The Nature of the Force (The Empire Strikes Back)

*NOTE: This is the second in a series of posts I've wanted to do for a long time. It explores our (the audience's) understanding of what the Force in Star Wars is as it is revealed to us movie by movie, according to release date. I'm using release date because I believe if I use episodic I'll lose the gradual understanding we as fans have developed over the bast 40 years. Enjoy.

At the conclusion of A New Hope we were left with a great sense of achievement for the power of goodness in the galaxy. Good triumphed over evil, justice for Alderaan was delivered in the Death Star's destruction, and our heroes celebrated their victory. The Force, as we discussed last time, seemed to be in balance. The Battle of Yavin was a sort of re-calibration for the lives lost in Alderaan, and it felt as if the Force was a power for good.

But not is all as it seems. The boot of tyranny only slipped at Yavin, and it will come bearing heavily upon the Rebel Alliance in The Empire Strikes Back. Lord Vader, obsessed with finding Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion, is on the hunt. The Battle of Hoth, the side quest to Bespin, and the ultimate confrontation between father and son marks a dark point for our band of heroes. But, the lessons we learn from Grand Master Yoda on Dagobah provide us further information on the nature of the Force.

New Powers

The first instance of the Force in Episode V is Luke hanging from the Wampa's ice cave, focusing himself to reach for his lightsaber stuck in the snow. He reaches out with his hand and in a somewhat strained motion, the lightsaber zips to his hand where he cuts himself free and defends against the Wampa's attack. From Episode IV, the only thing that resembled such power was when Ben Kenobi fooled the stormtroopers on the Death Star when deactivating the tractor beams. Otherwise, there's no telekinesis. A Jedi's power, it seems, not only includes the ability to perform mind tricks, but to deliberately manipulate matter.

Later, having escaped, Luke struggles through the snowy tundra, exhausted and collapsed. And something extraordinary happens. Old Ben can been seen on the horizon, robed and hooded as we first met him. We can hear him speak, we see him speak, but he's not fully there. Whatever this imagery is, it's there, and that shouldn't be possible with dead people. But, then again, we heard Ben back at the end of Episode IV. We concluded last time that he must have fully joined himself with the Force, becoming a part of it. And yet, he is still somehow maintaining an individuality that the living possess. What has Ben Kenobi done to "become more powerful than you can possibly imagine"? At this point in the film we can't be sure. Is the ability to join in the Force after death, but maintain individuality, inherent in a Force user, or something to be trained?

Later, on Darth Vader's massive Super Star Destroyer, the Executor, General Veers reports bad news to Vader about Admiral Ozzel's attempt to surprise the Rebels on Hoth. Furious, Vader turns to a screen showing Ozzel, who is somewhere else on the ship. We see Ozzel gasp for air as Vader says, "You have failed me for the last time, Admiral." No doubt, Ozzel's air-flow is constricted somehow by Vader. We saw in Episode IV that Vader did this to Admiral Motti aboard the Death Star. The difference, though, is that Vader and Motti were in the same room. This appears to be an expansion of that same ability. Vader is powerful enough to influence and manipulate matter not just in his near vicinity, but across what may be a great distance.

This raises an important question: what, if any, limits are there to the Force? Can it do anything? Or are there limits that apply to Force users, and not the Force itself? If Vader is able to manipulate a trachea far away, it seems a Force user is able to extend himself, via the Force, to potentially anywhere in the galaxy. Which follows from Episode IV. Recall when Ben felt the destruction of Alderaan while on the Millennium Falcon. The balance of the Force shifted so much he could feel it, but that would only be possible if he was continuously joined with it. If Ben can feel the Force's movements from across the galaxy, then it makes sense that Vader can move the Force himself from across a star ship.

What do these two powers reveal about the nature of the Force? The afterlife of the Force is not all-consuming, and distance is not an absolute barrier to using the Force. Most afterlife theories say that when dead, you're gone forever, to be brought up or dragged down to whatever fate awaits you. Some cultures have the idea of ghosts, who are trapped, unable to escape. In that sense, the dead are still completely devoid of options. But it seems that a Force user can die but not lose volition. It's theoretically possible that the voice Luke heard in Episode IV was not Ben, but the Force itself in the form of Ben. The encounter outside the Wampa cave seems to discredit that theory, and affirm that, in fact, a Force user has his own will and choices after death.

