Anakin Skywalker was prophesied to bring balance to the Force, and it looks like he did in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. This film, which many hail as the best of the original trilogy, is an example of a cinematic chiasmus. All of the events of the first half of the film are repeated in the second half in the opposite order, creating a beautifully symmetrical film.
The first example of cinematic chiasmus that I shared was the original RoboCop. That film had a single flaw that kept it from being a perfect chiasmus. The Empire Strikes Back has no such flaws. It is perfectly symmetrical, just like the two halves of the Force. Perhaps this is meant to highlight the Light and Dark Sides of the Force, especially when you see the turning point.
Let’s dive in and see the breathtaking symmetry of The Empire Strikes Back. To quote Yoda, if you’re not already in awe of this film, “You will be. You will be.”
Here are the film’s events, listed in their chiasmic form. Each letter corresponds to the same one on the opposite side of the chiasmus:
A. A Star Destroyer sends probes searching for Luke Skywalker
B. Luke communicates with Han Solo by radio and then gets injured
C. Han makes it safely back to the Rebel base
D. Han says he’ll come back and help Chewbacca repair the Millennium Falcon
E. Han goes looking for Luke, who’s stranded in the cold
F. Luke uses the Force to get his lightsaber
G. Luke hangs upside down and then falls from the ceiling
H. Luke cuts off a snow creature’s arm
I. Leia has to close the Rebel base door on Luke and Han
J. The spirit of Obi-Wan appears to Luke and tells him where to be trained as a Jedi
K. Han finds Luke
L. Han puts Luke inside his tauntaun to keep him warm
M. Rogue Squadron flies to Han’s and Luke’s rescue
N. A rejuvenated Luke is greeted by Han and Leia
O. An Imperial Probe reveals the Rebels’ hidden base
P. Luke says farewell to Han to get trained as a Jedi
Q. The Rebels are alerted to the Empire’s presence and prepare to escape
R. Darth Vader kills an admiral for his failure and names Piett his new admiral
S. Luke sends an AT-AT falling into the snow
T. The Millennium Falcon can’t go to light speed, so it goes into an asteroid field and hides inside one of the asteroids
U. Luke underestimates the danger of entering Dagobah and he crash lands
V. R2-D2 gets eaten by a swamp creature and vomited out
W. Luke finds Yoda and tells Artoo to stay and watch their camp
X. Han interrupts Leia’s work and she winds up walking out on him
Y. A Star Destroyer gets hit by a massive asteroid
Z. Vader talks with the Emperor about the son of Skywalker
Z. Luke talks to Yoda about his father
Y. A Star Destroyer blasts its way through the asteroids
X. Leia interrupts Han’s work and he walks out, joined by her
W. C-3PO stays behind to “guard the ship” while Han and Leia discover mynocks in the asteroid
V. The Millennium Falcon escapes being eaten by a space slug
U. Luke underestimates the danger of entering a cave and fails his test
T. The Millennium Falcon leaves the asteroid field, fails to go to light speed, and hides on a Star Destroyer
S. Luke is unable to lift his X-Wing out of a swamp
R. Vader kills a captain for letting the Millennium Falcon escape and gives a stern warning to Admiral Piett
Q. Han and Leia fail to notice Boba Fett tracking them as they escape
P. Luke says farewell to Yoda, ending his Jedi training prematurely
O. Vader ambushes Han and Leia on Cloud City
N. Leia comforts Han after he’s been tortured
M. Luke flies to Han’s and Leia’s rescue
L. Vader freezes Han in carbonite
K. Luke finds Han
J. Luke encounters Vader and gets taunted that he’s not a Jedi yet
I. Leia is too late to save Han from being taken to Jabba the Hutt
H. Luke gets his hand cut off
G. Luke falls down a giant shaft and winds up upside down
F. Luke uses the Force to call for help
E. Leia goes looking for Luke, who’s stranded under Cloud City
D. Artoo helps Chewie repair the Millennium Falcon
C. Everyone but Han makes it safely back to the Rebel Fleet
B. Luke communicates by radio with Lando Calrissian and then gets hurt in a helpful way
A. The Millennium Falcon goes searching for Han
It’s pretty amazing how this chiasmus fits the entire alphabet perfectly. Now let’s discuss all of these points more closely.
A. Sending Out Probes
After the opening title crawl, the first thing we see is a Star Destroyer launching a whole bunch of probes from its underbelly in search of Luke Skywalker. Just before the end credits roll, we see the Millennium Falcon detach from the underside of a Rebel medical frigate and go off in search of Han Solo.
