Empire’s Hopeful End

Luke Says No

Granted, Luke took a beating. But after it was done, he was a man.

This blog is dedicated to Jar Jar Hater, because it was during one of our conversations that it came up.

See, we were discussing films and if I remember correctly, I (rightfully) cited Godfather Part II as a superior film that was not just satisfyingly executed, it was emotionally impacting. Hater ran with that thought and then said it was a tendency among men to view movies with “downer endings” as better.

While I don’t agree with that (sexist?) generalization, I conceded that the Godfather films close out on a down note, but contended that The Empire Strikes Back actually ends on a very hopeful note.

“Are you kidding?” she asked.

Indeed, I was not.

Of Course Empire Has a Difficult Story Arc

AT AT Walkers!

This would be a righteous death. And better than a lot of people deserve.

The point of the film is that there’s a striking back of the Imperial variety. Naturally, some people are going to take a pounding as a gosh-darn Lord of the Sith brings his full fury down on them.

For goodness’ sake, while Vader’s restraining himself, he nearly manages to destroy the entire rebellion leadership in one shot. Without a Death Star.

There’s no need to recap the whole plot because if you’re reading my blog and I haven’t spoiled these films for you multiple times over, you’re not really paying attention.

So I grant that life isn’t exactly Super Awesome Fantastic for our heroes.

We do, however, get to witness one of the greatest inventions ever (AT-AT Walkers) rain fiery death on the icy wastes of Hoth. Lives were lost, but honestly, I’d accept “Death By Giant Robot Death Machine” as a pretty righteous way to go. With the rate of technological growth, it could still happen!

To Be Perfectly Clear

I acknowledge the “darkness” of the film. It’s not a happy, upbeat film throughout. Again, the “striking back” thing.

But just because a work is dark doesn’t mean that its ending isn’t, or can’t be, hopeful. Look to The Two Towers if you like: the heroes take some serious shots there. But the film still ends hopeful.

Or you can look to one of my favorite films of all time, The Dark Knight. The ending is reasonably “dark,” but hopeful. Really and truly hopeful.

Surviving and Thriving

The closing scene of The Empire Strikes Back

They look out to the future, knowing they are able to withstand the worse, full of strength and with their weaknesses shed.

Yes, there’s a low point. But one of the iconic shots that closes the film: Luke and Leia looking out to the future, to the sunset essentially, as their journey begins to redress the wrongs visited on them.

Jar Jar Hater insists they are looking out with uncertainty and sorrow.

The overall point is that despite the dark times, the heroes survived.

But not only did they survive, they were better people for surviving their trials. They had changed and become better versions of themselves, learned something about who they were and who they were trying to be.

Luke had faced pure evil and learned a terrible truth that challenged his entire view of life and his beliefs. But he didn’t give up. Already, he was enacting a plan to rescue his friend.

Lando had been lost, and found himself in choosing to act before he lost his soul.

Leia, the “ice princess” on Hoth, had found she could truly love and care for someone else instead of only her causes and ideals.

And so they look out to the future, the horizon, unsure of what challenges are next, but confident they can face them.

In Closing

For supporting evidence of my interpretation, I turn to the Radio Drama for The Empire Strikes Back (written by the late, great Brian Daley). It’s at least evidence that Lucasfilm released something with a similar interpretation and that I’m not alone. Recorded before Jedi was even completed, it contains these beautiful lines from Luke at the end, performed by Mark Hamill:

Look, the Empire threw everything it had at us, and we’re still here.

The Empire can’t stop us now…now it’s our turn.

So if the official radio drama approved and released from Lucasfilm agrees with my interpretation, I’d like to read an effective argument against it.

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21 thoughts on “Empire’s Hopeful End

  1. First, we need to establish what is a “downer” ending vs. a “hopeful” ending (note that your choice of words interestingly stayed away from “uplifting” or other direct antonyms).

    Downer: sad, depressing, dispiriting (urban dictionary offers “party pooper”)
    Hopeful: inspiring optimism, promising

    As I have already established (but you chose to ignore) – I believe that our different understanding of these words is in part due to personal experience. Setting that aside, the ending is a downer because:
    -they couldn’t save Han in time
    -Leia lost her love (and doesn’t know if she can get him back)
    -Luke learns that he is the spawn of Darth Vader

    This is not a time to feel optimistic. Yes, they’ll get through it, but they (and we) don’t know that yet when they’re staring out the window.

    Finally – your closing cannot be submitted as evidence, as it is NOT a part of the film.

    • -they couldn’t save Han in time
      But Han, even if he’s dead, learned how he no longer had to be “solo.” Even if he’s dead, it’s a spiritual victory for him.

