Our Life Is a Movie: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

empire strikes back

(spoilers, I guess, but either you’ve seen it already or you probably won’t ever want to anyway)

The Empire Strikes Back is not a movie I thought would ever end up here, though it’s always a challenge to find something worth discussing in popular movies like this. My motivation was in picking my favorite movie from 1980 and I realize that it’s Empire. It’s probably the best Star Wars movie because it’s so entertaining and dark at the same time, it’s never boring and the ending still breaks my heart. The music is some of the best film music ever composed and the cliffhanger at the end laughs at all those movies nowadays that call themselves Part 1 and Part 2 (except Kill Bill, maybe). It’s really a good movie and it surpasses all the other movies from 1980 for me (although, Ordinary People came in close just a few days ago, surprisingly).

I realized thinking about the movie again, that it’s the one that has the most powerful Darth Vader scenes and what is Darth Vader but the ultimate authority? The title of the movie already implies that the colonial force depicted in this universe strikes back at the rebels, lashes out with all its authority because it had been defied in the first movie. Darth Vader is the face (or mask) of that empire (beside the Emperor of course), and the movie is filled with scenes of ruthless authority, of people following him not because of respect for his capabilities, but because of fear. It’s funny that the opening crawl calls Vader “evil,” which is not only stupid but obviously wrong once you see Return of the Jedi. He was seduced by having power and authority, just like most people are in these movies and the real world.

empire - evil

It is all about power. The big ship standing in the shadow of the enormous ship, John Williams’ Imperial March and of course Vader himself, with his mask and cloak, scaring everyone who is not stupid enough to speak up against him, like the poor admiral in the first scene on the Imperial ship. Throughout the movie there are constantly shots of technicians and soldiers just looking at Vader, relieved that he passed them, holding their breath until he is gone, never knowing when someone will be choked. There are no friends in that army, you see no one even looking friendly at anyone else. Everyone is scared to death and the biggest risk would be to be emotional or to attempt relationships. It is a slightly exaggerated symbol for what authority does, creating fear to control people. You can see those scared faces in school every day with the right teacher walking by.

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empire - scared

When the admiral speaks out against Vader’s plan to go to Hoth, the movie makes it absolutely clear that this is a bad idea. After Vader ignores his concerns, the camera work is effective to show that the admiral basically signed his death sentence. The other two stare at him and he looks back, knowing that he not only just lost his authority, but also that he is doomed. Through the framing, he looks smaller than the other two general, although he is their superior and then the camera moves down two steps, from one general to another to the admiral, to make clear how low he just sank. When he is killed a couple of scenes later, his next in line is immediately promoted, seconds before his former boss dies right next to him. He isn’t supposed to care and you see fear because he knows that he is now responsible for any mistake. Being in authority means power, but, you know, also responsibility.

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empire - promotion
empire - vader, alone
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One thing that happens to Vader because of his power, is that he is alone. Everyone is scared of him and it’s not like he is seeking any company. Sure, he is a tormented character but the threat he poses to everyone beneath him inherently isolates him from everyone else. That includes his son of course, since he uses their meeting to fight him, cut off his hand and disgrace him because of his foolish idea that he is a real Jedi already. Vader uses authority on his son, not the most unusual business for parents, and instead of taking his offer, Luke is ready to sacrifice himself. He might have grown a bit arrogant in the movie, but the idea of becoming like his father is too much for him. You feel a sense of sadness in Vader for scaring off his son, since now, at the end of the movie, he again is alone, followed only by the scared looks of his underlings. The Empire Strikes Back, the sad story about the consequences of authority? Maybe not intentionally and surely not mainly, but again, if Darth Vader isn’t a symbol for being corrupted by power and authority, who is?