B. Luke Skywalker on the Air
The first time we see Luke, he radios Han, telling him he’s going to check out a meteorite that crashed in the distance and he won’t take long. But he’s interrupted by a snow creature that roars in his face and attacks him with its giant arm. The last time we see Luke, he radios Lando Calrissian (who’s wearing Han’s clothes) and tells him he’ll be waiting for their signal as they head out to look for Han. Chewbacca gives a melancholy growl. Then Luke gets poked by a medical droid who’s helping him recover feeling in his new robotic hand.
C. Safely Back Among Rebels
Han returns to the safety of the secret Rebel base on Hoth where Princess Leia, Chewie, C-3PO and R2-D2 are. Luke is the only one missing. Later, Luke makes it back to the Rebel Fleet along with Lando, Leia, Chewie, Threepio, and Artoo. Han is the only one missing.
D. Helping Chewbacca Repair the Millennium Falcon
When Han returns to the Rebel base, Chewie howls at him for help with repairing the badly damaged Millennium Falcon. Han promises, “I’ll come right back and give you a hand.” Later, at a critical moment, Artoo repairs the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive while Threepio complains, “You don’t know how to fix the hyperdrive. Chewbacca can do it!”
E. Looking for Luke
Han braves a bitterly cold storm to search for Luke on Hoth, guided by a radar device. Leia braves a wave of TIE fighters to search for Luke on Bespin, guided by a psychic message he sent her.
F. Luke Uses the Force to Get Free
Hanging upside down from the top of an icy cave, Luke uses the Force to grab his fallen lightsaber and free himself. Later, Luke hangs upside down from some metal poles underneath Cloud City and watches as his lightsaber falls beneath the clouds. He uses the Force to call for help.
G. Luke Falls
Luke uses his lightsaber to cut the ice holding him in an upside-down position and he falls to the ground. Later, he falls down a huge shaft and winds up stranded upside down beneath Cloud City.
H. Losing a Limb to a Lightsaber
A snow creature charges at Luke, so he uses his lightsaber to cut off its arm. Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s hand after a brutal lightsaber duel.
I. Leia Is Too Late
Leia has to make the difficult decision to close the main door of the Rebel base on Hoth, even though it means she’ll likely never see Luke or Han again. Later, she opens a door onto a platform just in time to see Boba Fett’s spaceship take off with Han aboard. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever see Han again.
J. Obi-Wan and Vader Appear to Luke
The spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi appears to Luke while he’s alone and tells him to go to the Dagobah system where he’ll be trained as a Jedi by a master named Yoda. Later, Luke encounters Vader after he’s been separated from his friends, and Vader taunts him, “The Force is with you, young Skywalker. But you are not a Jedi yet.” Vader plans to bring Luke to his new master, the Emperor.
K. Han Finds Luke and Vice-versa
On Hoth, Han stumbles across Luke’s seemingly lifeless body in the snow. On Bespin, Luke stumbles across Han’s frozen body being carted away in carbonite.
L. Luke in a Tauntaun and Han in Carbon Freeze
To save Luke’s life, Han cuts open his dead tauntaun and stuffs Luke inside it, protecting him against the freezing weather. To test a carbon-freezing unit that Vader plans to use on Luke, Han is put into carbonite. Threepio notes, “He should be quite well protected… if he survived the freezing process, that is.”
M. Flying to the Rescue
A squadron of snowspeeders flies over Hoth’s terrain to rescue Han and Luke. Later, Luke flies toward Cloud City to rescue Han, Leia, Chewie, and Threepio.
N. Comforting the Survivor of a Terrible Ordeal
Back at the Rebel base, Han and Leia are relieved to see Luke recovering from his wounds sustained in the snow creature’s attack. In a prison cell, Leia comforts Han after he’s been tortured.
O. Imperial Ambush
An Imperial Probe reveals the location of the Rebels’ hidden base on Hoth. Han shoots it with his blaster and it self-destructs. On Cloud City, Han, Leia, and Chewie are ambushed by Vader after being sold out by Han’s friend, Lando. Han shoots at Vader, but is quickly disarmed.
P. Luke Says Farewell to Han and Yoda
Luke and Han share an emotional farewell before going their separate ways, Luke to be trained as a Jedi and Han to try to evade the Empire. Han’s final words to Luke are, “Be careful.” Later, Luke bids farewell to Yoda. He chooses to forgo the conclusion of his Jedi training in order to save Han and his other friends from the Empire. Yoda’s final words to Luke are, “Mind what you have learned. Save you it can.”