      -Leia lost her love (and doesn’t know if she can get him back)
      But again, she learned that she can love, and not just love someone who is like her. It redeems her and she becomes an emotionally fulfilled woman instead of an idealist girl.

      -Luke learns that he is the spawn of Darth Vader
      And accepts it, and rejects that it will be his fate. Also, he shows an inner resolve and strength that his own father didn’t have and couldn’t manage, which starts Vader’s own path to redemption.

      “but they (and we) don’t know that yet when they’re staring out the window.”
      True, they don’t know. But not knowing can be fearful or it can be hopeful. It depends, as Obi-Wan might say, on our own points of view.

      So of course personal experience colors how we see things. So think about this: perhaps Empire teaches us all a little about ourselves, as any good work of art does – it entertains and teaches.

      • I refuse to agree to disagree on this one, so I’ll try to explain again, using your Rocky example.

        At the beginning of Rocky, we’re introduced to a 30 something year old, single guy that is very sweet, but has not achieved his boxing dream and has instead become a mob enforcer. He’s given the chance of a lifetime, sets a goal for himself, achieves it, and finds love along the way. That, my friend, is a hopeful ending.

        By contrast, we start Empire knowing Luke as a twice-orphaned achiever that is working with a rebel alliance to defeat an evil empire presumably led by Darth Vader. During the film Luke studies to become a jedi, “like his father” and then learns his father IS Darth Vader and he cuts his had off. That, is a downer.

        By contrast, we start Empire already knowing Luke as an orphaned (twice!) Achiever

        • You don’t have to agree – I imagine what rankles you is that I know that I’m right but like the Grinch you can’t stop Whoville from singing.

          Where our fundamental disagreement lies is in the fact that you’re saying that since bad things happen to them, the ending is therefore hopeless. If it were hopeless, they’d all be dead, or at least would stop fighting. If things are hopeless, why keep trying, after all?

          This certainly plays into an argument about the power of perception: I look at the ending and see that they’re bent but not broken, and hopeful about that fact. You look at the ending and apparently if it were you, you’d have just surrendered to the Empire.

          You omit that Rocky did *not* win. Rocky’s ending is about the triumph of the human spirit, *but so is Empire’s*. See blog above for the positive things that the heroes learned about themselves in this instance. Including the fact that Vader’s son shows him that he could have made a better choice, and starts Vader’s own path to redemption.

          Also like Rocky, they had to wait until the sequel to eventually win, but if they hadn’t gone through everything they had, they wouldn’t have been equipped to do so.

          To refuse even to see where I’m coming from with this is just being obstinate. Perhaps that’s in the nature of a Hater. I wouldn’t know, being a super-positive type of guy. :p

  2. You do know that LucasFilm also agreed with (and produced) this: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=323909610753051544

    so the argument that LucasFilm agrees would be null and void.
    Other things that they agreed with that would void your argument:
    Howard the Duck
    Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
    Droids
    Ewoks
    Episode I: The Phantom Menace

    But I disagree with you. The ending is that of hopelessness and despair. They are looking at the universe and how it has shattered. That the Empire has conquered what could have been hope. The Empire was chipping away on hope, and is slowly destroying it. This is proven when the Empire (Darth Vader) takes a piece of what was called The New Hope (cutting off of Luke’s Hand). The Empire is taking away everything and they are looking at how far the Empire’s reach really is.

    • Actually, the key differences between our examples is mine is salient to the actual argument. The Holiday Special’s history is detailed in many sources, but suffice it to say: it was OK’d to help fund the film. If you’ve watched any other 1970s television special, you’ll see how it went downhill from there.

      The ending is not of hopelessness or despair. Like Rocky, they didn’t win, but they learned about themselves, became better and were ready to “strike back” for their own sake. Vader and company took all they could, but still they win because it didn’t break them and now they’re ready to fight again.

    • Right on! That very much speaks to my point – and add the swell of the music, grandiose and bombastic, as the Falcon flies away and the fleet moves on. You can’t wait to see them come back next time and put the hurt back on the bad guys!

  3. Personally, I think that Rosemary’s Baby has the most hopeful and uplifting ending in all of cinema. I mean, yeah, she uncovers a worldwide Satantic cult, and that she’s carrying Lucifer’s baby and that she is living on the precipice of a worldwide revolt against Judeo-Christian culture.

    But she sure learned a lot about herself. Plus, she’s totally got an in with the devil now.

    if only there had been a sequel to prove my point.

    • Never saw it. Thanks for blowing it. :-p

      But it doesn’t really sound analogous. Horror movies are very much about leaving people feeling unnerved and insecure. A better comparison for your counter-argument might be The Exorcist. But I’d argue that as a horror movie, the purpose of it is to unsettle you, so it has a vested in interested in not ending on a strongly positive feeling.

