Our view of the Force is greatly expanded in this film. In Star Wars, it comes off as a sort of zen ESP. It makes Jedi intensely attuned to the world around them, but its effects are purely mental. Luke can’t block the laser zaps of the training droids when he’s reacting to them, for instance, but he can once he learns to anticipate when and where they’ll shoot. It also allows Ben Kenobi to pull the old Jedi Mind Trick through means that, frankly, don’t make much sense in relation to his explanation of the Force itself. Still, other than Darth Vader’s Force Choking thing, it’s all essentially telepathy. But when Luke uses the Force to pull his lightsaber out of the snow in the opening scenes of Empire, I’m not even surprised. It’s a pretty easy fictional leap from telepathy to telekinesis, apparently.
Yoda further smooths the telekinesis over with his expanded explanations of what the Force is, and how the Jedi use it. And it’s really not such a big leap from being aware of this field that surrounds everything to manipulating it so you can move things around. “Size matters not” when you’re attuned to something that is literally everywhere.
We also get an expanded explanation of what the Dark Side of the Force is all about. Put simply, it’s the corrupting nature of power. Fear, jealousy, anger, hate… pretty much any of the more negative human emotions… encourage you to abuse the Force rather than use it harmoniously. It’s seductive and easy, Yoda tells us, but giving in to the Dark Side only makes you want to give in even more, and it will eventually consume your life. Which begs a question I’ve never really considered before: is the Dark Side a thing unto itself, a part of the Force that’s there to be taken advantage of by the evil and the foolish, or is the Force neutral, and the Dark Side simply something that individual Force users bring to it out of their own minds?
Getting Ahead of the Machete: This seems like a pretty important question in relation to the prophesy that’s at the heart of the prequels. The Chosen One is supposed to “bring balance to the Force,” but what does that mean? If the Dark Side is part of the Force (and it’s certainly discussed as if it is), then it seems to me that any “balance” would have to be between Light and Dark. This is the way I’ve always seen it, and Anakin seems to make that happen when he reduces the galaxy to two Sith and two Jedi. But if the Dark Side is something that comes from the user rather than the Force itself… What does “balance” mean then? And does Anakin attain it when he sacrifices himself to kill Palpatine and thus destroys the Sith? There’s a lot of speculation out there on this point, and I’ll come back to it once I’ve watched the later films. For now, though, I just wanted to plant the seed.
Whatever the case may be, Darth Vader’s out there pretty much embodying everything Yoda’s saying about the Dark Side. With Grand Moff Tarkin dead, Vader’s left in command of the Imperial fleet, and he’s running wild. Gone is the council of command officers that advised Tarkin, replaced by a series of Admirals and Captains living in fear of their volatile commander. And not without reason. He’s Force-choking officers left and right, showing little patience for failure or military thinking. He prefers bold plans and swift action, opting to employ free agents to find Our Heroes for him…
…rather than waiting for more exhaustive and time-consuming military operations to work. He’s a loose cannon, tearing the galaxy apart not to crush the Rebel Alliance (who seem like more of an after-thought), but just to get his hands on Luke Skywalker. This behavior is in contrast with the Vader we get in the first film, who, though obviously outside the regular military command structure, still comes off as a very effective field officer. He leads the Stormtroopers into combat, and flies in the Death Star battle under his own orders, to devastating effect for the Rebels. Here, he seems almost reckless in comparison, a mere super villain in comparison to his former cold efficiency.
This makes me wonder what’s going on with the Empire on a larger scale in this film. Palpatine dissolved the Senate because he was counting on the Death Star to keep the outlying territories in line. Once that was destroyed… How did he maintain control? Was there greater lawlessness? Chaos? Did he care? Certainly, he encourages Vader’s hunt for Luke, so private Force business must have been more important to him than petty politics. But Vader runs with the new freedom, and Imperial discipline be damned.
Of course, undisciplined or not, the trap Vader lays for Luke works, and is evilly simple. He captures Han and Leia, counting on Luke to sense their peril. In fact, now that I think about it… He doesn’t just capture them. He tortures them, and not simply out of sadism. He does it so that Luke will sense their suffering. Huh. Can’t believe I never realized that before now.
Anyway, it works. Luke senses their pain, and runs off to the rescue over Yoda’s vigorous objections. Of course, Luke catches a lot of that. Really, Luke’s time on Dagobah is little else but ominous portents for the future. Yoda constantly chastises him for his impatience, and tells Kenobi’s ghost in a disappointed tone that Luke is “just like his father.” And then, of course, there’s Luke’s experience in the Dark Side cave. First, the Dark Side tempts him by offering him a chance to get his very un-Jedi-like revenge on Darth Vader. Luke takes the bait and strikes Dream-Vader down. But then…
At this point in the film, you have to think this means that Luke could wind up like Vader. And that’s exactly what Yoda’s afraid of when Luke leaves for Cloud City. Without finishing his training, Yoda warns, Luke can’t defeat Vader, and will be tempted into going over to the Dark Side. And during their fight, it looks like Yoda’s right: we see Luke’s anger rise as he rallies against Vader. It might very well be that anger that gets him as far in the battle as he does, in fact. It looks to me like Vader’s toying with him at first, setting him up for the carbon-freeze, and it’s only when Luke slips that trap and genuinely puts up a fight that Vader really gets serious and lops off the boy’s hand.
All of which sets us up for Empire’s crowning revelation: Darth Vader is Luke’s father. When I first saw the film back in 1980, I thought Vader was lying. But on this viewing, it’s so obvious that he’s not. With that one piece of information, so many things done and said earlier make so much more sense. Luke’s vision in the cave and Yoda’s worries about Luke’s similarity to his father are the most obvious things, but I think it also explains Vader’s demeanor throughout the film. He’s not just hot to get his hands on a powerful new Force-user here. He’s running wild specifically because he’s looking for the son he’d long thought dead. No wonder he descends into super-villainy! He’s gone from serving cold political agendas to serving his own intensely personal desires.
Which I suppose is Getting Ahead of the Machete again, but this time I think that’s okay. Because next we reach the real crux of Machete Order: the flashback. Vader’s been revealed as Luke’s father, and the past as Ben Kenobi told it is obviously a lie. So what really happened? How did Anakin become Vader? What part did this mysterious Emperor (the master villain we’ve only gotten a glimpse of) play? We start to learn next time, in Episode Three: Attack of the Clones!