I really like Star Wars, but it’s not because it has a consistent philosophy.
At the heart of the Jedi religion, as I said in my review of A New Hope, is an approach that treats feelings and emotion as inherently dangerous at best and the gate to Hell at worst. That’s not immediately apparent in the snowy blizzards of Hoth or the thrilling space battles, but it is apparent in the dialogue. While Obi-Wan does tell Luke in A New Hope to “stretch out with your feelings,” we can also think back (or forward, depending on your perspective) to Revenge of the Sith, when Yoda told Anakin that attachment was the path to the dark side.
As I was re-watching The Empire Strikes Back, with Luke arguing with Yoda and Obi-Wan’s force ghost about the need to save his friends, similar thoughts came back to me. But even as the films espouse this approach to emotion, it also blatantly contradicts that view at points, although it’s less an explicit contradiction than a refreshing breath of reality.
The Jedi deny love. They also deny attachment itself to an extent. The first contrast between the religion of Luke and the worldviews of the other characters is apparent while Han, Leia, and the others are trying to escape from Imperial forces while Luke is training with Yoda. While Luke is learning to let go and empty his mind, Han and Leia are busy falling in love, albeit in their own rather unique fashion. Han is arrogant and Leia is stubborn, but somehow that couple works, and in a much more realistic way than the vast majority of unbearably lovey-dovey Hollywood couplings. The fact that it works so well is important, because this isn’t a setup for explaining why attachment is bad. Instead, their relationship is an exemplary example of how two seemingly incompatible people can reconcile their differences and care for each other.
The second contrast comes as the plot develops further. In the beginning of the film, Imperial forces find the Rebellion situated on Hoth and successfully attack, scattering them abroad. While Luke goes to train on Dagobah with Yoda, Han and Leia flee to Han’s old buddy Lando for help. He soon finds out, however, that someone got to Lando first – Darth Vader. Luke senses that his friends are in trouble, and longs to go help them. We would think that was a no-brainer, but not so, according to Luke’s mentor. When he asks if he should just let them die, Yoda replies “If you honor what they fight for? Yes.”
For Yoda, the point is not that they are his friends, because attachment is bad. The point is the battle. What is good for the battle? We might agree that what they are fighting for is more important, but Yoda’s callousness inevitably strikes us as troubling and misplaced. Luke, who can see nothing besides the desire to help his friends, leaves anyway. At the end of the film, I was left with a question: Was Yoda right?
Or maybe the more appropriate question is if George Lucas wants us to believe Yoda was right. Should Luke have left his friends? Would they have been fine? Did attachment bring him down? Shockingly, the conclusion I came to was that Luke was right and Yoda was wrong. To be fair, Lucas leaves that mostly up to our own interpretation. And Luke’s friends likely would have been fine, seeing as Luke didn’t even see them until after his iconic fight with Vader, but the outcome is not the point. The action is.
Star Wars is a story about bravery and self-control couched in a space opera with an Eastern religion worldview. With that said, the story is also largely about relationships. The saga is driven not just by the Empire’s control or the evil of Vader or Sidious, but by Luke’s and Anakin’s relationships with those around them. The prequels are largely about Anakin’s relationship with Obi-Wan, his love for Padme, and his poisonous friendship with Palpatine. The original trilogy focuses on Luke’s friendship with Han and Leia, as well as the horrid tragedy of his father. And in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s those relationships that win out. The fact that the Empire comes out ahead in this film is a plot device to set up Return of the Jedi, not a move to criticize Luke’s choice. We’re left to applaud Luke’s bravery, facing a villain out of his league just to save these two people that mean so much to him.
In that sense, The Empire Strikes Back has a reasonable claim to the best Star Wars film. Not just because of the ground-breaking plot twist that’s now permanently embedded into pop culture, but because it’s the film that is most able to set aside the “empty your mind” theology to make way for a truly praiseworthy message: give yourself to your friends, no matter what the cost. Christ said it best: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13.