The Empire Strikes Back | Favorite Scenes

During the months of November and December, leading up to the release of The Rise of Skywalker and the end of the Skywalker Saga, I’ll be highlighting my favorite scene from each of the ten Star Wars movies.

This week, I’ll be tackling what is arguably the best movie in the series – Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back!

I wrote about Empire during my Personal Favorites series, where I discussed ten of my favorite movies of all time. To view that post, click here.


Empire Strikes Back is a movie with a lot of tremendous scenes. There’s much to love on Hoth, getting our first glimpse of the Emperor is great, and the “I’ve just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever” revelation of Lando as a traitor are some decent runner-ups. It’s also important to mention Luke and Vader’s duel, which is A) a vast choreography improvement from the lightsaber duel in A New Hope, B) visually stunning, and C) maybe the best known scene in any movie, let alone this franchise. It’s importance to the legacy of Star Wars can’t be understated.

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In this series, I’m doing my best to avoid all of the obvious answers. I didn’t do Duel of the Fates for Phantom, I didn’t do Vader’s hallway fight for Rogue One, and “I am your father” just feels too obvious here. The next scene I had in mind would have to be this movie’s second biggest contribution to the franchise and the world at large.

Yoda!

Yoda’s training scenes are some of the best things this movie has to offer. The one that sticks out the most, for me at least, is where Luke’s X-Wing sinks into the swamps of Dagobah. Yoda tells him to use the Force to lift it out of the water, but Luke says it’s impossible. With considerable effort, Yoda manages to do just that.

Just like in my favorite scene from A New Hope, this one is bolstered by the grandiose score from John Williams. (Less so, because there’s more happening here than just Luke’s facial expressions, but it is certainly enriched by the score.) The gradual crescendo leading into a triumphant brass fanfare that plays as Yoda puts down the X-Wing gives such a terrific sense of victory.

It’s important to think if what we know about the Force at the time Empire came out. This movie is the one that established the fact that the Force involves telekinetic powers, right in the first scene when Luke pulls his lightsaber out of the snow to fight the Wampa. I like that this scene puts some parameters on that ability. Luke exerts great effort in trying to pull the lightsaber out of the snow, so maybe if he exerts more effort, he can move the X-Wing too! No, he can’t, that’s way beyond his capabilities.

But not beyond Yoda’s. Yoda pulls the X-Wing out – but again not without substantial effort. And it shows us a tangible example of how gifted Yoda is. And looking at it now, it’s a reminder of how much of a smaller scale Star Wars was on for a while. In both the prequels and the sequels, we’ll see characters move objects of a similar or larger size with little to no effort, but here it’s something stark and important.

This feat comes right after the most eloquent explanation of what exactly the Force is

Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.

That’s a beautiful expression of what exactly the Force is.

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(And again, I’ll keep pointing out how each of the OT movies relate to Last Jedi, but Luke’s scene where he first explores the Force to Rey is similar to the point where it evokes Yoda’s speech, but different in a way that draws attention to where Luke is as a character. But anyway, back to this scene.)

This scene surprisingly ends on a down note. Luke marvels at Yoda’s abilities and says “I can’t believe it!” And Yoda ominously scolds, “That is why you fail.” It brings the scene back to its so-to-speak thesis statement; the focus of the scene is not simply getting Luke’s ship out of the water, but learning more about the possibilities of the Force.

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Ultimately, his downer ending for this scene ties back into his most iconic line from this scene; he earlier says “Do or do not, there is no try,” because he knows that Luke ultimately “does not” because he does not have the belief. And there are dozens of motivational phrases or spiritual proverbs that embody this idea, but one that comes to mind for me is “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

There’s a lot of spiritualism in Star Wars, and there’s been a lot written about the influence of Christianity, Buddhism, Taosim, and religion in general on this series. And I tend to think of this scene as the clearest example of the religious influences. Through faith, great things can be done. And this scene is a beautiful expression of that.

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EDIT: RISE OF SKYWALKER SPOILERS

Y’know what, in the light of having seen Rise of Skywalker, I do feel the need to update this. There was a very deliberate homage to this scene in Skywalker, where Luke raises his crashed X-Wing out of the waters off of Ahch-To and allows Rey to fly Exegal (the Sith planet).
The homage is very deliberate; the music cues are the same and the framing is the same, but of course the situation is different.
I think it would have been much better to have Luke encourage Rey to lift the X-Wing out of the water. Because the situation in Empire was that the apprentice was not able to lift the X-wing, and the master had to take over. Since Rise of Skywalker was the end of the story, I think it would have been better if the apprentice (in this case Rey) was able to lift the X-Wing out of the water, while Luke looked on proudly. I think it was a good moment either way, but it would have been better if it had been Rey to lift the X-Wing out.
It feels as though they were desperately trying to overcorrect for Last Jedi’s portrayal of Luke. They already had the moment earlier of Luke saying “A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect,” essentially as a wink to the audience. And I didn’t hate that, I thought it was more of Luke poking fun at himself, rather than poking fun at Rian Johnson. But with that context, Luke lifting the X-Wing out of the water feels like J.J. Abrams saying, “No, *this* is what you should have done, Rian.” If Rey had done it, it would have felt more natural. At least, that’s what I would have preferred.

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