Often lauded for its tragedy, the sequel to the original Star Wars film is equally hilarious.
On May 21, 1980, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back made its theatrical debut. To celebrate the classic film’s landmark 40th anniversary, StarWars.com presents “Empire at 40,” a special series of interviews, editorial features, and listicles.
When you talk about Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back with friends, the conversation usually boils down to this: It’s the best Star Wars movie and it’s the darkest Star Wars movie. I won’t dispute either, but when it comes to the latter and we reduce Empire’s main quality to its darkness and sense of melancholy, it’s a disservice to the film. Because Empire is so much more than that -- not only is it the darkest Star Wars movie, it’s also the funniest.
Star Wars: A New Hope definitely had humor to it, to be sure, from the bickering of R2-D2 and C-3PO to, well, the bickering of Han and Leia. Empire amped that up, and I don’t think that George Lucas (producer), Leigh Brackett (screenwriter), Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter), Irvin Kershner (director), and all the actors, particularly Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, get the credit they deserve for just how funny a movie it is. When you break it down, most of the character interactions involve jokes or absurd scenarios.
When we first meet Artoo and Threepio, they’re arguing over who’s to blame between them for flooding Leia’s room. (“I didn’t ask you to turn on the thermal heater,” C-3PO says. “I merely commented that it was freezing in the princess’ chamber.”) And of course, there’s everything Han and Leia, as they endlessly needle each other. (“Yes, Your Worshipfulness,” Han tells Leia, mocking her royal upbringing as only he could. Later, Leia kisses Luke right in front of him, the ultimate spike of the football. (And it’s okay, because they didn’t know they were brother and sister yet.)) And the constant problems with getting the Falcon started, like the junky car it is, always slay me. “No, no, no,” Han tells Chewie when the walking carpet is making last-minute repairs. “This one goes there, that one goes there. Right?” This becomes a recurring a gag for the whole movie -- and essential to the plot.
There are so many more instances where humor, from smart to goofball, bubbles to the surface. Yoda fighting with Artoo. Han’s constant dismissal of Threepio. Han docking the Falcon ON a Star Destroyer to avoid capture.
Empire also perfected, in my opinion, the Star Wars trope of cascading problems, except here, it’s like these hurdles are out of an Abbott and Costello in Space movie. They can’t get the Falcon to start. Then they do, but the hyperdrive won’t work. Then they’re in an asteroid field. They dock on a large asteroid, but it turns out they parked inside the belly of a giant space slug. I’m telling you, when they were older and had a moment of calm, Han, Leia, and Chewie were laughing about all of that.
To the movie’s credit, the bad guys are never funny. They are not having a good time or trying to make light of things. Otherwise, jokes are everywhere in Empire, even in the movie’s bleakest moments. Right after his torture at the hands of Darth Vader, Han looks at his friends and delivers a very dry “I feel terrible.” It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, obviously, and you’re still feeling for Han, but there is some levity there that’s true to the character. C-3PO gets blasted to bits, and Chewie starts to repair him…only to put the droid’s head on backwards. And when things are their most dire and Han is about to be frozen in carbonite, his fate unknown…you still have a half-finished Threepio, on Chewie’s back, yelling at the Wookiee to turn around so he can see.
So, Empire is funny. Very funny. I bring this up not to diminish its other qualities. It is exciting. It is emotionally complex. It definitely is dark. But if Empire was only exciting or only emotional or only dark, it would not be what it is -- which is one of the best movies ever made. And it’s that effortless infusion of humor that makes Empire a complete movie. Han being frozen is heartbreaking, Luke losing his hand is sobering, and “I am your father” is shocking. But without Ugnaughts tossing around C-3PO’s head, it’s not the same.