Studying Skywalkers: Themes in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Studying Skywalkers is an exclusive column that investigates the characters, themes, and lessons of Star Wars from an educational, literary perspective. In this installment, StarWars.com looks at themes in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Star Wars.com continues to look at themes present in the six existing Star Wars films as we get closer to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Up next on our list is The Empire Strikes Back. Routinely analyzed and dissected for incredible action, evolving character dynamics, and, of course, the stunning reveal of Skywalker pedigree. The penultimate film in the original trilogy contains themes that heighten personal cost to each character, and adds more layers of complexity and drama to the Star Wars saga. As with many good stories, the film provides more questions than answers, and has left a legacy on popular culture for many generations of not only Star Wars fans, but filmgoers as well.

The Empire Strikes Back - Han riding a Tauntaun on Hoth

Sacrifice can come at great personal cost
As soon as the opening crawl blends into space, Luke Skywalker finds himself in a precarious situation, and Han Solo must venture out into the icy world of the Hoth system in order to save his friend. Han submerges himself into the frigid climate, and saves his friend from almost certain death. Han puts his friend’s life above his own, and, despite sub-zero temperatures, and several warnings, Solo forsakes his individual nature yet again for Luke, and demonstrates that the eponymous hero is solo in name only. The irony here is that when he is later encased in carbonite, the cold yet again leads to Solo forming a stronger bond with his friends, as they will soon risk everything for him.

Much later in the film, Luke must risk his life, and future as a Jedi Knight, in order to face Darth Vader, in the hopes of rescuing his friends. He rejects the advice of Yoda that he must honor what they fight for, and chooses to leave Dagobah and head towards a potentially fatal confrontation with the Lord of the Sith. Luke has waited his entire life to become a Jedi Knight, and he puts his own pursuits behind in order to save his friends. Both characters choose selflessness, and bring more nuance to their respective characters as a result of personal sacrifice.

The Empire Strikes Back - Yoda on Dagobah

What lies beneath the surface
One of the more meaningful themes in The Empire Strikes Back involves what is beyond the surface, or more pertinent to the theme: understanding that superficial judgments about what one sees is not always a clear picture. The clearest example is that of the diminutive Jedi Master, Yoda. When we first meet the 900-year-old Dagobah resident, he is playful and frivolous, but once Luke Skywalker exhibits impatience, Yoda presents a sage, mature mentor that is possibly the most respected and skillful warrior in the history of the Jedi Order. Yoda famously tells Luke how fruitless it is to judge him by his size, and demonstrates a hint of his power by lifting the X-wing out of the swamp. As the X-wing comes out of the surface, the audience, along with Luke, learns there is more to understand than what is on the surface; truth often comes from what cannot be seen.

The Empire Strikes Back - Darth Vader on Cloud City

Sometimes the bad guy wins
During the climax of The Empire Strikes Back, audiences learn who Darth Vader’s offspring is, and one of the most iconic moments in film history is born. Not only has Luke lost his hand in this monumental battle, but he loses his remaining innocence, as well. Luke’s world is literally and figuratively turned upside down, as he is stranded on a weather vane beneath Cloud City, hanging by his legs. Vader has subverted every belief that Luke held dear and, at the end of the film, in addition to the loss mentioned above, Luke also loses his best friend (Han), along with the idealized version of his father that he carried with him his entire life. Even in a fictional universe, sometimes life isn’t fair and the bad guy does win. However, that does not mean that hope is lost, as the last film in the original trilogy will tell us.

What other themes in The Empire Strikes Back have you noticed in your many viewings? Let us know in the comments below, and be on the lookout for the next installment, themes in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

Dan Zehr is a high school English teacher with an MS in Teaching and Learning, and runs Coffee With Kenobi (with co-host Cory Clubb), a Star Wars podcast that analyzes the saga through critical thinking, analysis, interviews, and discussion. He is also a member of the Rogues (as Blue Leader), a network of teachers that incorporate Star Wars in the Classroom.