Recent Dorkiness

Machete Episode Two: The Empire Strikes Back

We're watching the Star Wars films in Machete Order! Check out our Introduction for explanations, or just dive in below... So far, Machete Order is a very comforting way for me to watch the Star Wars films. I mean, I'm old. I saw all these movies in the theater, as they came out. So of COURSE you'd start watching with Star Wars and move on to The Empire Strikes Back. Duh! But going in to Empire, I was afraid that sense of comfort, of familiarity, might make my Machete experiment very difficult. I'm trying to view the films with fresh eyes, after all, and Empire has always kind of been MY Star Wars film. It's always been my favorite, the one I looked forward to with the most anticipation, and the one in which I took the most fannish glee. I read the comics adaptation literally to pieces, even using it as the basis for a crude radio play version I made on my old flatbed tape recorder, with me doing all the voices and sound effects. (What? It DOES say “dork” on the label, after all...) As it turned out, though, I found it pretty easy to treat Empire as a film I'd never seen before. Why? Well, because after gaining a new appreciation for how weird Star Wars is... Empire is no longer my favorite. I've always adhered to the standard wisdom that Empire is not only the best-crafted of the original films, but also the darkest. And I suppose that, in terms of plot movement, it is. But tonally? Star Wars is far darker, creepier, and more dangerous. Empire seems tame in comparison. It's like somebody took the sharp edges off the Star Wars universe in a misguided attempt to protect its child audience from the nightmare fuel they loved in the first film. So even as Our Heroes go through some pretty rough stuff, the things that threaten them aren't nearly as scary in presentation, and the human cost of the Empire's evil isn't really brought home. Just compare the torture scenes, for instance. Star Wars' quick cut from hypodermic-sprouting torture-droid to slamming cell door and marching feet is far more disturbing than seeing Han Solo get lowered onto some kind of ill-defined pain apparatus: Hypodermic I understand immediately, and am freaked out by. Slamming door and marching feet, ditto. But I'm not even sure what they're doing to Han. I understand that he's in pain because Harrison Ford turns in some good torture-acting (the anticipatory flinching is particularly nice). But the scene's not visceral in any way. It doesn't gut-punch me at all. And torture, frankly, really ought to be more disturbing. So. Empire Strikes Back. Safer. More conventional in approach. And a very different movie than I remembered. Which makes it pretty easy to analyze for the Machete Experiment. To whit...

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…

(my favorite is Bossk)

…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!

About Mark Brett (464 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at

4 Comments on Machete Episode Two: The Empire Strikes Back

  1. Hee! Bossk is my favourite too!

    You know, I came into reading these thinking I was going to have all kinds of things to say, but now I just really want to try Machete order for myself. I have since I first read about it, but haven’t gotten around to it.


  2. Definitely give it a shot! We’re a couple of films ahead of my writing at this point, and (SPOILER!) I think it works really well. The change in tone when you go from Empire to Attack of the Clones is jarring, but I think it actually works in the series’ favor.


  3. Not a problem. Also: HAAAAA!!!!

    One of my Machete companions has decided that he feels the same way about the prequels: he just doesn’t like them (though I think he can appreciate the things they do well). Whereas I recognize their flaws, but actually like them quite a bit. They’re very different from the films I grew up on, but I think there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of them. A lot goes unsaid, but it’s there if you care to look. That’s my favorite kind of writing, so I find them absorbing. Even as I’m cringing at the stiff performances and bad dialogue…


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