios want to replicate the box-office success of the original film, so they emulate whatever worked the first time. The opening crawl of this second film, as well as its title, signaled that the next chapter here would follow a much different path. The film that follows lives up to that promise, and offers a fresh and unique experience from start to finish. The Empire Strikes Back does not follow the formula, but instead subverts it in a way so that the two films add meaning to one another. The film’s hero, Luke Skywalker, uses the Force five times during The Empire Strikes Back. In each of those five scenes, Luke is upside-down immediately beforehand. In order to fully understand his world this time around, Luke must literally invert his existing perspective on the world.
Although the character archetypes remain the same, the storytelling structure in The Empire Strikes Back becomes almost a complete inversion of the first film. In Star Wars, the Imperials discovered the location of the Rebel base during the final act, which set the stage for a spectacular large-scale battle won by the Rebels. In the sequel, the Empire locates the Rebellion, then wins the movie’s biggest battle, and destroys their hidden base, all within the opening act. In Star Wars, Luke learned about his identity through an early conversation with Obi-Wan, which marked the beginning of his adventure. In The Empire Strikes Back, the entire adventure leads up to a climax of emotion rather than spectacle, in which Luke learns that his self-image was based on a lie. The film’s secondary climax, Leia’s goodbye to Han before he is frozen in carbonite, is also a moment about the lives of two characters, not a key event in the war between the Rebellion against the Empire. Throughout the first movie, different characters sacrificed their own interests to serve the common good; the second movie pushes the collective to the background and then shifts its attention back on the individuals.
Size relationships played a major role in the original Star Wars, and The Empire Strikes Back builds on the first film’s philosophy. The film once again opens with a shot of an Imperial destroyer in space. The first character on-screen is a small droid, this time an Imperial probe droid rather than C-3P0 and R2-D2 of the Rebellion. Much like the other two droids did in the first film, the probe droid’s pod drifts down to a barren wasteland on the surface of a remote planet, on a mission vital to the larger conflict. In the ensuing Battle of Hoth, the Rebels defend themselves against massive Imperial walkers by tripping them from underneath in maneuverable snowspeeders. The Millennium Falcon survives the assault of the giant Star destroyers, by hiding rather than by force. After the Imperial starfleet fails in its pursuit of the lone ship, only the bounty hunter Boba Fett manages to track them in an even smaller ship. Little R2-D2 once again foils the Empire’s plans, this time by fixing the Falcon’s hyperdrive at the last moment to escape from Vader’s Super Star Destroyer.
The film’s best exploration of its size philosophy, though, comes through the introduction of Jedi Master Yoda. Luke initially overlooks the strange little creature on Dagobah, because he’s looking for ‘a great warrior.’ (Little Yoda's response: "Wars not make one great.") In due course, the tiny green alien turns out to be the powerful master himself. In perhaps my favorite scene of the entire trilogy, Yoda teaches Luke that ‘size matters not,’ and then uses the Force to lift Luke’s X-Wing from the bottom of a swamp. The feat is remarkable for two reasons. First, there is the obvious size disparity between Yoda himself and the multi-ton ship. Moreover, though, the scene plays with the deeper irony in that a machine designed to fly across the galaxy with ease depends upon this creature in order to fly a few more feet.
Although the size motif plays an important role in the story, this new recurring theme of the relationship between nature and technology becomes perhaps a more prominent feature of the second film. During the opening scene, two different objects crash on the Rebel base, first the Imperial droid and then a meteorite. The two objects (one natural, one artificial) look indistinguishable. When Luke witnesses the falling meteorite, the audience should suspect that he will encounter the probe droid. Instead, Luke comes under attack from a wampa, a polar bear-like creature that drags him back to its cave. This same pilot who destroyed the Death Star nearly dies, first from a random creature attack, and then from the elements of the icy planet. After learning that “it’s to cold for speeders,” Han ventures out to find Luke on the back of a tauntaun creature. Han saves Luke from exposure through a decidedly low-tech solution, by stuffing his friend inside the guts of the creature for warmth. The first film essentially presented a battle between Rebel and Imperial technology. From the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, though, nature begins to assert its agency as a major player in the story.
After those early scenes in the dangerous environment of Hoth, the natural world continues to launch an assault on both Rebel and Imperial technology. When the hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon fails, the ship stumbles into an asteroid field. The Falcon defends itself from the approaching fighters, not with its guns as it did in a similar scene from the first film, but by using the natural environment. The Empire’s fighters prove to be no match for a chaotic assortment of rocks. Later, the asteroids take out entire Imperial star destroyers as well. Both living and non-living elements of nature make quite an impact on this man-made conflict.