However, there is a slight wrinkle in the ability to become a Force-ghost. When Darth Vader converses with the Emperor, he says, "He's just a boy. Obi-Wan can no longer help him." It appears Vader is unaware that Ben is still around. I think it is likely, then, that he is unaware it is even possible to become a Force-ghost! This adds a new question: is the ability to live after death a power only Jedi have, and not the dark side, or is it a power that only a few have, Jedi or dark side?

Yoda's Lessons

Luke does finally arrive at Dagobah, to surprisingly find out the annoying green hermit is the Jedi Master Yoda, a great warrior. When Yoda says Luke is not ready to be trained, and Luke protests, Yoda goes on a little rant. Part of the rant is very short, but very important.

This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things.

First things first: how in the galaxy has Yoda been watching Luke? I mean, it's one thing for Ben to feel the destruction of Alderaan in hyperspace, and another for Vader to manipulate matter from a great distance. But it seems like a totally impossible task to actually see someone on a whole different planet. And yet, Yoda has done so, and with great accuracy, pinpointing exactly Luke's fault of being distracted. This is extraordinary. This Force vision educates us more on the nature of the Force. We have already discussed how one must join themselves into the energy field of the Force in order to use it. We have seen it is possible to not be entirely consumed by the energy field by being a Force-ghost. And now we see that entering in the energy field not only grants powers of manipulation, but eavesdropping on other individuals connected to the Force. If all living things are connected, it would seem to follow that Yoda's ability, though incredible, is logically possible. Connection to all things would likely include vision of all things. Still, this is mind boggling.

Let us turn to Yoda's teaching of Luke directly. His first lesson: a Jedi does not crave adventure and excitement. Why? What about these things are dangerous? We have the tools to answer this. To use the Force requires a connectivity to all living things, a willful choice to participate in the energy field. It would likely be difficult to do this if someone was not focused on the present moment, not present themselves with the Force. Adventure and excitement, by near definition, are focused on the future. A Jedi must be disciplined on what is around him now.

Dark Sentiments

Here is another sequence of dialogue:

YODA Run! Yes. A Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger... fear... aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice.

LUKE Vader. Is the dark side stronger?

YODA No... no... no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.

LUKE But how am I to know the good side from the bad?

YODA You will know. When you are calm, at peace. Passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.

Yoda repeats Ben's comments about the Force being the source of a Jedi's power. The Force is strength of a Jedi, not the Jedi himself. But, a Jedi is not a servant of anger, fear, and aggression. We have heard of the dark side of the Force, only to question what that really means. We theorized that death and destruction might be a part of it. We now have concrete examples, and they seem to focus around the idea of hatred. Hateful people are angry at others, fearful of others, and aggressive toward others. These tools will pop up in battle; after all, when confronted with your enemy, it would be very easy to hate them. But Yoda warns that if you turn this way the hatred will consume you. Your connectivity to the Force will turn dark. Hatred it not a tool of strength--it may yield results faster, it may be easier to succumb to it, and it feels right to destroy your enemy. But it is not stronger.

The essence of the dark side is one of complete domination. Notice that last bit of lines: "Passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack." A Jedi's strength flow from the Force; a Jedi is merely a vessel, a focusing tool for the Force. Whereas a dark side user like Darth Vader does not just use and manipulate the Force, but compels it to follow his will. Vader does not use the Force for the purpose of balance and peace, but dominion over others. The Force, we can now see, has multiple dimensions. How we interact with those dimensions is what shapes us as people. The Force has a natural dark side; if we succumb to it, we will fall down a path that eliminates our balance. If we acknowledge it and respect it, we are at peace.

But being hateful is not simply a quality people just have. Hatred must come from somewhere. On Dagobah comes, in my opinion, one of the most important insights on the dark side of the Force. We see a gnarled tree that leads to some sort of cave. Luke says he can feel cold, death. Yoda confirms that the cave is strong with the dark side of the Force, a domain of evil. Our earlier theory of death as an aspect of the dark side of the Force seems to be confirmed here, but perhaps not in an absolute way. Death, after all, is a natural part of life, one Ben Kenobi willingly accepted. But perhaps the very fear of death, the fear of loss, is a part of that "domain of evil."