Q. Alerted to Danger vs. Failing to See the Danger
The Imperial Fleet comes out of light speed too close to the Hoth system, alerting the Rebels to their presence. The Rebels are able to protect themselves and escape as a result. Later, just after the Imperial Fleet goes to light speed and unwittingly leaves the Millennium Falcon behind, the Rebels aboard don’t notice they’re being followed by Boba Fett’s ship. They’re unable to protect themselves and fail to escape as a result.
R. Vader Kills Two of His Subordinates
Vader uses the Force to strangle Admiral Ozzel for his incompetence, which led to the Rebels being prepared for their attack. He names Captain Piett his new admiral. Later, he strangles Captain Needa for letting the Millennium Falcon get away. And he subtly threatens Admiral Piett with the words, “Don’t fail me again, Admiral.”
S. Luke Takes Down Two Large Vehicles
After having his snowspeeder shot down during the Battle of Hoth, Luke manages to successfully destroy a huge AT-AT, dropping it into the snow. After crashing his X-Wing in a swamp on Dagobah, Luke fails to lift it with the Force and it falls beneath the surface of the swamp.
T. No Light Speed, Evading Asteroids, and Hiding Out
The Millennium Falcon tries to evade several Star Destroyers by going to light speed, but that plan fails. So they enter an asteroid field and hide inside an asteroid. Eventually they leave the asteroid field and once again fail to go to light speed. So they hide out on the Star Destroyer that’s pursuing them.
U. Luke Underestimates Dangers
When Luke approaches Dagobah, he underestimates the dangers of entering its atmosphere. He soon finds all of his scopes dead and he crash lands in a swamp. Later, Luke is tested by Yoda, but he fails to appreciate the danger he’s about to face by descending into a cave. He experiences a vision where he learns that he can fall to the Dark Side if he’s not careful.
V. Escaping a Monster’s Stomach
After arriving on Dagobah, Artoo is quickly eaten by a swamp creature and then vomited up because he didn’t taste good to the creature. A while after hiding in an asteroid the crew of the Millennium Falcon realizes they’re actually inside a space slug, and they propel out of its mouth because they don’t want to be its next meal.
W. Finding Strange Creatures While the Droids Stand Guard
After Luke sets up camp on Dagobah, he says, “I don’t know. I feel like…” and then a previously unseen alien asks, “Feel like what?” A startled Luke pulls out his blaster and finishes, “…like we’re being watched.” After interacting with the creature for a bit, it bids Luke to follow and Luke tells Artoo, “Stay and watch after the camp.” When strange noises are heard outside the Millennium Falcon, Han, Leia, and Chewie go to check it out while Threepio says, “I think it’s best if I stay behind and guard the ship.” Then Leia says, “I don’t know. I have a bad feeling about this,” after which Han spots a mynock on the ship and shoots it with his blaster.
X. Han’s and Leia’s Interruptions
Han interrupts Leia’s work repairing the ship and the two share a romantic kiss. Threepio butts in, happily sharing something trivial he accomplished while Leia hurries away. Later, Threepio tries sharing an opinion, but Han says he’s not interested. Suddenly, Leia comes running up to Han, who’s busy with a repair. He walks away from her to deal with the problem, and she winds up going with him. There’s no time for a romantic moment, unless you count the mynock kissing the Millennium Falcon’s window.
Y. Star Destroyers Dealing with Asteroids
A Star Destroyer gets destroyed by an asteroid, demonstrating the dangers of the asteroid field. Later, a Star Destroyer is shown blasting its way through several asteroids, demonstrating that they’ve figured out how to overcome the danger they’re in.
Z. Skywalkers Talk to Their Masters
The turning point of the film comes when Vader talks with his master, the Emperor. This is the first time we see the Emperor. He tells Vader, “The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.” But Luke could prove a valuable asset if he could be turned to the Dark Side. Immediately after that scene, we see Luke talking with the creature on Dagobah who reveals himself to be the Jedi Master Yoda. He talks to Luke about his father, who was a powerful Jedi, and then tries to think of reasons not to train Luke as a Jedi. He is persuaded otherwise, but only if Luke will finish what he begins.
The Two Sides of the Force
It seems to me that the purpose of this chiasmus in The Empire Strikes Back is to highlight the duality of the Force. It has a Light Side and a Dark Side. Many of the events that take place on opposite sides of this chiasmus are also opposite in their results, such as Luke cutting off a creature’s hand versus getting his own hand cut off, the Empire struggling with asteroids and then overcoming them, and Luke leaving Han to get trained as a Jedi and then leaving Yoda to save Han rather than finishing his training.
For everyone who already loves this film, I hope this just increases your love and respect for it. It shows the remarkable things the original Star Wars trilogy accomplished and what a high standard they set for later films in the series to try to achieve. Let’s hope Episode VII is up to the challenge.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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Did you ever notice that han tells leia that, under torture, “they didn’t ask any questions”? Vader simply needed Han to be in immense pain so Luke would feel it and come to his rescue. It worked.