After escaping from the Imperials, the Falcon seeks refuge in what he believes to be an empty cave. The environment then begins attacking the ship, first from an infestation of parasitic Mynock creatures. Then, the cave itself turns out to be part of a living creature, the belly of a giant Space Slug that tries to consume the ship. What Han and Leia believed to be an inanimate rock turned out to be a living creature. This ultimate reveal not only makes for an exciting scene, but it highlights the saga’s recurring metaphor that compares the world itself to a living organism. In a convoluted way, this scene also foreshadows Han’s ultimate fate in the film, as he himself will be transformed from a breathing being into a slab of rock. Halfway through the film, Yoda’s explanation of the Force expands upon Obi-Wan’s definition (an energy field created by all living things) to include non-living things as well (the land itself and man-made technology). Fittingly, the story itself blurs many of those distinctions.
Meanwhile, on the jungle planet of Dagobah, Luke and his ship faces a similar set of natural challenges. When approaching the system, Luke notes that there are “massive life readings” on the planet, but “no cities or technology”. The same starship that triumphed in the Battle of Yavin barely survives a simple landing, due to the thick canopy on Dagobah. A giant snake swallows R2-D2 whole and then spits him out as they make their way out of the swamp. Luke sets up camp with a wide array of his high-tech gadgets, none of which serve much of a purpose on this particular planet. Dagobah marks a major departure from every other system in the Star Wars galaxy in that nothing on the planet requires science-fiction. The setting itself serves as an integral part of Luke’s training, as he evolves from treating it as a “slimy mud hole,” to appreciating all of it life forms.
Midway through Luke’s training, he encounters a cave in the middle of Dagobah. (There are actually three different caves in the story, including the wampa cave on Hoth and the space slug belly in the asteroid field.) Although the cave on Dagobah is filled with creatures just like the other two caves, it presents a much different source of danger. This ominous setting serves as the backdrop for one of the most unique and memorable scenes in the saga. The Star Wars films follow some strict temporal guidelines: there are no flashbacks or hallucinations or dream sequences allowed, and action scenes never use slow-motion. This scene on Dagobah is the lone exception, and consequently this choice of technique presents many questions of interpretation.
When Luke asks what’s inside the cave, Yoda tells him “only what you take with you.” Here on Dagobah, Luke encounters Darth Vader (an impossible event with Vader across the galaxy), and a brief, slow-motion battle ensues. Luke wins the fight and beheads Vader, only to see his own face revealed underneath Vader’s mask. Neither Yoda nor Luke offers any explanation of the event afterward, which leaves the audience to decipher the imagery. This visual of course hints at the ultimate revelation of the true relationship between Luke and Vader, but I think the scene would work on its own even without that later connection. The scene marks the saga’s deepest exploration of its Dark Side, and it requires virtually no dialogue. Which detail of the event is the more damaging revelation to Luke: seeing his own head lying on the floor, or seeing his own face inside Vader’s helmet? The film’s eventual climax forces Luke to choose between those two fates, to follow Obi-Wan’s path of martyrdom or to follow his father’s path to power.
Of course, Luke would not be in the position to make that ultimate decision if he had not made another, more challenging, decision earlier in the film. During a meditation exercise on Dagobah, Luke catches a glimpse of the future, and sees his friends Han and Leia suffering at the hands of Vader. The wise Jedi master Yoda advises Luke that he must complete his training before he confronts Vader. To justify this decision, Yoda essentially echoes the morality of the first Star Wars film: Luke must sacrifice his own individual concerns (personal attachments) in order to achieve a greater collective purpose (defeating the Empire). Instead, Luke does the opposite. He ignores his duty to the Rebellion, and instead rushes into battle to rescue his friends. Luke’s decision here is the focal point for the final act of the film, and his decision is, on its face, the wrong one.
Luke’s actions set off a chain of events that achieves his intended result. By fighting Vader when he did, Luke gives Lando the opportunity to release Leia and Chewbacca. Luke also brings R2-D2 with him, and the droid makes their escape possible. Luke does not defeat his opponent, but he survives the battle and learns the secret that will ultimately conquer Vader. One could conclude that Luke just got lucky here, but I think that more meaning rests under the surface. Earlier in his training, Yoda taught Luke that the reason he could not lift the starship was that he believed it was impossible. This idea is not merely a fictional conceit but a legitimate psychological phenomenon: if a person believes that he will fail, then he probably will fail. In the situation that surrounds Luke’s decision, Yoda is the disbeliever. Yoda thinks that Luke is doomed to fail, but Luke truly believes that he will succeed. Through the Force, he makes the impossible possible. This idea might seem naïve, but Luke’s confidence in himself does show a degree of wisdom about the power of positive thinking that Yoda himself might have lost. The student disobeys his master, but follows the spirit of his master’s teachings, at the same time.