Luke asks what in the cave, to which Yoda replies, "Only what you bring with you." We can see the literary and symbolic meaning of those words as Luke takes his weaponry into the cave. But, from a Force perspective, I think Yoda refers to the idea that the dark side of the Force is generated, not necessarily by death alone, but by fear of death, fear itself. This makes sense. When we are little kids, and are afraid of the dark or the boogeymen in the closet, we come to resent the dark and the closet. We are vehement about not being left in the dark. Indeed, we come to hate the dark. My operating understanding of the dark side of the Force is that it's outward characteristic is hatred, and its source is fear. I am confirmed in this understanding when Vader later duels Luke at Cloud City. "You have controlled your fear... now release your anger. Only your hatred can destroy me." Fear is the source of a dark side user's strength, which manifests in an anger, a rage. That rage culminates in a hatred to destroy others.

Other Abilities

In addition to this insight, we are given two more new aspects of the Force. First, the Force can concentrate itself around a physical object, changing that object's very nature. The cave is strong with the dark side. We know that a Jedi can train to use the Force, to manipulate objects and even see great distances. But that comes with training and with a sense of connectivity, bringing yourself into the Force. We asked in Episode IV about the Force choosing people ("The Force is strong with this one!"). We can see the Force can choose objects as well. The scene in the cave further proves it is possible for the Force to manipulate and change things without a user. This is another addition to the idea that the Force has some sentient dimension. What the nature of that dimension is it unknown at this time.

Second, the Force not only allows users to see, feel, and manipulate objects over great distances, it can provide insight into future times. As the movie goes on we come to realize Darth Vader (SPOILER) is Luke's father. When Luke decapitated the vision of Vader in the cave, he saw his own head in the helmet, not Vader's. This, of course, was a foreshadow of Luke's own connection to Vader. The cave wasn't only a vision of something weirdly symbolic; it was a vision of what the future was to hold. It showed what Luke would learn.

Indeed, Yoda says, "Through the Force, things you will see. Other places. The future... the past. Old friends long gone." Not only it is possible to experience a feeling about the future, but it is possible to perhaps see the future itself. Luke sees Han and Leia suffering somehow in a city in the clouds. This place is of course Bespin, with the floating facility above. Notice that Han and Leia are not there yet, and Han and Leia will eventually suffer, physically and emotionally, respectively. This is a real insight into actual future events. Of course, it's not precise. Even Yoda cannot predict the future, since it is, as he says, always in motion.

We will come to learn later that Vader manipulated such events on the expectation that Luke would feel the future in such a way. Vader cannot predict or control the future, but he can create ways for Luke to feel events with certain emotional characteristics (pain, namely).

Connection with Others

The last final noteworthy power of a Force user from Episode V is the ability to communicate with others. Luke, defeated and maimed, hanging from the bottom of Cloud City, calls out to Leia for her to rescue him. Somehow, she hears him. She turns the Millenium Falcon around to get him. Later, Luke and Vader share a connection as well, recognizing each other. What is unclear at this point in time is whether or not the connection has to involve two Force-users, or just one. Luke and Vader are obviously powerful enough to communicate telepathically, but what of Leia? We don't know enough yet on how this communication works. All we know is that a Force user can join into the Force in such a way to converse, in a way, with others.


The Empire Strikes Back is not only a classic film, but a necessary exploration of the Force. There was so much in Episode IV left unanswered that it was necessary to answer them, in part, in the sequel. Not only were most of those questions answered, but the film dived deep into the dark side. It's power derives from fear, anger, and hatred. The Force allows users to live on, in a way after death. Users can see and control things over great distances. Users can see and feel the past, present, and future. Users can communicate telepathically with others. And, perhaps my favorite insight, the Force can concentrate itself without the power of a user around other objects and people.

We will continue our analysis with Return of the Jedi in the upcoming weeks. Until then, let me know your thoughts. Did I misinterpret something, miss an important aspect? Comment below and share with your friends!


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