Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back Review

Randal: Which did you like better? "Jedi" or "The Empire Strikes Back"?

Dante: "Empire".

Randal: Blasphemy!

Dante: "Empire" had the better ending. I mean, Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader's his father, Han gets frozen and taken away by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. I mean, that's what life is, a series of down endings. All "Jedi" had was a bunch of Muppets.

-- From Clerks (1994)


It’s one of the biggest debates in modern cinema. Which chapter of the original Star Wars Trilogy, is the best of the saga? For me, the answer is simple - The Empire Strikes Back defeats its predecessor hands down. It’s a magical movie; an example of a sequel that expands on ideas, rather than trampling over the legacy of its counterpart. Empire is rich in story, creativity, and the most loveable characters to grace the silver screen. I’ve lost count of the times my worn-out VHS has been played - it’s about time the digital alternative came along, and now I’ve discovered The Empire Strikes Back all over again. Never has the assault on Hoth looked or sounded so intoxicating, and the same can be said about the satisfying rush of Han’s trusty blaster, or the calming buzz of Luke’s lightsabre. Once again, the film is the talk of playgrounds, offices, and in the world of Kevin Smith, an infamous convenience store. It’s been talked to death, but I feel obliged to send Empire through yet another review...



When the film kicks-in, a sense of excitement grows. The Lucasfilm logo fades to black, and the greatest pre-credit tag shows up in that memorable blue lettering. While watching The Empire Strikes Back, it would be fair to say that we are transported to a galaxy far, far away. There’s no doubt that the franchise has its detractors (no matter how good they are, I will never appreciate Episode’s I-III), but there’s so much love pumped into this film, that most will find it hard to dislike. It’s a universe so innately crafted by George Lucas, it almost feels like an alternative history. The trilogy is so rooted in our culture, that it’s common to look upon these films as old friends, and having one without the other two would never sit right. Still, it is with The Empire Strikes Back that Lucas’s idea transformed into the almighty behemoth we know so well today. With strong direction from Irvin Kershner, and a water-tight screenplay, it’s the best Skywalker and his friends have to offer. Despite this, changes have still been made. I won’t talk about this here - too much has already been said. Therefore, I’ll concentrate on the films artistic merits.



In 2004, it is hard to imagine that the production was so rife with problems. Dogged by rewrites, cast bickerings, and a ballooning budget, Lucas seemed wise to turn down the director’s chair. After the technological nightmare that was A New Hope, he didn’t have the confidence to make his vision. But apparently, the ageing Kershner did. He’d taught Lucas at USC, and he seemed like the ideal candidate (which producer Gary Kurtz needed convincing of). Producing an extra-long cut of the film, Kershner wasn’t fond of filming the effects shots, so Lucas covered those. He did however, make the most of a solid script, and the cast seem more natural here, than they did previously. Whatever the pains they went through to make the film, it barely seemed to matter on its release in 1980. Fans and critics alike were blown away by the continuing story, and the rest as they say, is history.

I shouldn’t have to recite the plot (if you’ve never seen this film, you must be from Tatooine). Therefore, I’ll let the opening crawl do all the hard work: “It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy. Evading the dreaded Imperial Starfleet, a group of freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has established a new secret base on the remote ice world of Hoth. The evil lord Darth Vader (David Prowse), obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space...”. Set some years after A New Hope, the opening of Empire surprises in its choice of location. Instead of returning to the harsh desert landscapes that filled part IV, we’re treated to the polar opposite - the ice-cold terrain of Hoth, arguably the most well-known of these imaginary worlds.



The battle that opens the film has proven difficult to beat, even in today’s world of CGI excess. For sheer excitement, it starts the picture in considerable style. We find our heroes scrambling to protect their Rebel Alliance, with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) still arguing their clear attraction. Following yet another moment of “Luke-in-danger” (he moved his lightsabre with the Force Obi-Wan!!), we’re flung into the first of many skirmishes with the dreaded Empire. That sight of the AT-AT’s strolling through the snowy landscape is cinema cool in its purest form. It’s iconic, and has been replicated with little success in a dozen video game spin-offs. The pay-off is also grand, with explosions galore, and the customary applause from a group of happy Rebels. For a short while, all seems well, but evil is on his way.

The entrance of Darth Vader is always something to look forward to in a Star Wars picture (yes, I am talking about Revenge of the Sith), and his well-timed arrival in The Empire Strikes Back is one to savour. He must be the coolest guy in the solar system, since he even has his own theme music courtesy of John Williams. The “blackest dude in the universe” is such a major element of Part V, as you readers will know, and his scenes are some of the most electric. With modifications made to that infamous suit, he also looks more opposing here. Add the voice of James Earl Jones, and we get a cinematic adversary for the ages.



And herein lies the key to Empire’s success - the characters. Each chapter adds a new layer to a member of the group, building on relationships and changing their perspectives of the universe. Luke takes on the biggest leap, venturing to the bogs of Dagobah in search of Jedi Master Yoda (Frank Oz), which provides some of the most important scenes. Like an SF version of The Karate Kid, the young hero trains his body and soul, as Yoda spews silly philosophical wisdom. And there’s nothing like the moment in which Luke realises the true power of the “Force”, as Yoda retrieves Luke’s sunken X-Wing from the swamps.

