The Empire Strikes Back‘s place here is almost token. No list would be complete without it, but it’s standing in as a representative of quite how important Star Wars has been for me. After all, more than perhaps any other film ever, Star Wars has leaked out into all corners of our pop culture. Books and comics and games, sure, but far far beyond that. Lightsabers, dark sides and Wookiees, these things leaked out in the consciousness of a generation. Over the last 30 years, all this stuff bled out beyond the confines of three films so thoroughly that barely a minute of Empire‘s running time goes by without something you’ve seen riffed on elsewhere, whether on a screen or in real life. This would probably true even for someone who had never seen the films. That kind of shared vocabulary means that Star Wars is an easy – and fun – topic to theorise and joke about. Every lazy stand-up comedian has got at least one joke referencing Star Wars in their repertoire. So what is there left to say? I already got my Kevin Smith on to talk about Return of the Jedi, positing that the films are just a huge playset, full of toys. (I’ll add a quick observation: have you ever noticed how little characters in the film seem to respect Darth Vader? Outside of the film, in our world, he’s one of the most revered baddies of all time, an example to be carted out when discussing how design or mystery or costume can build a character’s appeal. But most of the Imperial officers are open with their disdain for the Force, and treat him with all the hushed reverence of a Pizza Hut employee arguing with their manager.) There’s no point in telling you the story, laying out the characters or describing how things look. This is Star Wars, and that was all magically inserted into your brain when you were about seven years old. It’s the middle child of the trilogy, which means it actually steps further away from traditional blockbuster structure than its siblings, and has the reputation as being the ‘dark’ one. It ends on an absolutely sublime cliffhanger, all moody and foreboding, but it’s the film is still exceedingly warm and friendly overall. It is, however, more mature in a few other ways; there’s something in the way it’s shot which looks more cleanly professional than the others, and the characters crystallise best into almost-real people in this one. And it’s got the bit where Han Solo says “I know”, a.k.a. the coolest moment in cinema history. (Another little point: I don’t think most people realise how minimal George Lucas’ influence over this film was. Lucas and Star Wars are two names married together in a way few other franchises and directors are, so it’s odd to realise that not only did he not direct, but that his only writing credit is for providing the story.) But it’s all the same Star-Warsy nonsense that I love, really, with made-up words, silly voices and gigantic worms that live inside comets. Of this, too, it’s possibly the best example: we’re introduced to Boba Fett and Yoda, two of the series’ best characters and purest action-figure fodder. It also brings in Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Space Pimp; a ridiculous character of another type and one of whom I’m increasingly fond. It’s a Star Wars film, is what I’m saying. A brilliant Star Wars film. You know what that means, don’t you?
Toys. There’s an accusation often levelled at Star Wars, especially in its latter incarnations, that the films are just big toy adverts. Meanwhile, there are people whose main relationship with Star Wars is the toys, to insane extents. I’d argue: that’s the joy of the Star Wars films. Backgrounds can be filled with one-off character designs. Unnamed things: squid-faced guards, furry spider-monsters, women you can’t quite put your finger on what’s odd about them… It’s why so many people have relationships with Star Wars that extend far beyond the six hours of cinema it comprises. Why there’s such a craving for stories set in its universe. Why Star Wars dominated the imaginations of kids on playground three decades after it came out. Why there’s a toy of Bossk the reptilian bounty hunter who appears in Empire for approximately three seconds, and why people collect them. …That’s what I reckon, anyway. By sheer quantity of stuff, Star Wars manages to feel immediately lived-in. Not everything is of equal quality, and there’s no definitive aesthetic (look at the devil-man from New Hope for evidence of that). But’s that’s how the world is, right? And so Bossk ends up with not only a name, and a species (Trandoshan), but a fleshed-out language (Dosh) that provides the meaning of his name (‘Devours His Prey’, which seems a little on the nose, frankly) and a full history. All from a quick glance. This is perfect for those who want to escape, to hide in a world. What our, real world would cruelly label ‘geeks’. There’s so much crammed in that you’re practically invited to find your own niche in this long-ago, far-away universe. The films obviously predates Wikipedia, but they feel like they were designed for each other. Each snapshot glimpse practically begs to be filled in. For me, however, they remain more pleasing as teases, encouraging your imagination to do the rest. I’ve been there, in my adolescence: awkward-sideburn-deep in dusty encyclopedias of a fictional historical world. But these days, I just don’t want to know: Boba Fett escaping the stomach of the Sarlaac (which, by the way, had just undergone a painful divorce), to be the last remaining piece of his cloned-thin DNA in the universe undermines some of the power of the character for me now. Maybe it was the difficult lessons taught by the prequels, and pop-culture that took its cues from these films, stuff like Lost. Maybe it was just growing up. But I appreciate that the detail is there, even if it’s just to give my lobes a little tickle with each new, surprising piece of sensory overload. And I won’t begrudge anyone whatever they want to get from it either. (…Unless they’re Geoff, of course. Incidentally, I realised I talked about the trilogy as a whole here, and in fact explicitly referred to the other two films. There’s so much other stuff which is great about this film – the speed and physicality of the action sequences, the instant iconic power of certain moments, great trashy dialogue… But you know all that already, surely, and besides, it’s impossible to think of the trilogy as separate entities nowadays. Return of The Jedi is just the zenith of all this for me. Consider the Ewok, my friend. Consider the Ewok.)