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The Empire Strikes Back's bounty hunter scene perfectly captures what makes Star Wars so great
The genius of the worldbuilding of the original Star Wars trilogy is the balance between telling the audience everything they need to know about the characters, the world in which they inhabit, and the stories surrounding them without telling the audience so much that there’s no room for them to want to know more about it all. From the Mos Eisley cantina to Cloud City, every set piece comes with a sense of wonder that is, when you think about it, extraordinarily difficult to strike from a craft stance. And no scene in the trilogy has exemplified this more clearly than the introduction of the bounty hunters in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
It is, in retrospect, shocking just how short it is, considering its lasting legacy on not only the Star Wars franchise but pop culture at large. In just a hair over 45 seconds, the film establishes an archetype within its universe, propels the plot forward, and introduces the man who will become one of the all-time great icons of the Star Wars saga in Boba Fett. Its efficiency in conveying information paired with the immediate allure of the characters it introduces makes for a scene that captures everything that has made the world of Star Wars so alluring for over 40 years now.
When we first glimpse the hunters, who Darth Vader summoned to hunt down the Millennium Falcon, they’re on a platform above a crew of Imperial cronies plunking away at interstellar keyboards. One of the Imperials leans over the shoulders of another two and inquires as to why there are bounty hunters aboard and, man, this little exchange is so underrated in terms of the appeal of the characters and the scene itself. He asks why they’re around with the tone of an eternally middle-management goon in an office building whose mediocrity has his boss desperate enough to bring in temps or specialists to get the job done. These dudes are so incredulous, confused as to why their boss has had to bring in a bunch of freelancers to get the job done despite the fact that they are very clearly the reason (as evidenced by the fact that the Falcon is, uh, still on the run).
One of them backs away from the computer and turns to face a wall, finding himself suddenly at eye level with ... a pair of clawed lizard feet? The officer reacts accordingly and immediately we cut up to this ant’s-eye view of a lizard man with a gun. Let me repeat: a lizard man with a gun. My dude is spooked, as anyone who finds themselves face to face with the bounty hunter we’ve come to know as Bossk should be. His fellow officer gives him an excuse to leave and he bolts.
Admittedly, part of the reason he’s spooked is that Bossk is, you know, a lizard man with a gun, but there’s also this incredible air of menace, from Bossk’s guttural hiss to the perspective provided by the angle of the shot. Bossk literally towers over the officer, conveying a stilted power dynamic. Imperial officers? They’re errand boys in the grand scheme of things. Bounty hunters? They’ll kill you and they’ll pull the trigger themselves.
Not to harp on the point, but it’s also worth taking a minute to appreciate the whole “lizard man with a gun” thing. The central appeal of the bounty hunters, as with any great Star Wars side character, is how friggin’ cool they all look. Each has a unique, compelling design (well, most do — Zuckuss and 4-LOM feel a little more interchangeable) that feels like it comes with a history, an entire story you just need to dive into. From IG-88’s eerie, stiff head turn after Vader scolds Boba Fett to THE LIZARD MAN WITH A GUN, they feel so fully formed despite having about 15 collective seconds of screen time.
There’s also such killer (sorry) simplicity in Vader literally shaking his finger at Boba Fett and telling him, “No disintegrations,” implying not only that there have been previous disintegrations but that Vader is so desperate to get this job done that he has resorted to re-hiring the guy who did those disintegrations. That implicit menace added so much to Fett’s legacy over the past 40 years. When paired with his incredible suit design, it made for a Star Wars icon who, unlike Luke or Vader, thrived in the culture because his mysterious air turned him into something of a blank slate of badassery.
While we get some of the backstories (and future escapades) of the hunters in novels, video games, RPGs, and future films in the Star Wars saga, in terms of the main text, that’s it. We get a scene well under a minute that tells us everything we need to know but still leaves us wanting for more. It’s Star Wars worldbuilding condensed into a few quick shots and a half-dozen brilliant character designs. The same ethos of storytelling would go on to be utilized in everything from the prequel trilogy to the John Wick series in the coming decades, though it’s never done as memorably or as effectively as it is when Vader, at his wits' end, resorted to calling in a crew of professionals so frightening that even Imperial guards were left quaking in their boots.