Let’s be honest: At 30 years old, it’s been ages since The Empire Strikes Back has gotten carded while buying drinks in the Mos Eisley cantina.
And yet it remains generally acknowledged that on May 21, 1980 – that’s four movies, four TV cartoon spinoffs, two Ewok adventure films and a Bantha-back-breaking load of books and comics ago – George Lucas and Co. put the Best Star Wars Ever on the big screen.
(Two brief notes: Yes, it’s three decades on, but, just in case – spoilers ahead. Also, I swear by the Original Untouched Trilogy First approach, which is crucial to truly appreciating all Empire‘s glory, especially when you’re introducing it to the kids.)
For starters, the first Star Wars sequel brought us awesome new ships and settings and war machines. Yes, every Star Wars movie trotted out more eye candy, but Empire‘s designs still stand among the most unique and iconic in the saga:
30. Snow Troopers – The ghost-like masks added a new sort of menace to these guys. Never saw a snowtrooper conking his head on a blast door…
29. All-Terrain Armored Transports – Or just plain old “Walkers.” Brutal and clanking and relentless.
28. Cloud City – From its stunning skyline hanging over Bespin to the iron
and steam and chasms at its core, Lando’s mining colony was the first “civilized” Star Wars city we got to visit.
27. Imperial Probe Droid – The robot cousin of Mirkwood’s giant spiders, with bonus points for springing from the Airtight Garage mind of Jean “Moebius” Giraud.
26. The Executor – As the opening of Star Wars established, Star Destroyers are awfully damn big and scary – which is what makes it so awesome when we see one early in Empire and it’s absolutely dwarfed by the shadow of Darth Vader’s flagship.
Next we’ve got Empire‘s new minor characters. They’re just glimpses, really, but they do add spice to the galaxy:
25. You can’t ignore John Ratzenberger. Before he carried the mail as Cliff Clavin, he gave orders on Hoth as Bren Derlin.
24-20. The also-ran bounty hunters: IG-88, Dengar, Bossk, Zuckuss and 4-LOM – Their get-together on the Executor bridge is Empire‘s brief callback to the Star Wars cantina scene, but it’s all business this time around.
Empire also introduces some big players. They never steal the limelight from the heroes, but here in Act II of the original trilogy, these four are crucial game-changers:
19. The Emperor – We finally get a glimpse of the guy who bosses Darth Vader around, and he’s a freaky monkey-eyed puppetmaster working from the shadows. He’s almost scarier here as a mellow-voiced hologram than he is the next time we see him, all cackling and finger-lightning and such.
18. Yoda – Counterbalancing the Emperor with his understated power and patience
and backward talk, Jedi Master is at his wisest and funniest, and when 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not.
17. Lando Calrissian – Card-player. Gambler. Scoundrel. You’d like him.
16. Boba Fett – Don’t tell me they didn’t know this guy was going to be a favorite from the start. Why else was he the sole Empire action figure to show up on an original Star Wars Kenner package? He’s got the brains to stay a step ahead of Solo, and the Hoth-cold soul to ask, “What if he doesn’t survive? He’s worth a lot to me.”
Empire‘s also got some great shuddery, tense moments:
15. Force Choke – Vader used it to make a little point in Star Wars, but in Empire, he drops underlings without hesitation. Worst. Promotion. Ever, Admiral Piett.
14. Luke’s Phantom Duel – I’ll admit that as a kid, most of the meaning behind this scene escaped me. I got that it was a sort of test which he failed, but it was only as I got older that I realized the deeper aspects of what was going on, and that’s one of the reasons this scene works so well.
13. Beneath the Helmet – I remember hearing from other kids about seeing the back of Darth Vader’s head, and it pretty much made my nine-year-old brain go Thermal Detonator. Skin-crawlingly fascinating, this glimpse that both enhances and preserves mystery is another great reason to watch Episodes IV-VI first.
Probably thanks to Lawrence Kasdan in many cases, Empire stocks a bowcaster bandolier-full of quotes, including these half-dozen:
12. “Laugh it up, fuzzball.” (Han Solo)
11. “Never tell me the odds!” (Han Solo)
10. “It’s not my fault!” (Han Solo and Lando Calrissian)
9. “I love you.” / “I know.” (Princess Leia / Han Solo)
8. “I am your father.” (Darth Vader)
7. “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” (Yoda)
Where Star Wars involved establishing a universe and Return of the Jedi wraps up the trilogy’s plot points, Empire is where the main characters shine in their development.
6. R2-D2 and C-3PO – The droids spend most of Star Wars joined at the servo-hip, but separated in Empire by circumstance, they get to stretch their programmed personalities a bit.
5. Chewbacca – We saw him mostly as a loyal sidekick in the first movie, but this
time around, we get to feel our favorite wookiee’s moments of genuine despair and rage and melancholy.
4. Princess Leia – Sure the sarcasm and the spunk are still there, laser brains, but now we find out just how Alderaan’s last royalty feels about a certain flyboy, and wait – what’s that? A Force-call, you say? How interesting…
3. Luke Skywalker‘s still got a whiny moment or two, but he’s not the farmboy from Tatooine anymore. From the moment he summons his lightsaber across an ice cave to his headstrong decision to try to save his friends, we get a hint of possibilities both dark and light.
2. Han Solo –The smart-aleck pilot is actually torn, and we get to see it unfold. He knows the Rebellion’s worth fighting for, but he’s got this whole price -on-his-head thing, too. He’ll get the hell out of Dodge in a heartbeat – just as soon as he runs back to make sure the Princess is safe. He quick-draws on a Sith Lord but knows when to tell Chewie “There’ll be another time.”
1. The ending – Empire‘s greatest asset is nothing short of the greatest one-two cliffhanger punch in movie history. Vader’s revelation to Luke coupled with the Slave I heading into the sunset with Han on ice in the cargo hold. I was recently asked if the downer of an ending disappointed us as kids. Are you kidding? Now they had to make another one!
I really could have pushed this list beyond 30 things – so what are your favorite ESB moments, and what did I leave off the list?