We Americans prefer action and adventure to pity and fear any day; directors must cleverly hide their tragic stories to reach the masses. George Lucas’ Star Wars saga is one grandiose story of redemption. The fifth movie in the story’s chronology, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, appears to follow the original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, by creating a highflying space opera. Instead, director Irvin Kershner directly focuses on character development, “I like to fill up the frame with [the characters'] faces. There's nothing more interesting than the landscape of the human face." (Director’s Commentary). The movie baits the audience by opening as an epic then altering its style mid-way into a full-fledged Aristotelian tragedy.
As a technical sequel, Empire begins in medias res; the Empire and the Rebellion still play a galactic game of cat and mouse. After the rebels evacuate from Hoth, the story breaks into two simultaneous storylines: the shenanigans of the Millennium Falcon’s crew and Luke’s search for Yoda. Aristotle supports multi-faceted epic plot lines in The Poetics, “This has the advantage of giving grandeur to the poem, of affording a change for the listener, and of diversifying the poem with dissimilar episodes,” (52). Diversification is a major element to enjoying Empire. Kershner uses a variety of screen fades that capitalize on the dynamic scene changes from the insides of a space slug, to the bridge of a Star Destroyer, and then dark swamps of Dagobah.
The inklings of a tragedy appear once Luke crash lands onto Dagobah and begins training under Yoda. Before that, on Hoth, Luke plays the role of big shot hero and courageously leads the counter attack against the Imperial AT-ATs. When preparing for the defense of the base, we hear this dialogue, “DACK: Right now I feel I could take on the whole Empire myself. LUKE: I know what you mean.”. Luke arrogantly treats the battle as “just another day with the Rebellion”. The audience admires Luke’s bravery especially as he single-handedly destroys a walker. Luke’s combat and leadership superiority mimic the moral superiority of Aristotle’s tragic heroes. Once removed from the action however, his heroic pride starts becoming noticeably flawed as it clashes with his goal of becoming a Jedi Knight. Yoda, the exiled Jedi Master, identifies that hubris will not make a Jedi. Luke believes his hefty resume of anti-Empire actions is enough to prove his worth. The wise green one ignores Luke’s achievements, and responds:
“This one [Luke] a long time have I watched. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless!”
This recklessness appears all too soon when Luke tries to justify his decision to leave prematurely, “But I can help [Han and Leia]! I feel the Force!” but the spirit of Ben rebukes “But you cannot control it.” We see a well-defined Aristotelian hamartia when Luke leaves. He absolutely believes he can fix the problems at hand. Truth is, Luke can never comprehend how horribly unprepared he is.
Assured by both Yoda and Ben, the audience realizes Skywalker’s doom and yet they still support him as he ventures forth to Cloud City, literally “walking in the sky”. This mental duality produces dramatic irony that further builds the suspense during Luke’s clash with Vader. At the climax of the battle, Luke experiences the triple tragic blow: reversal, recognition, and tragic experience, all up to par with the Poetics. Losing his hand and light saber, Luke painfully falls from hero to Vader’s helpless victim. He also experiences the most tragic form of recognition, described as, “that which results from the incidents themselves in which the astonishment too results from what is probable.” (33), when Vader says, “I am your father.” Only the flow of the plot itself catalyzes this revelation, supporting Aristotle’s expectation that plot must control all other elements. Furthermore, Yoda’s earlier remark about Luke’s father causing Luke to respond, “Oh, come on. How could you know my father? You don't even know who I am,” amplifies the ironic recognition. In response to all the events conspiring against him, Luke’s actions remain true to his character as he rejects help from the Dark Side and falls down the central shaft.
Fitting for a tragic ending, Luke does not die. The scene of him grieving and hanging from the weather vane provokes a catharsis. As he holds on for life “pity is aroused by the plight of the man who does not deserve his misfortune.” (24). A boy who cares about his friends should not have his reality crash around him, and we see Luke in agony. Even after Leia and Lando save him, he never returns to his old farm boyself.
Sadly, Kershner breaks from the tragic frame, finishing with a dénouement that does not “result naturally from the plot” (30). Instead, the final scene implies the main characters have plans to “right the wrongs”. As a result, Skywalker’s personal tragedy gets sandwiched between the earlier epic and the resounding finale to the saga.