One of the most iconic scenes in Star Wars history happens right in the middle of The Empire Strikes Back. With the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive out of commission, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C3PO have few options for evading capture from the Empire. They need repairs but there aren’t many systems nearby that they can trust. That is until they spot Cloud City and its administrator, Lando Calrissian. Han and Lando have history and their reunion is a surprising masterclass in understated dialogue in a series not known for its subtle writing. It ends up being the best-written scene in the entire Star Wars franchise.
That’s a bold statement but just hear me out.
“Look, everything is going to be fine. Trust me.”
Upon landing on Cloud City, tensions are high. Leia is quick to point out the cold reception at the landing bay. Han moves to assuage her fears with the above line.
This line is significant because it marks a shift in Han and Leia’s relationship. Up to this point, it had been decidedly combative with sparks of sexual tension mixed in. Here, Han is trying to be kind and protective of Leia in a personal way rather than merely ensuring her physical well-being. The princess has started to become something more than a spoiled child he has to escort to safety. Even later in the scene, where Lando tries to charm Leia, Han casually slips between them to break off the exchange and all but confirming his feelings toward the princess.
It's also important to note that Han offers no evidence to back up his statement. In fact, we see a moment later that he doesn’t really believe what he’s said when he instructs Chewie to keep his eyes open as Lando approaches.
The staging is a key part of the storytelling happening in this scene. Han walks toward the entourage around Lando, putting distance between them and the Falcon. Even Chewie stays back, presumably because he will need to fly Leia and 3PO away should something go wrong. Han wouldn’t have insisted on this setup, which makes it more difficult to explain who these strangers are and why they’re there, if he were approaching this meeting from an actual position of trust. Instead, he is banking on the fact that he can talk his way out of this mess or, should that fail, that he can buy the others enough time to make a swift escape.
In a few small details, we see a whole new side of our favorite smuggler.
“Why you slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler. You’ve got a lot of guts coming here after what you pulled.”
These are the first words that Lando says in this scene, and they do a good job of telling us exactly what we need to know about his history with Han without overexplaining.
What did Han do? In the context of the story, it doesn’t matter. While this would be elaborated upon in the eventual Solo: A Star Wars Story film, we don’t need that information in The Empire Strikes Back. Han’s defense, which amounts to a cheeky 'Who me?' look, simply confirms that Lando has every right to be angry and Han knows it.
As much as the writing itself, the performances sell this scene. It is a beautifully tense few seconds as Lando, his face full of barely constrained anger, approaches Han. Harrison Ford does a great job of showing the multiple calculations on his face as his character tries to think of a way out of this mess and Billy Dee Williams allows Lando’s mask to slip slightly as he feigns coming to blows over whatever unstated slight his friend had committed. Suddenly it is all hugs and laughter and we, as an audience, feel the same relief and confusion that Han’s face shows.
“Yes. Very friendly.”
While everyone else seems put at ease by Lando’s sudden laughter, Leia remains skeptical. Her terse exchange with the Cloud City Administrator includes only a single word. She gives her name and no other details, which reminds the audience that there is still an element of danger here.
Leia has, to this point, been an excellent judge of character and often spots details that other characters miss. Remember who it was that surmised that a tracking device had been placed on the Millennium Falcon before they escaped the Death Star in A New Hope, or who saw through Luke’s Stormtrooper disguise based solely on his body language? Leia’s past competence is used here to set up Lando’s future betrayal later in the film with only a few short lines of dialogue.
“Remember, you lost her to me fair and square.”
Once again, the dialogue tells us just as much about the characters and their history as we need to know. Lando refers to the Falcon as “his ship” only to be quickly rebuked by Han who makes the above line to remind Lando of the past exchange.
We don’t need to know how Han won the ship. More details would only drag the pacing of the scene. This line adds context to their earlier exchange and the potential wedge that drove the two apart. We already know how strongly Han feels about the Falcon; it makes sense, as a viewer, that Lando probably felt the same way about her. The dialogue invokes the image of the Falcon switching back and forth between captains like the child of divorced parents.
In a franchise that gave us Anakin’s infamous “I hate sand” speech and Padme’s “This is how democracy dies” lamentation, it is refreshing to see a scene that trusts the viewer to connect the dots without drawing the line for them. In less than two minutes, this exchange manages to tell us worlds about the characters and set up one of the greatest betrayals in cinema history.
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