Breaking Down The Most Important Scene in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

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It’s Star Wars Week here on Cinelinx!  How’s that different from any other week?  Well, this week features the unofficialy Star Wars holiday (May the Fourth), so all week long we’ll be bringing you content that highlights one of the biggest movie franchises is the world…And why we love it.  Today, I’m going to be talking about one of my all time favorite films: The Empire Strikes Back.  Regardless of the Star Wars connection and it’s a phenomenal film with a story that resonates with just about anyone. It’s just a damn good film.

Obviously it’s jammed packed with a number of powerful scenes and moments, not least of which is the shocking reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s Father.  As important as the moment is, there’s another moment in ESB I feel is even more important.  One which highlights the central themes for the the Original Trilogy, while cementing it’s place within the modern mythology of storytelling.  I’m talking about when Yoda lifts the X-wing from the swamp, and firmly puts Luke in his place. 

For me, this scene encapsulates the central theme of, not only Empire Strikes Back, but the entire Star Wars Saga.  Star Wars is the epitome of the archetypal journey, and is a shining example of this brand of storytelling.  One of the primary themes that run throughout every film is the notion of overcoming the odds; rooting for the underdog.  The Original Trilogy focuses on the plight of a small group of Rebels desperately fighting a war against a massive, galaxy spanning dictatorship. The idea that hard work, and strength of will can overcome overwhelming odds is a central part of the Star Wars mythos.

Here you have one of the most diminutive characters (a person whose small, hobbling on a cane, and appears frail enough to be knocked over by a stiff breeze) able to accomplish an incredible feat that even the film’s hero couldn’t.  It’s a powerful visual and hammers home the idea of overcoming obstacles theme. 

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More so than this imagery, the dialog between Luke and Yoda before and after are a large part of what makes this scene so memorable.  Outside of “May the Force be with you” one of the most oft-quoted lines from Star Wars is “Do or do not, there is no try”, which is spoken by Yoda before he puts Luke to shame with his Force skills.

Many have contended the statement makes no sense, or at worse, is a negative comment about the effort a person puts into something they want (a funny idea that was explored even in Star Wars Rebels).  I’ve never felt that was the case.  Rather, I feel the statement is a remark about how important a person’s mindset is to accomplishing a task.  Having a positive mindset is the key to reaching your goals and having doubts will only hold you back.  Rather than going into a task thinking, “I’m going to try”, instead think “I’m going to achieve this goal” and then do everything in your power to make it happen.

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It’s a very profound idea and Luke’s failure in doing so makes it all the more impactful when you think about it.  Again, this goes back to the central theme presented in Star Wars about the ability for people to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks, despite the odds against them.  The Rebels have to stop the Empire, because it’s the right thing to doe.  Letting evil people remain in control is worth fighting against.  If they’d merely ‘tried’ to overthrow the Empire, without any end-goal in mind, they would have failed.  Because they believed in themselves that they could win, the Rebels ended up claiming victory. 

Let’s talk about the other side of that conversation now.  After Yoda picks up the X-Wing, Luke goes to him and says, “I don’t believe it.”  To which Yoda frankly replies, “That is why you fail.”  Whoa.  Talk about heavy stuff here.  Did we just hear someone tell us that the main character failed at something? 

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Throughout the last several decades of film, it’s a common thing to witness our heroes stumble and fail so completely in a task.  All too often they are presented as the be all and end all hero, who can overcome any obstacle with ease.  Sure, they may have some tough spots to get through, but the outcome of their success is never in doubt.  It creates a distinct lack of tension in movies, and the reason some films can’t keep your attention.  As such, hearing Yoda proclaim Luke has failed in his training is a huge deal.  Now we look upon Luke as a flawed character, we can see that he’s not perfect and very capable of making mistakes. 

If he can fail here, then he can fail elsewhere.

Despite his ability to wield a mysterious power and the fact he saved the day in the previous film, Luke is still human and capable of messing up.  This a powerful statement for a film to make, and one which gives audiences reason to doubt the outcome of our heroes.  It’s this idea that keeps you ENGAGED in his personal journey, rather than just the overall plot.  It’s also a great bit of foreshadowing for his upcoming failures in Cloud City towards the end of the film.  To make the journey harder and implement a greater amount of tension, it’s important to see Luke fail and it’s not something audiences are accustomed to witnessing. 

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When Luke ultimately saves the day at the end of the trilogy it’s more impactful to audiences because we’ve seen him struggle and fail.  We’ve seen him forced to overcome his own limitations and lack of faith in order to accomplish what should have been impossible (the redemption of his Father and overthrowing the Emperor).  Because we saw his failure, we’re better able to understand his growth as a character/hero by the end of the journey.  

While it might be easy to disregard this scene as nothing more than a cool “oh wow” moment, that would be folly.  This moment in Empire Strikes Back might be the most important for all of Star Wars; a testament to the hero’s journey and the point at which we can see Luke as something other than the hero.  

-Jordan