Written by Richie Pepio
During the 124 days before the release of The Last Jedi, I’m reviewing all 124 minutes of the theatrical version of
The Empire Strikes Back. Join me and together we will watch Star Wars….
And now the moment we've been waiting for... or so we think. The kids in the audience might believe this is the real Darth Vader, but the more mature audience members see this confrontation for what it is, a visual representation of Luke's inner struggle. Although this sweat lodge/vision quest happens within the confines of Luke's fever dream, it could have been weirder. Where are the dancing, pasties-wearing Hutts? the Neo-style flying? The sister-kissing? They could've gone all The-Cell-starring-Jennifer-Lopez and instead this nightmare has sleepier fight choreography than the battle between Vader and old Obi Wan.
The only things telling us this is a dream is the distilled lighting, the slow-motion moves, the delayed lightsaber sounds, and the synthesizer in John Williams' score. This is one of the rare instances that Johnny Williams uses electronic instruments in scenic music. Sure, he plays around with different musical styles when alien bands are performing - but outside of the cantina and Jabba's house band, Williams prefers to keep the sounds brassy and traditional. The only other instance including electric instruments is during Attack of the Clones, when it sounds like you can hear Buckethead riffing as Anakin chases that changeling through Coruscant.
But the music isn't the only unique thing. In the Star Wars lexicon, this entire sequence is an anomaly. If you look at A New Hope as the trendsetter for what the structure of a Star Wars movie should be, then Empire breaks the mold in every way - a downbeat ending, darker character choices, and dream sequences. Lucas reverts back to the original Star Wars' tone in Return of the Jedi, copying everything from the pacing of the last act to the second appearance of the Death Star. Lucas prefers to film these movies in the documentary style, using the camera frame as a removed observer rather than a participant in the action. To actually show us the visions these characters see is more of an exception than the rule, and we don't often witness the sights that the Jedi sense. Some of the few other exceptions are Anakin's dream in Revenge of the Sith and Rey's mind-trip in The Force Awakens.
The duel is just a teaser of things to come and even with this scene's pre-production - during a time when concept artists' imaginations can go overboard and over-budget - it was always meant to function as a short and quick skirmish. The storyboards by artist Ivor Beddoes are low-key, but they're beautifully rendered by Glass Distortion in the side-by-side comparison below. Beddoes worked in the art department for The Haunting and Superman, and he knew how to tell straightforward stories in penciled frames.
Just as this mini-duel serves to ratchet up anticipation for an actual confrontation between Skywalker and Vader, it also might have thrown rabid fans off the scent of the action to come. Spoilers were harder to come by in the pre-internet era, but they still existed. Magazines like Starlog, word-of-mouth at comic book conventions, and on-set spies sets often started rumors that spread just a few parsecs slower than the blogs of today. While many theories about Star Wars were wildly off-base, David Prowse (the man inside the Vader suit) was telling fans Vader could be Luke's father as early as 1978. Fans may have heard that there was a lightsaber battle between Luke and Darth Vader in Empire, and this dream sequence could make some viewers think that this was what all the fuss was about.
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, early word spread around that Spock died in the picture. So director, Nicholas Meyer, and the Khan crew had Spock "die" in the Kobayashi Maru training simulation at the beginning of the movie. Audience members expecting Spock to die in Khan were thrown off when he went out like a punk at the beginning of the film. Because of this, his actual death at the end of movie had a stronger impact.
But speaking of magic being ruined, I always thought Luke's decapitated head was a fake. When it's revealed under the mask of Phantom Vader, the audience is left to marvel at how much that mold looks like Mark Hamill's actual face. In truth, it IS Hamill's face. In order to get the effect to look just right, the crew ditched a fake-looking rubber face and had Hamill peek through a hole in the ground...