Symbolism. Star Wars does not often come to mind as a movie ripe with symbolism. It’s no On the Waterfront, that’s for sure. But this scene is (still) one of the most talked about scenes within the Star Wars saga.
It deviates from Lucas’ normal way of telling his stories and instead takes you on a journey of facing what is inside of you.
The most obvious and simple explanation for this cave scene is that when Luke sees his own face staring back up at him from the mask, it represents his greatest fear of becoming evil like Darth Vader.
But I want to take this a step further and it’s impossible to analyze and look at this scene without knowing about the previous scene. Usually I am able to look at a scene as a standalone, but in this case, it would be silly to do that.
After training, Luke and Yoda end up near the tree cave where Luke senses, rather than sees, the cave.
He says, “I feel cold, death.”
Yoda replies, “That place…is strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is. In you must go.”
Luke replies with the most natural question: “What’s in there?” Hell, if I felt cold and death, I would definitely want to know what I am facing as well.
Yoda: “Only what you take with you.”
Luke picks up his weapon belt and begins to strap it on when Yoda says, “Your weapons…you will not need them.” And Luke straps it on anyway.
Which begs the question…do you think Luke’s vision would have been different if he had followed Yoda’s advice? What if he had not taken his weapons? Yoda does not specifically say, “Do not take the weapons,” he only says that Luke will not need them. Does that mean he believes Luke is strong enough to conquer whatever is in the cave without weapons, using only the Force? Does this relate back to Luke’s inability (at this point) to rely only on the Force?
Lucas does mention this on the ESB commentary track. He says that if Luke continued down the road that he was on in ESB, (reliance on weapons, too eager to jump into situations, etc.), he would have turned to the dark side. But he also mentions that if Luke had gone into the cave with no weapons, he would not have met Vader. He remarks that it was a teaching moment – showing Luke what the dark side can bring out of a person.
If we think about Lucas’ comment, and that Yoda says that what is within the cave is “only what you take with you,” then we can surmise that Luke has the dark side within him…and probably pretty strongly. In fact, being Anakin’s son, we know that he is probably always straddling the line. This is most likely Yoda’s fear, that he will lose Luke to the dark side, like they lost Vader (a point Obi-Wan brings up at the end of Luke’s stay in Dagobah).
And to bring this scene to the next level: Yoda says in ROTJ, “Remember your failure at the cave.” Ergo, Luke failed in this scene.
This is the only line from Yoda that even hints back to this scene in the future movies. So did he fail because he brought his weapons into the cave? Or did he fail because he has the dark side within him and he couldn’t control it?
Much to think about, mmm?
INTERIOR: DAGOBAH — TREE CAVE
Luke moves into the almost total darkness of the wet and slimy cave. The youth can barely make out the edge of the passage.
Holding his lit saber before him, he sees a lizard crawling up the side of the cave and a snake wrapped around the branches of a tree. Luke draws a deep breath, then pushes deeper into the cave.
The space widens around him, but he feels that rather than sees it. His sword casts the only light as he peers into the darkness. It is very quiet here.
Then, a loud hiss! Darth Vader appears across the blackness, illuminated by his own just-ignited laser sword. Immediately, he charges Luke, saber held high. He is upon the youth in seconds, but Luke sidesteps perfectly and slashes at Vader with his sword.
Vader is decapitated. His helmet-encased head flies from his shoulders as his body disappears into the darkness. The metallic banging of the helmet fills the cave as Vader’s head spins and bounces, smashes on the floor, and finally stops. For an instant it rests on the floor, then it cracks vertically. The black helmet and breath mask fall away to reveal…Luke’s head.
Across the space, the standing Luke gasps at the sight, wide-eyed in terror.
The decapitated head fades away, as in a vision.
EXTERIOR: DAGOBAH — CAVE — DUSK
Meanwhile, Yoda sits on the root, calmly leaning on his Gimer Stick.