In a series famous for its amazing special effects, the on-screen realization of the character Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back might rank as the most impressive visual effect in the entire series. In the masterful hands of Frank Oz, the puppet itself shows such a life-like range of movement with its body, face, eyes, and ears that Yoda can emote as well as any actor. Mark Hammil deserves plenty of credit for execution of Yoda’s scenes as well, because none of them would work without a full commitment from his co-stars. Legend has it that director Irvin Kershner often found himself delivering instructions to Yoda himself rather than the puppeteer.
Although Yoda has received plenty of justified praise over the years, I think that the portrayal of the Darth Vader character might be a more difficult and more impressive feat. The Empire Strikes Back gives Vader motivations as dynamic and complex as those of any other character. The film needed to convey a range of human emotions without the benefit of any facial expressions. James Earl Jones deserves plenty of credit for his spot-on line readings, and David Prowse does phenomenally effective work with head movements and body language. The real burden for the development of the character, though, rests on the director. Irvin Kershner used a wide array of techniques (the camerawork, the lighting, movement in the frame, along with the assistance of music) to elevate Vader beyond a one-dimensional villain into a tragic figure. In the first film, Vader was merely a servant, second in command to Tarkin, to serve a military objective. The Empire Strikes Back unleashes Vader’s full fury, and his new motives become purely personal. On the first viewing, audiences would be unlikely to appreciate Vader’s actions as anything more than a necessary element of the plot. However, Vader’s climactic revelation to Luke humanizes the character, and then a number of throwaway details take on a more poignant meaning.
Vader’s first and last scenes in the movie appear almost identical to each other. In both cases, Vader stands on the bridge of the Executor, the largest and most powerful starship in the galaxy, peering out into space. The first scene shows the Imperial starfleet massed at full strength, and he initially appears to be basking in the glory of his power. In both the first and second acts of the film, Vader uses the Force to strangle two of his incompetent Imperial officers. Initially, these acts highlight Vader’s nearly limitless strength, but on later viewings, they become pathetic acts of frustration. When a third Imperial officer fails him in the final act, Vader walks away in resignation, as he learns the pointlessness of his powers. During the final scene, the audience knows the true reason why Vader has been staring off into the depths of space: his longing to find his son. On a second viewing, the opening scene highlights Vader’s powerlessness rather than his omnipotence. Even with unlimited resources at his disposal, he cannot acquire the one thing that truly matters to him. By the end of the film, Vader's signature sound effect, his raspy breathing, no longer inspires fear.
The film also highlights Vader’s vulnerabilities in another series of three scenes aboard his flagship. In the first one, an officer walks in to find Vader inside a tiny meditation chamber. When the general arrives a second time, he catches a glimpse of what Vader was doing inside the chamber, regenerating his weak and damaged body. Vader’s next scene shows him in an even more vulnerable position, kneeling before a massive hologram of the Emperor. The abundant presence of technology in these scenes plays an important role in characterizing Vader. The dark lord depends entirely on machines to survive. Throughout the the two films, Vader never sets foot in a natural setting. His world is completely artificial, a prison of cold metal. Vader has chosen a world of seemingly limitless physical power and material success, but the means to that end place severe limits on himself. Vader’s one-hundred percent artificial living space on the Executor serves as the polar opposite of Yoda’s one-hundred percent natural home environment on Dagobah. Luke navigates back and forth between the two realms. At the end of the film, Luke’s own body becomes a blend of nature and technology, when he replaces his severed hand with a machine.
As visually impressive as the first film was, Star Wars did not offer much variety with its lighting and coloring. With The Empire Strikes Back, Irvin Kershner experimented more with the use of light and color to convey different emotions. These techniques were particularly effective in scenes that explored the love story between Han and Leia. Their relationship progresses through three phases in the film, each of which matches the prevailing color scheme. The ice planet of Hoth is dominated by white, blue, and gray tones. The environment is bright, sterile, and very public. Each of the conversations between Han and Leia on Hoth takes place with other people present, and the two characters maintain a façade that corresponds to their expected roles. Throughout the second act of the film, Han and Leia bond together aboard the Millennium Falcon in space. The interior of the Falcon is predominantly dark, but there are plenty of small and warm lights throughout the background, much like a candlelight home. The Falcon itself becomes an intimate family setting, complete with the dog-like Chewbacca and the child-like C-3P0. Sheltered from the external pressures, Han and Leia begin to open up and expose their true feelings for each other. When they move on to Cloud City, they return to public spaces and brighter interiors, and now they feel comfortable enough to show the same affection to the rest of the world.
