This is another one of those “unanswered questions” from a Star Wars movie, but with the release of The Empire Strikes Back into theaters in honor of its 40th anniversary year, it seemed appropriate to ask it now.
It’s one that I have an answer for in my “head canon,” but since one doesn’t appear onscreen it’s still worth asking.
Why Didn’t Vader Just Incinerate Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back?
Vader knew that the Millenium Falcon was headed to that “city in the clouds,” and that they were in no shape to get there quickly. The ship’s behavior betrayed that there was a malfunction of some kind, since it missed so many chances to jump to the safety of hyperspace.
Setting aside any other questions about interdiction, which I get to below, Lando Calrissian decided to be quite the pain in the ass. He triggered a mass panic to cover his own escape, leading to a costly battle and civilian casualties. (Well, civilian casualties were filmed, but didn’t make the final cut.)
Given that destroying the entire planet Alderaan was a viable option for supporting rebellion, why wouldn’t Vader just have left the joint when his business was done, and incinerate it from orbit? You want to cause a tremor in the Force and saddle Luke with guilt?
“Luke, since you didn’t go with me, I killed everyone at this spot. I’m going to let you know they would have lived if you just hadn’t been a little turd about it, and at least gone on the 90 minute Dark Side tour.” At least, that’s the dialogue I figure would have to be written.
Another nice, big target. Harder to hit than Alderaan, but it’s doable.
My “Head Canon” Answer…Which Leads to Another Question
The trick is that Cloud City itself was a valuable asset to the entire galactic economy. As a mining outpost, its mining and refinery of Tibanna Gas had a direct impact on commerce and output. Vader simply couldn’t destroy Cloud City.
In a sense, Han picked a very smart place to go from that perspective. Much like the different sectors of space occupied by places like the Commerce Guild, and the Banking Clan, Cloud City had to be regarded as neutral ground, at least at first.
Lando makes the point to refer to Cloud City as outside Imperial jurisdiction, meaning there are certain rules of neutral party behavior. Which is, of course, what Vader uses to his gradual advantage. When you take the word of the Devil, don’t be surprised when he breaks his promises.
It leads to further discussions about how different remnants survived beyond the fall of the Republic. Even Brian Daley’s old novels incorporated the idea of the Corporate Sector, a collection of economic interests that dealt with but were not a part of the Empire. Political maneuvering, it seems, was always a part of the Star Wars saga, no matter how much people complained about them in the prequels.
Incrementally, the dishonest will expand and redefine the terms of an agreement. Some might champion the idea of “loopholes,” but that’s due to the excessive belief in the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law. If someone won’t abide by both, then an agreement is just a delay until the disingenuous party leverages the other person’s goodwill against them and the deal doesn’t look anything like what they agreed to by the end.
“I thought he’d say something nice about my cape, at least!”
The Other Question
The other question, which plays off the original, is why Vader didn’t just interdict Han, Leia, Chewie, and Threepio?
For all he knew, Luke was on the Falcon. I tend to think of The Empire Strikes Back as Vader initially chasing the Falcon because he thinks Luke is on it. It makes sense to him, that Luke would be with his friends to ensure their escape.
While he knew Luke was a capable pilot, his first encounter with him was as a part of this merry band that came aboard the Death Star in this dilapidated freighter. There’s no evidence he figured out that Luke wasn’t on the ship before they arrived at Cloud City.
Vader in fact wants the ship captured. He does not want it destroyed. It’s because he believes Luke could be on there.
If I allow, for the sake of argument, that he did sense through the Force that Luke wasn’t on the ship, then it makes more sense for the Falcon to land at Cloud City than to interdict it. He knows that the tremors and visions in the Force caused by the torture of Han and Leia may cause images. Luke would need to see neutral ground in order to be more likely to stage a rescue.
If Luke had “seen” them on board a Star Destroyer, or at Coruscant, it would have been more possible for Yoda and Ben to talk him out of attempting anything. The odds had to look like it was at least possible to rescue them.
Agent Bun often tells me that I think too much about these sorts of things. I don’t believe that! I think I just think a little differently, and am constantly amazed that most of the Star Wars films inspire this desire to dig deeper and, more importantly, be interactive with them intellectually.
It’s part of the magic, I guess. I’ve often said that Lucas and his collaborators made movies that were like jazz. It was about the notes they chose to hit, and the notes they didn’t that invite the willing audience to participate in its experience.
“Maybe the Empire should take over just to get safer working regulations in place.”