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I wasn’t much of a movie buff when I was young. Sure, I liked an occasional trip to the theater with my dad when we had time, but I was more of a serial bookworm. I spent many summer days with my nose in a book, scanning the pages desperately to find the next plot twist. While my early favorite was detective-driven fiction, I soon graduated to more substantive history books and biographies. I loved the smell of pages and the accomplishment of conquering each new mountain of literature.
One summer day, I sat legs-crossed in my usual reading spot, while my parents watched some movie. My dad told me to rest my reading-weary eyes and take in a movie with the family, apparently the second film in a trilogy of “great movies.” I watched the first of the three weeks prior but lost interest whenever the “old guy in the robe” started talking. (Yes, Obi-Wan ruined the first film for young me.) As I half-watched the “magic” of Lucas’s second film masterpiece, I determined I wasn’t very interested in this series. The superhuman elements felt too far to grasp. The reality of the rational and believable moved me much more than this fantasy land . . . until young, powerful Luke Skywalker made the decision to confront his dreaded enemy head-on. This caught my attention. This was something I could get behind. In my still-maturing mind, I had little sense of limits. I could run without fatigue, study and not be conquered by academic examinations, read and be unchallenged in my mastery of knowledge. What were limits? What could stop my will to leap every hurdle obstructing my path? I sensed Luke’s hubris, and it made my heart beat like a drum.In the Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas perfectly positions “the old” versus “the new” as competing forces in the quest for ultimate universal supremacy.
As he confronted Darth Vader, I readily anticipated his victory and the end of this story. With all my reading, the trilogy idea apparently didn’t stick. During the thrilling battle, it was impossible not to notice how Luke was agile, brash, cerebral, natural—everything I thought I could be. Yet, with all his ability, he underestimated his opponent. I remember the gut-sinking feeling that rocked my world when the story was flipped on its head with a plot twist I never saw coming, yet made all the sense in the world. I was greeted with a healthy disequilibrium as I saw evil advance and good diminish.
How could this be? Stories aren’t supposed to go this way; heroes shouldn’t lose, especially young ones. Yet, every bold, young character in this saga was greeted with the firm backhand of reality. They all overestimated their power. Vader’s chilling triumphant quote to his ambitious son still makes me shudder: “If you only knew the power of the Dark Side.” This movie taught me a lesson that made me fall in love with the series, a lesson I still struggle to grasp: Do not over-estimate yourself.
In the Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas perfectly positions “the old” versus “the new” as competing forces in the quest for ultimate universal supremacy. While that theme is frequently explored throughout the franchise, it finds its creative zenith in Empire. The young ones, Han and Luke, are brilliant, brimming with self-confidence and full of good intentions. Their energy to conquer every obstacle in their path is palpably felt throughout the entire adventure. The universe is their oyster, ready for them to stake whatever claim they desired to have. The old ones, Vader and Yoda, are less stylish but more mentally concrete. While they were on opposing sides of the galactic battle, both displayed seasoned perspective that prevented careless mistakes. With their purpose clearly in view, they moved almost too deliberately and spoke too slowly with their simple sentences and sure adjectives.
These opposing generational figures collided with ferocity in a tug of wills that left destruction and loss in the Rebel Alliance. Bad things tend to happen when we overestimate our ability. Evil advances when we assume it will be conquered without sacrifice. Our good intentions alone are not powerful enough to subvert its long arm.
Luke Skywalker had only marginally experienced his ability to wield the force, yet he was sure that his might was sufficient to fight any foe. He was too powerful to realize he was not yet powerful enough. He was too skilled to realize that he was not skilled enough for his task. His mentor, Yoda, knew far more about the opponent he was about to face. “Ready are you? What know you of ready?” Yoda thunderously snaps at his apprentice. “You are reckless!” Experience sees what youth is often too blind to admit to itself. In the talented, budding force-user, Yoda saw much potential and yet not enough in the present. He saw Luke longing for the quick and easy path, the path that always seems to lead to a destructive conclusion.
Luke’s decision to fight his evil foe is masked by his well-intended desire to protect his friends. Without a doubt, this was a positive emotion that inspired his decision. However, a more honest observation of his motivation reveals young Skywalker’s vengeance. The evil Sith had “killed” his father and his father-figure, and Luke is itching to settle his predecessor’s battle. In their penultimate lightsaber battle, Skywalker’s swings snap with vicious fury, while Vader is more deliberate, refusing to waste an ounce of stamina that he doesn’t have to exert. “You’ll find I’m full of surprises,” Luke confidently sneers. Yet, Vader clearly wasn’t surprised by his son’s battle strategy and would not allow himself to be overwhelmed by Luke’s energy. In his son, Vader sees young Anakin, the power-drunk and deceived Jedi who foolishly believed he could overcome Obi-Wan’s high ground. The writers of Empire nod to the weakness of uncontained emotion, showing that how we view our own ability must be drenched in appropriate reality.
Han Solo’s brash personality thrilled film audiences upon its release and continues to captivate new fans. He is an easy selection to the pantheon of classic movie “bad boys turned good,” perhaps standing alone as the greatest. Yes, his boldness won battles, but it also bought him a one-way ticket to destination carbonite. Han trusted his acquaintances too easily, leaning heavily on his personal experiences while diminishing the wise counsel of his love interest, Princess Leia. The more seasoned Vader saw through his scheme, outflanking him by playing on Lando’s thirst for power. This possibility didn’t even factor into Han’s perspective, showing us that a few victories won’t automatically make us wiser.
Han’s motivation for his fight was glory and adventure. He saw life only through the lens of his conquests. He was obviously brave and cared more than he was willing to admit, but his goodness came with a heavy dash of scoundrel. Rather than facing his fear of never being a man worthy of a fulfilled life, Han preferred to mask his emotions in humor and anger. He, like too many of us, saw no benefit in vulnerability. Only the fear of his impending death created the opportunity for his goodness to shine. Even then, it was doused in self-assuredness. “I love you,” Leia passionately tells him. “I know,” he responds. He would only be emotional on his own terms.
Empire’s collision of these young men—in the prime of their respective lives—with the older, seasoned counterparts is rich with spiritual lessons. What good is our ability on its own? How good is our good? Every bit of self-assuredness will never be enough to push back the evil that lurks dormant (or not so dormant) in our hearts. Over-estimating our ability will ultimately reveal our hidden weaknesses, as Paul is quick to remind the Corinthian church: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corin. 10:12). What is the object of our greatest confidence? If it is ourselves, we will fail to approach what opposes us prepared for battle. We may talk a good game and snap our preliminary obstacles in half with the force of our will, but our talk will also get our arms cut off. As barren Hannah prays in the backdrop of the Old Testament temple, “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed” (1 Sam. 2:4). Ultimately, God sees through brash personality and weighs the heart—a sobering warning to reject the easy path of trusting in ourselves.
If we only knew the power . . . Vader’s words ring as a reminder and warning to all who place their trust in youth. It is not enough. We have much to learn.