What Luke Skywalker accomplishes in the climactic final Act of Star Wars: A New Hope is nothing short of miraculous. Tasked with the responsibility of destroying the Empire’s planet killing Death Star, to succeed and win the day Skywalker unexpectedly gives himself over to the mystical energy field known as the Force. Doing so at the behest of the recently “deceased” Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, young Luke puts his faith in something greater than his available technology (or luck, or logic and reason), allowing the sacred and mysterious energy to guide his actions. In doing so, Skywalker not only saves the galaxy by destroying the Death Star, but also takes a giant leap of faith into a realm of wondrous possibility. As Skywalker speeds back to the Rebel base after the battle station explodes, Kenobi speaks to the young pilot from “the beyond”, reminding Luke that “the Force will be with you, always.” Luke Skywalker, farmer-turned Rebel pilot-turned galactic hero, will always have the Force as his ally.
Yet, when we once again meet Luke in The Empire Strikes Back three years after his leap of faith and heroic deed, the young man has all but forgotten the Force is with him.
After putting his faith in the Force in A New Hope, one would anticipate that when we meet Skywalker again that he will have started to more fully develop his understanding of, and connection to, the Force. This, however, is not the case, and is actually hinted at early in The Empire Strikes Back as Luke hangs upside down in the Wampa’s lair (having been ambushed and knocked unconscious by Hoth’s apex predator). His lightsaber protruding from the snow a few feet away, Luke’s initial instinct is to desperately grab for his weapon, and only concentrates on using the Force to bring the weapon to him once he recognizes the blade is out of reach.
- Luke hangs upside down in the Wampa’s lair.
Photo Credit – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Luke’s use of the Force in this instance reminds the audience of his connection to the energy field while likewise foreshadowing the lessons he will learn when he makes his way to Dagobah in the film’s second act. After all, in the Wampa’s lair we see for the very first time that one can move objects using the Force. Later in the film, this reality will be expanded, with Luke moving boulders and the ancient Jedi Master Yoda using the Force to move Luke’s X-Wing Starfighter.
The episode in the Wampa’s lair likewise foreshadows the doubt and disconnect Luke will display, with respect to the Force, when he travels to the Dagobah system to learn from Yoda. The Force is certainly with him, but at the outset of The Empire Strikes Back it is a curious afterthought, a seemingly forgotten aspect of his being. Even after bringing the lightsaber to him in the lair, the Force seems to fade away as panic sets in, Luke maiming the Wampa and anxiously fleeing the snowy cave.
At the end of A New Hope, Luke was the victorious hero who we last saw receiving a medal for destroying the dreaded Death Star. Now, only a short way into The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker stumbles out of the Wampa’s lair, his flight response fully in control. Unsurprisingly, Luke will succumb to the harsh elements on Hoth, collapsing into the snowy Tundra. Face down in the snow (see featured image above), his body surely experiencing the effects of hypothermia, it is here and now that Obi-Wan Kenobi curiously chooses to re-appear. Calling to the (freezing) young man, Kenobi appears in astral form and commands Luke to “go to the Dagobah system” where he will learn the ways of the Force from Yoda.
Crashing into a Swamp
It is Luke’s journey to Dagobah that serves as the surest example of his mystical disconnect. Consider that as Luke flies his X-Wing into the planet’s atmosphere – the very same X-Wing he piloted to destroy the Death Star! – he relies entirely on the starfighter’s technology to guide him to the planet’s surface. “All the scopes are dead. I can’t see a thing…” he exclaims as he descends into the thick, dense atmosphere/fog covering the planet. The technology at his disposal fails him, and [a panicked] Luke does not call upon the Force to serve as his guide. It is no wonder he crashes into the swamp.
- Luke stands on the nose of his X-Wing after crashing in the swamp on Dagobah.
Photo Credit – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
In turn, what makes this scenario all the more fascinating is that Dagobah is teeming with life, and as Yoda will explain to Luke, it is life which makes the Force grow. “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” the elderly Master will note once young Skywalker has started his rigorous Jedi training. Luke, we know from his actions in A New Hope, already has a special connection to the Force, an ability to destroy a planet killing superweapon thanks to faith alone. Never-the-less, piloting his X-Wing to Dagobah, Luke Skywalker is incapable of navigating his way to the surface of a planet glowing with the radiance of the Force.
In the three years between the end of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker has chosen to ignore, or has simply forgotten, his connection to the Force. Or, perhaps over time he began to doubt the mysterious energy field, placing more trust in technology than on the mystical source of his power. Indeed, Luke express such doubt to Yoda – “you ask the impossible”, the young man will exclaim when given a Force-specific task – and Yoda will note that it is Luke’s doubt, his inability to believe in the possibility of the impossible, which makes him fail.
Whatever the reason for Luke’s disconnect with the Force – be it doubt, forgetfulness, ignorance, or something else entirely – from a narrative perspective it is a profound way of highlighting that even after becoming a hero one can still face incredible challenges. Luke may have relied on the Force to destroy the Death Star, but he must also face great external/internal struggle to ascend beyond a singular act of heroism to become truly heroic. In fact, The Empire Strikes Back goes to great lengths to show Luke stumbling, being knocked down, and crashing time and time again as he embarks on this new path of ascendance, towards becoming a Jedi Knight. Consider the following:
- Luke is knocked off his Tauntaun when the Wampa attacks.
- He falls from the ceiling of the Wampa’s lair.
- He stumbles over a snow drift as he escapes the lair, and later falls to the ground as he walks across Hoth’s desolate tundra.
- His Snowspeeder crashes when it is struck by a laser blast.
- After destroying an AT-AT using his lightsaber and a thermal detonator, he unhooks his harness and falls far to the ground below.
- Piloting his X-Wing, he crashes into the swamp on Dagobah.
- Exiting his X-Wing, he jumps into the swampy marsh and must crawl up the muddy embankment.
- When he is doing his first handstand during his Jedi training, moving large rocks while Yoda sits on his feet, Luke becomes distracted and falls.
- Later, doing another handstand, suspending a number of containers and his droid R2-D2 in the air, he again becomes distracted once again.
- As he battles Darth Vader he is knocked into the carbon-freezing chamber; he is blasted out of a window; stumbles to the ground and barely escapes Vader’s next attack; and falls, by choice, into the great abyss at the center of Cloud City after learning he is Vader’s son (presumably choosing death rather than continuing to face his father).
After falling into the abyss on Cloud City, Luke ends up literally hanging below the city on a weather vane, grasping desperately with his one hand (the other had been cut off, along with his lightsaber, by his father) for the door above him. Even here, in this desperate situation, the literal and metaphorical lowest point in his life, Luke forgets his connection to the Force, instead trying to climb to safety with his single hand. Unsurprisingly, Luke once again slips and begins to fall, this time only being saved by his legs (which catch the weather vane). Just as he was hanging upside down in the Wampa’s lair at the beginning of the film, at the end of the film Luke is once again in a desperate situation hanging upside down.
- Luke hangs upside down from a weathervane below Cloud City. Photo Credit – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
In a sense, this is the most appropriate metaphor for the existential situation Luke Skywalker finds himself in throughout The Empire Strikes Back – his heroic journey has quite literally been turned upside down. Where he gave himself willingly to the Force in A New Hope, placing his faith in something greater, in The Empire Strikes Back he stumbles and falls as he attempts to rekindle, and grow, in his understanding of and relationship with the Force. Eager to learn about the sacred energy field in A New Hope, Luke’s forgetfulness and doubt are why he crashes and fails in The Empire Strikes Back.