It may be Luke’s story that provides the foundations, but it is the dynamic between Han and Leia that succeeds the most, with those confrontations adding much-needed humour to the fairytale heroics. The screenplay is perhaps the most carefully constructed of the series (which is a given, considering Lucas only offered the story). The first draft was penned by the late Leigh Brackett - she of Howard Hawks infamy - before dropping into the hands of relative newcomer Lawrence Kasdan; who, at the time, was adding the finishing touches to a certain script called Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unlike many of its contemporaries, Empire bypasses most of the problems that face sequels. It offers enough avenues to explore in Return of the Jedi without seeming redundant. In many respects, the revelations that occur in the last act are more powerful than anything Jedi has to offer. By shaping a darker and more serious film, Lucas was certainly wise, since The Empire Strikes Back is packed with emotional resonance.



I am, of course, talking about the films final third. After reaching Cloud City, the story really takes off in unexpected directions. With the group imprisoned by Imperial troops, their only hope is Luke, who has arrived for his climactic duel with Vader. Every Star Wars fan knows these events so well, but this review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that lightsabre battle. Cornered by Vader, he drops one of cinemas most famous bombshells - Luke is his son. It has been lampooned in everything from Austin Powers to The Simpsons, but these moments are the most significant of the trilogy - the very reason why Empire trounces A New Hope, and gives Jedi a run for its money. The emotional clout is aided by Han’s fate; sealed in carbonite and taken away by fan favourite Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch). Expressing his love for Leia (the “I know” line improvised by Ford), the films ends on the ultimate downer, but with hope lining the horizon. Cue the music, and Part VI...

24 years later, The Empire Strikes Back has aged effortlessly. Despite the alterations imposed by the ‘97 “Special Editions”, it is still a masterpiece of science fiction cinema, providing entertainment value rarely matched. There are people out there immune to the allure of Star Wars, but it remains a seminal and rewarding piece of work. Us fans can rest easy - the adventure is finally on DVD.



The Disc

The most requested box set EVER, is certainly going to be something special, and Lucasfilm has produced a set to marvel at. Technically superior to many titles, the disc for Empire Strikes Back continues the five-star quality.

The Look and Sound

Listen up, you scruffy lookin’ nerf herders! Every bounty hunter in the galaxy hasn’t seen anything quite like this. Empire looks like a brand new motion picture, making it a sensation from Mos Eisley to Endor. Presented in its original widescreen ratio (2.35:1), the anamorphic transfer can’t be faulted. The colours take on new definition, with the crisp white hues of Hoth searing the eyes, and the sun set of Cloud City breathtaking in its beauty. The space sequences breathe with added pizzazz too, and the whole film is alive with THX-clarity. There are no faults present, and the tens of thousands it took to remaster the image has paid off superbly. Obi-Wan would be proud.

For a film two decades old, it doesn’t sound like the over-worked Landspeeder in your docking bay. Indeed, the Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track sounds newly-produced (with the customary 2.0 option thrown in for good measure). Everything has been tweaked to near-perfection, from the wails of Chewbacca, to the space-hopping clanks of the Millennium Falcon. It really does impress, with the entire sound field popping with effects (some old, but most new). The amazing score by John Williams has never sounded better either - the opening made me jump with surprise; quite the fanfare. You’d have to be as grumpy as a Jawa, not to dig this mix...

Menus

Simply fabulous. The animators have clearly worked around the clock to make these menus fully-functional, and pleasing to the eye. Depicting scenes from the film, they are implemented with the theme music and excerpts of dialogue. Even the scene selection inspires awe (with no less than 50 chapter stops). Cosmic.

Bonus Material

With the bulk of extras relegated to the set’s fourth disc, all we have here is an audio track. But it’s a good one.

Audio Commentary by George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, sound engineer Ben Burtt, effects supervisor Dennis Muren and Carrie Fisher

Like the other two commentaries, the participants were recorded separately, and later edited into a whole. There are those that shy away from tracks of this sort, especially since a group dynamic is usually more entertaining. But the track for Empire is still worth sitting through, if only to hear the opinions of Kershner. Thankfully, the name of the speaker will appear on-screen to avoid confusion.

Lucas starts things off warmly, and it is clear from everyone that The Empire Strikes Back was an extremely tough shoot. A lot is said about the filming in Norway for Hoth’s landscape (it was as cold as it looks), and the difficulties encountered during the infamous carbonite scene. Kershner is very enthusiastic about the film all these years later, detailing his thoughts on the series, and his devotion to the characters. Of course, the comments from Burtt and Muren are more dry due to their technical nature, but just to hear how Burtt created some of those memorable sounds is enough to raise a smile. Last but not least, Fisher offers many amusing anecdotes, especially her amusing rant about Leia’s dialogue. Ultimately, the track is worth a listen.

Overall

The finest moment in the series, The Empire Strikes Back is presented as part of a pretty unbeatable box set. Still an amazing experience after all these years, just to see the film looking so good is worth the price alone. But you shouldn’t need convincing. Resistance is futile - buy it now!

Film
10 out of 10
Video
10 out of 10
Audio
10 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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