The overall use of color at Bespin is more striking and memorable than any other phase of the film. The city uses two basic color schemes. The first scheme is highly reminiscent of the Rebel Base on Hoth: plenty of white interiors and white clouds against a beautiful blue sky. Kershner uses this palette whenever he seeks to portray the City as a haven: when Lando makes them feel at home, and when Luke arrives to rescue his friends. The second scheme is almost the exact opposite: an ominous red sky filled with black highlights. When the Falcon crew first arrives at Bespin, unsure whether they will find safety, the City is surrounded by red clouds. The red sky again dominates during their dangerous escape from the city. Throughout the film, Kershner uses the color red to connote danger. One of the most memorable shots in the film occurs when Luke takes flight away from Dagobah. The green jungle becomes pitch-black with Yoda’s face bathed in the ship’s red lights.
The Empire Strikes Back refrains from showing any blood, but some blood-red images still impact the viewer on a subliminal level. My personal favorite use of this technique occurs soon after Lando’s betrayal. Up until that point, the film had used only white interiors on Cloud City, but after Vader captures the Rebels, he confines them in black rooms with some red highlights. Vader proceeds to torture Han with a sadistic piece of technology. As Han approaches the device, the red light from the machine glows onto his face. Before Han makes contact with the device, the camera cuts away quickly to outside the room. Lando appears in the same part of the frame as Han, and he reacts as he hears his friend’s screams. The new background behind him is completely red, as he experiences his friend’s suffering. The combined effect of the two shots creates an implied mental image of Han’s pain, and reveals Lando’s feelings without saying a word.
This visual motif moves to operatic heights as the action eventually moves to the carbon-freezing chamber. The room’s atmosphere (an array of red lights against a dark blue background, along with plenty of smoke) provides a perfect complement for the two emotional events that take place there. The predominant mood here is despair. First, Leia must say goodbye to Han before he is frozen in carbonite. Soon after, an outmatched Luke begins his showdown with Vader. The prior lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Vader during Star Wars was essentially a tame fencing match between two old experts, which ended in forfeit. The duel at Bespin is absolutely brutal by comparison. The two Skywalkers shift back and forth as aggressors, and they rip apart several rooms with their anger. The choreography, pacing, set direction, and dialogue during the duel could scarcely be improved. Vader relies as much on his physical skill as he does on psychological manipulation. After Vader severs Luke’s hand, he delivers the biggest blow of all, the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father.
Regardless of how many times the ending to The Empire Strikes Back has been quoted or parodied, it retains its power. It is difficult to describe exactly why the confrontation between Luke and Vader is such a beautiful sequence. Good vs. evil myths and father-son conflicts can be found throughout literature and film. The Empire Strikes Back found a way to combine those two cliches into a more meaningful work of art. From the beginning of the first Star Wars all the way into the final act of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke and Vader has been portrayed as moral absolutes. The films portrayed a static universe in which Luke was purely good and Vader was purely evil. With a single sentence from Vader ("I am your father"), all of that purity vanished. Vader had once been as purely good as Luke, and Luke might one day become as purely evil as Vader. The moment requires the viewer (particularly the younger viewer) to address the reality: there is a very real possibility that you yourself might become the bad guy some day. Before that point, the audience could treat Vader as something completely foreign from ourselves. Afterwards, Vader becomes part of your family, and in a sense, part of you. The person under that mask looks just like you. (Tot put it another way, Vader transformed from a heartless machine into a red-blooded human being.) Maybe America really is the Evil Empire, but we're just not wearing a black cape and carrying a red saber.
At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, the Star Wars universe has been turned upside down. The Empire has destroyed the Rebel Base on Hoth. Han has been frozen and transported a galaxy away from Leia. Obi-Wan has been exposed as a liar. Luke lost his duel, lost his weapon, and lost his innocence. Somehow, in the midst of all of this heartbreak, a new glimmer of hope shines through in the final frames. The hope in the final scene is not a childish hope, not the belief that everything will turn out okay because good conquers evil. As Luke and Leia watch the Falcon fly off into the distance, an adult understanding of the situation sets in. In the words of Yoda: "Always in motion is the future." If the Empire can turn the tables on the Rebellion so quickly, and if a person like Luke can become Darth Vader, then the opposite transformations are also possible. The Rebels have no certainty that they will succeed, but only a resolve to help each other through the darkest times.