      • Tell me you are joking that you’ve never seen Rosemary’s Baby. That film is required viewing for any horror fan.

        Then again, maybe the humor was not appreciated.

        If you want to talk anaologies, then let’s talk Westerns. So many of the great westerns of the 50s and 60s had downer endings where the hero gets gunned down, loses the woman, is brutally wounded or run out of town (see: Shane, Rio Grande, Love Me Tender, etc etc etc). The heroes are established through loss and sacrifice. Is that uplifting? Sure; they do the right thing, redeem their past, save the town, whatever.

        Does Shane die just as alone as when he first walked on screen? Pretty much… Probably of sepsis. His horse probably starved after that, too….Poor, poor horse.

        • Not joking – never seen it. Just never came into the playlist. I know what it is, I know people dig it, just never got around to it.

          I’ve never seen Shane either. THAT I’m ashamed of.

          I think the Western thing is a great analogy (especially since Lucas was a ‘student’ of John Ford). You also spurred me on to think of Gone with the Wind – which I contend is a stylistic forebear of many of the Star Wars elements – it’s not exactly a happy ending, but it’s certainly hopeful. I’m not going to blow the ending in case you haven’t seen it, because Gone with the Wind actually is kind of mediocre without the ending. the ending makes the entire thing worth it.

  4. What is there to argue about here? Contrast the ending of Empire with the ending of Sith. At the end of Episode III, Yoda, Obi Wan, and the few allies that they have are scrambling, almost helplessly, to escape with their lives. They are in full survival mode.

    Empire ends when our heroes are past that point. They have fled, but Luke already has a new hand. They already have a plan in place to recover Han. They are relaxed, if somber. They are consoling each other, but they are not consumed by their grief. If they were, none of the above actions would have been palatable. Why restore your hand if it doesn’t matter? Why go save Han if you’re too late?

    It is really almost as if the Empire has taken away everything that they have, so they cling to the one thing the Empire can’t take: Hope.

    Not happiness. Not pride. Not joy. Not even optimism. Simply the hope that comes with knowing that, if nothing else, they aren’t dead yet, so they may as well carry on fighting. Not as they have before, because as is noted, they have changed. But fight on nevertheless. If not because of their confidence of success, then because of their increased faith that what they have done and what they will do means something, even if they fail.

    That isn’t optimism. But it is uplifting. It is reassuring to know that as limited our influence on the cosmic events of the universe really is, the only thing that we can control are our choices and our actions. It is very easy to give that away to despair or mindless habit. At the end of Empire, our heroes have chosen. In Jedi, they act.

  5. Point to the Jar Jar Hater…winna! It’s amazing to me how Star Wars is like a fortune cookie for some, where the story can be molded to fit any desired outcome. I think it helps that there’s so many contradictions and revisions, any bit can support any interpretation, so that pretty much leaves supporting an argument with storyline a moot point. Yes, that includes Lucas himself, who clearly didn’t foresee many aspects of the story in advance ie blantant incest before he decided a more exciting lovefest with Solo. Han – spiritual victory…ok, although i’m sure he would have preferred not being frozen. All signs pointed to him surviving, but we still didn’t know for sure, so how is that hopeful? But I know when I saw it for the first time as a kid, that’s exactly what I was thinking…thank goodness it was a spiritual victory. Leia – emotionally fulfilled…I mean, come on maaan. That stretch alone calls for point deductions. And by the way, Jabba getting choked out by a girl in a leotard, then the mighty Boba Fett crash landing, I think that whole scene needs to be redone. Of course, Lucas would say two versions fit perfectly into the overall storyline because of the space time continuum and all would be forgiven.

    • Two things I’ve learned through this blog, and its comments:

      1. The interpretation of the film seems to fall strictly along lines of world view.

      2. If you challenge the general ‘consensus’ of an artistic interpretation, people rely very heavily on the concept of that consensus to support their own argument.

      All that said, proof that a work is artistic is that it allows the audience member to bring in, and take away, something that speaks to them specifically. Why is that so bothersome to those that have locked into the ‘generally accepted’ interpretation of something? Shouldn’t people be more open to a different take on things? I personally find it refreshing to see an old work from a different perspective.

      To respond to this point in specific: “And by the way, Jabba getting choked out by a girl in a leotard, then the mighty Boba Fett crash landing, I think that whole scene needs to be redone. ”

      That’s in a whole different movie. Have you actually seen these?

  6. Tony, of Star Trek fame, where are you? I’m a supporter of your winning ways. Lone dissenters of this blog have been outnumbered and browbeaten into submission for years. It’s time to unite and multiply. There is a movement, the dark side is upon kessel korner!

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