Today is the 30th anniversary of the release of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, probably the single greatest event in the history of nerddom. STAR WARS might have been new and cool and funny and fresh, but EMPIRE was all that AND sad and tragic and shocking and filled with the kind of terror and awe that the greatest storytelling inspires. From the frozen beauty of an icy horizon studded with AT-ATs, to the steaming green swamp where Luke Skywalker begins his archetypal but unique hero’s journey, to the crimson horror of the carbon freezing chamber, to the primal red and blue of the final battle between Luke and Vader, no SF blockbuster has ever captured the imagination so cleanly and completely. It was grown up in an unself-conscious way that nothing to do with Star Wars would ever be again. (Almost certainly because it was the last one that producer Gary Kurtz would in involved with; after EMPIRE, it was George Lucas all the way.)

Empire made it okay to be a nerd who quoted a green hand puppet, and led the way to our complete takeover of world culture.

And then came the Ewoks and betrayal, disappointment and the knowledge that nothing was ever going to be as good as you hoped it would be. Talk about growing up and fast. “Don’t do it, Luke! It’s a trap!”

Below we present a few of the iconic stills, each one burned into the collective unconscious like a laser hologram. Also, some less well-known pictures from










Peter Mayhew, Harrison Ford, Billy Dee Williams and Ewan MacGregor at a special screening this week of ESB at the Arclight in Hollywood.   


  1. My fellow art students and I ditched a class and sped to the old Warner theater (it had a huge curved screen) in Pittsburgh and saw Empire Strikes Back this day, 30 years ago.

    Ah to be a young, nerdy art student geek again!

    Then again, maybe not……..

  2. What really hit me between the eyes on this movie was how SHARP the picture was. Gone was the graininess of A New Hope. Everything was crystal clear, the sets (mostly) were antiseptic and clean, and the special effects were even more polished. (The one shot which defines this style is the scene in the Bespin dining room.) And those special effects… all done by hand! The only cheat? Creating a quad optical printer to composite four different films into the final asteroid scene.

    Boring? Not for this ten-year-old! Boba Fett! Bespin! AT-ATs and Wampas! Luke crashing on Koozebane! Luke fighting Darth! Twice! Vader taking a bath! AND WHAT A CLIFFHANGER! (actually, technically, a weathervane hanger…)

    And at $18 Million, one of the most costly films ever made. And an opening weekend of $10 Million. Things were so much simpler back then…

  3. A subscription (that my parents got for me) to Marvel’s Star Wars was my gateway into comic collecting, as it was for legions of other Gen Xers who later jumped into comics during the “Copper Age.”

    Coincidentally, my first issue of Marvel’s Star Wars to arrive in the mail was issue #39, which began their six issue Empire Strikes Back adaptation. For those of you who don’t own those back issues, highly recommend them for the guest artist pin-ups alone! (The actual adaptation is VERY well done as well.)

    Another great memory was being on my grade school playground in April / May 1980, and a friend had some of the first ESB Kenner Action Figures, prior to the film’s release (I think), “Whoa, what’s this blue winter coat Han Solo is wearing?!”

    Last nostalgia to share: Six (almost seven) years old in May 1980, saw the ESB at the big movie theater on Route 4 in Paramus, NJ. (Now closed.) My parents said we HAD to see it there, “It has Dolby sound!” I’ll never forget the line for the movie wrapping around the building multiple times, and into the parking lot.

    ESB, thanks for the lifelong memories. And Heidi, thanks for posting the pics!

    VF / NM

  4. Someone would have to confirm, but I’m pretty sure there was a limited release and that most hardcore geeks saw the movie the first weekend in wide release and were barely aware of its earlier release. Adjust your memories accordingly. I’d guess mid-June from my memory of seeing it two days before going off to summer camp. Given ticket prices at the time, I’d be amazed if that $10 million BO figure wasn’t the wide release figure.

    As someone who grew up in the sociological focal point for average American culture, Muncie, Indiana, I can assure those of you too young to remember that in Middletown USA this movie was a popular but still very geeky experience, mostly enjoyed by kids and teens, sometimes with a wryly smiling parent. The D&D/X-Men/Star Trek related putdowns and assbeatings continued unabated.

    It’s a good movie, though. I saw it a bunch of times.

  5. And tomorrow, the other nerdcore anniversary: Pac-Man (Google celebrates it today).

    Sure… videogames were commonplace years before (thanks to Space Invaders), but Pac-Man made the medium mainstream. Videogames were my passion in junior high… until I got seduced by Marvel Super Heroes Secret War #4.

    Other notable 1980 events:
    “A dingo ate my baby!”
    Voyager I visits Saturn
    “Who Shot J.R.?”
    John Lennon

  6. Tom, IMDB lists May 21, 1980 as the opening day. (The day before was the official premiere.) That would make it the Wednesday before Memorial Day, which at the time was the day the Summer blockbuster season started. (Episode IV opened on a similar schedule.)

    IMDB also lists $6.8 Million as the opening weekend gross (126 screens? Wider release by the end of June: 823 screens! Guess there weren’t as many multiplexes back then…the biggest in Omaha had SIX screens.)

  7. This was the one and only movie for which I stood in a loooooong line on opening day – I was too late to get into the first showing. Ended up sunburned. I was a young wife, but I couldn’t wait for my hubby’s next day off, I wanted to see it on opening day. My hubby told me sunburn was a small payment for “cheating on him.