Vader’s plan has always fascinated me. He attacks the Rebel base on Hoth knowing that Luke will likely be on the front lines. He’s willing to risk killing the very person he’s trying to capture. Then, once Luke eludes him, he hunts for his friends not to ransom them or offer them as some type of exchange for Luke, but just to get Luke to come to him.
It’s a bold plan that relies on some serious luck to work. But I guess every villain’s plan is like that. Just look at the Joker’s in The Dark Knight.
remember Vader is still the Emperor’s henchman so it was essentially the Emperors plan…
Thanks for this
You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure. I put a lot of thought and effort into this, and it’s rewarding to see it resonate with people.
This was very entertaining to read. I have watched this movie probably a thousand times and never knew how symmetrical it really was. Please keep up the good work!
You are the chosen one!
This is an awesome piece. Makes me want to rewatch the film in a whole new light.
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OFF TOPIC: Thanks for the like! Your blog is awesome! Many Brazilians like Deja Reviewer, especially Ronald Perrone of demmentia.wordpress.com !Grazie!
Wow! Thank you very much. Keep up the great work on your site, too. Você é bem-vindo. 🙂
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This is remarkable. I’m glad you used the theatrical version and not the SE or Blu-ray. One minor nitpick, though: The thing falling away from Luke under Cloud City has been discussed nearly to death over on the Replica Prop Forum (www.therpf.com) and although there’s no definitive answer as to what it is, it’s pretty clear it’s not Luke’s hand and/or lightsaber. Although your analysis offers a strong argument for it. Maybe I’ll throw this wrench into the works and see what happens.
amazing! I am normally interested in taking apart structures but this is something beyond and totally fascinating! well done 🙂
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What an excellent analysis! When the films first came out this was my least favorite because of the unresolved ending. Over time, I came to appreciate it as a perfect second act. Your detailed dissection takes my appreciation to a different level. This is a really fine piece of writing!
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That was amazing! Nothing like finding a new and awesome layer to my already favorite film!
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Great analysis, but the chiasmus extends far further than that. You’ve only scratched the surface.
In fact, all six films have a chiastic structure. Lucas has constructed both trilogies around it, achieving almost perfect symmetry in everything from opening shots to plot structure and in some cases it even goes down to running time in the actual films. It’s a truly remarkable achievement, not taking any other opinions of Episode I-III into consideration – the Star Wars saga could well be the most experimental narrative ever attempted in cinema.
Credit for working all this out in detail and presenting it clearly goes to the man behind this article:
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I’m really sorry for accidentally downvoting your comment. I hit the wrong button on my phone and it wouldn’t let me undo it, so I upvoted your comment two times to make up for it.
That article seriously puts mine to shame. Wow! It’s amazing how much detail went into the first Star Wars films. Even if the prequels weren’t all that fans hoped they would be, they are actually quite amazing on a whole other level. Thank you for sharing.
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“That article seriously puts mine to shame.”
I like to look at it this way.
The sixth rule that Mike Klimo, the author, alludes to is Rings Within Rings, the idea the within one main ring exists a bunch of smaller rings. He points out how the saga as a whole is a chiasmus and lightly covers the individuals trilogies (something I personally would enjoy investigating more myself) on page 6. You’ve covered how Empire individually fits the structure. If someone were to spend enough time analyzing the saga they could probably find rings that don’t even go through the whole movie and add another layer of complexity.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t call your article a shame, just a part of a much bigger picture.
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I was going to ask this question – when are you going to address the chiastic structures of both the prequel trilogy and the sequel trilogy and the combined six films. I’d love to find the new trilogy tie into that same directorial genius! Hopefully it will happen.
Whoo boy. That would be an incredible project. I did an analysis of the Dark Knight Trilogy, and that turned out to be unbelievably huge in scope. To do two trilogies would be mind-boggling. At the same time, it also sounds like a lot of fun…
The Star Wars Ring Theory article did a masterful job putting the pattern together. I might just have to take a look and see if I could add to it with my own interpretation. That’ll most likely be a ways down the road. Thank you for your vote of confidence. 🙂
Great insights into the structure of this amazing film. I’ve got one for you. Not sure if it counts, but it’s interesting nonetheless: Luke climbs up some vines as part of his training on Dagobah. = Luke climbs up some pipes after leaping from the carbon freezer during his duel with Vader. Just a bit of clever foreshadowing, I suppose.
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“To Timothy Eatough you listen.” – Yoda.
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Reblogged this on The Damnedest Thing You Ever Saw.
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