  8. Yeah, like I said, there was a limited release and a wider release. What I’m suggesting is that lot of memories are probably keyed to the wider release because that’s how people interacted with most movies back then. If you had asked 11-year-old me that August when Star Wars opened, I would have said June, because that’s when it opened for me. I wasn’t tracking it pre-release and downloading the trailer for multiple viewings on Apple and feeling like it opened elsewhere just not for me. I was right there that first damn day, that’s for sure.

    Also, you have to remember that there were fewer screens and playing movies on multiple screens in the same market was a strange and rare thing, whereas today it’s quite common.

    The models for a successful movie were movies that sat in a single theater in a region for as long as possible: Godfather I-II, Jaws and Star Wars being strong examples of that. One advantage was supposedly — and I think this still may be true — that the local operator got to keep a greater percentage of money later in a movie’s run. It’s different now.

    My memory is that Jedi DIDN’T have a tiered release, btw, that it opened wide that May weekend.

  9. I remember when Billy Dee Williams used to be cool, that ended, I think, in the early 80s. Now apparently he is trying to channel Liza Minnelli. Wow, this is really sad…

  10. Kershner deserves much credit for the tone of the film…also special mentions of screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. In the ’50s and ’60s, Leigh was a (female) science fiction pulp writer. Her other sci-fi stories have some really good elements–think I’ve read 3 books by her, published in the old Ace sci-fi editions.

  11. Not much of Leigh Brackett’s first and only draft (which was only just leaked this past month after 32 years) survived into following drafts, but there did seem to be a certain tone she established that Lawrence Kasdan tapped into.

    Most interesting revelation from the Brackett draft, which was written from Lucas’ outline: Darth Vader was not Luke’s father, proving GL really didn’t have as much planned out ahead of time as people would be lead to believe.

  12. @John – As you mention with the Brackett script, if you really look at the things GL has said over the years, you’ll see that this whole “grand plan” that he now claims to have had all along is a fairly recent invention.

    There’s a ton of information about this ever-evolving claim in the book THE SECRET HISTORY OF STAR WARS:

  13. I’ve always maintained that The Empire Strikes Back isn’t a movie, it’s a chapter. A long chapter, but a chapter nonetheless. It cannot stand alone without A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.

  14. There was talk in the early days that the first movie was the middle one of NINE, should they ever get that far.

  15. I met Peter Mayhew (I’m sure dozens if not hundreds of people who read this site, have!) at Planet Comicon in KC a few years back and what a cool, classy guy.

  16. I was there when it opened in DC on May 21st at the late, lamented MacArthur Theater (the other two original SWs opened at the Uptown, still the best theater in DC, and i was there for those openings too). Leigh Brackett had a brief interview in Starlog magazine in probably 1979 where she mentioned something about making Darth Vader Luke’s dad, and I thought, No Way!

  17. Saw it. Didn’t care for the muppet – it signaled the end of the awesomeness for me. It was too clean. Never even noticed Boba Fett, but now I like the design and promise. I also liked the walkers, but the whole time I was wondering what happened to Luke’s face. I don’t have as much fondness for this as A New Hope, that was Flash Gordon, Lone Wolf and Cub and Magnificent Seven all rolled into one and I had just discovered Frazetta and Neal Adam’s work that same summer.

  18. And according to the home page of Google, it’s apparently-ish the 30th birthday of Pac-Man, too. Double the geektastic fun!

    Also, for me, it’s a geek trifecta because I turned thirtyten today. Other notable geek birthdays today: Al Franken, Fairuza Balk and Mr. T!

    Slight demerit: it’s also Jeffrey Dahmer’s birthday. No day is perfect. Awesome, yes, perfect, no.

    — Rob

  19. ESB was the movie that brought home the concept of “delayed gratification” to me:
    what, we gotta wait THREE fudgin’ years before we found out what happened to Han, and whether or not Vader WAS Luke’s father??

    Stepping out of the theater to the symphonic strains of the End Titles, three years seemed like an eternity… and little did we know that that future was to bring a giant slug and metal-bikini’d Princess, feral teddy bears defeating a legion of ‘the Emperor’s BEST troops'(!) and Vader absolved of his sins in the bluey-glow of the Jedi afterlife. (Am glad at least that that little orphan Ani, an orange frog Stephen Fetchit, and Jedis too DENSE to sense the Dark Side right NEXT TO THEM was in the distant cinematic future far, far, away…)

    Thank the Force that ESB was made in collaboration with others, and not fully subject to its own Maker’s whims: that Lucas had Kurtz to reign him in instead of McCallum’s enabling— that he had Kasdan and Brackett to hone and edit the story ideas of the burgeoning SW “mythology” in a tight script—and that he handed the reigns to Irvin Kershner instead of directing it HIMSELF.

    Thanks, ESB for broadening my conception of what was “Science Fiction”: robots, Martian colonists and demon-saviors of Earth were fine, but I guess what I really needed was some Space Opera in my SF diet! And great thanks to John Williams’ score for the film: buying the soundtrack for my SW Collection opened my ears to Orchestral Music— “Vader’s March”, “Yoda’s Theme”, “Han and Leia’s Love Theme” introduced me to musical motifs, leading to Beethoven, Wagner and beyond…

    Guess I better rewatch it again now. :)

    A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, NEVER for attack.

  20. I managed, by sheer luck, to see the midnight screening of Phantom Menace.

    As I exited the theater, walking by the crowd waiting for the 3AM crowd, I got an evil idea…
    Channeling Homer Simpson, I blurted out, “I can’t believe Obi Wan and Qui Jon are gay!”

  21. No argument, Peter Mayhew is fu(king tall! Look at that picture!

    He seems a really good guy too. Aparently no one else coudl play Chewie. They had someone else in the costume once, and everyone saw it was nothing like it.