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It wasn’t long after the success of Star Wars (ranked 15th on the AFI Top 100 list) that George Lucas set out to complete his trilogy. Having made so much money on the first film, he was able to break free from financial dependency on the movie studios, something he sought to do since the release of American Graffiti in 1973. With expectations high for the next instalment in the series, Lucas was not only going have to make a movie as good as Star Wars, he was going to have to create something better.

New technological innovations were going to have to be made for Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back to achieve it’s goal of surpassing its predecessor; Lucas’ ambitious story demanded it. To be sure that he could personally oversee some of these innovations, he hired writer Lawrence Kasdan (who also worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark) to write the screenplay for the picture. Perhaps more importantly, directing responsibilities were handed over to Irvin Kershner, who had never made an epic film like Star Wars before. Being well known for his character driven movies, Lucas felt he was the perfect candidate to handle this story. Released in May 1980, The Empire Strikes Back received warm reviews from fans and critics alike. There was a lot to love about the film, being that it was a continuing story and not just a remake of Star Wars. Perhaps it’s most ambitious moment is in its thrilling cliff-hanger climax...

Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back
The Empire Strikes Back opens with the Empire feverishly chasing the Rebels across the galaxy. Darth Vader (played by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) is particularly adamant about finding Commander Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and is still furious over him destroying his Death Star. We find that the Rebels, Luke, and the rest of our heroes from Star Wars are camped on the ice planet of Hoth. After being attacked by an ice monster, Luke has a vision where the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) tells him to seek out Jedi Master Yoda to continue his training. After being rescued by Han (Harrison Ford), the Empire discovers the Rebel’s location and attempt to invade the planet. After a fierce battle, Luke goes his separate ways with R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) from his friends to find  Yoda, as Han, Leia, Chewie and 3P0 are pursued by Darth Vader and the Empire; the film essentially follows those three stories separately as they intertwine throughout the middle act.

Luke makes his way in his X-Wing to the swamp planet Dagobah seeking the Jedi Master Yoda; he initially underestimates an eighteen inch tall frog-like creature which ends up being the person he’s looking for. Yoda (performed and voiced by Frank Oz) teaches Luke about the Force, and begins his training towards becoming a Jedi Knight. The banter between Luke and Yoda, combined with Yoda’s demonstration of his power create some of most memorable moments of the entire Star Wars Saga. Meanwhile, the Millennium Falcon is pursued by the Empire through the midst of an asteroid field, creating a fantastic montage of special effects. While hiding, the romance between Han and Leia begins to formulate.  Frustrated with the progress of his minions Darth Vader goes on a tirade of mercilessly killing his officers for their failure, creating an even more intense aura of evil for his character. He then enlists the help of bounty hunters, including Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) to find our heroes. During the chase, Vader has a conversation with his master, the Emperor (played in this version by Ian McDiarmid) in which they discuss the growing power of one Luke Skywalker. They determine that they must convert him to the dark side of the Force.

Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back
Han, Leia, Chewie, and 3P0 escape the Empire and make their way to Cloud City on Bespin to repair the Millennium Falcon. It is there that they meet Han’s shadowy friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams); while Han seems to trust him, Leia noticeably does not. Lando makes a deal with Darth Vader, who is led there by Boba Fett, to turn in his friends if Vader agrees to turn a blind eye to his mining colony in Cloud City. Vader begins to torture Han, Leia, and Chewie, hoping that Luke will feel their pain and come to their rescue. All the way on Dagobah, Luke does sense their pain, and against the advice of Yoda and the ghost spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke abandons his training incomplete and heads to Cloud City. Before arriving there Leia confesses her love for Hand, right before he is put into a carbon freeze and handed over to Boba Fett; Fett is also collecting on a bounty placed on Han’s head by Jabba the Hutt who Han never paid from A New Hope. It is at this time that Luke with R2 arrives to find their friends only to be separated, where Luke is confronted by Darth Vader. Luke faces the person who killed his mentor Obi-Wan, and the person whom he believes murdered his father, in an epic lightsaber battle that rages across Cloud City. Simultaneously, Lando frees Leia and Chewie from captivity so that they can make an attempt to rescue Han from Boba Fett; unfortunately they are too late and Fett makes off with Han as that trio is reunited with R2-D2. Meanwhile, Vader manages to cut off Luke’s hand and defeat him in battle. It is here when Vader makes his pitch to Luke about joining the dark side of the Force, and the conversation reaches its emotional climax when Vader makes his shocking revelation. Luke manages to escape and is rescued by the very people who he came to rescue; the three narrowly escape the Empire. Luke’s hand is missing, his training is incomplete, Han has been kidnapped, and Leia has lost the man she loves. What better way to leave an audience hanging for three years?

Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back
The Empire Strikes Back is the ultimate culmination and cooperation of film making innovation, great acting, wonderful storytelling, and a musical score that is the life of the picture. John William’s outdoes his previous effort, and adds even more character themes in this movie. Darth Vader’s ominous theme is the perfect anti-hero theme, and is synonymous with evil in the movie. The whimsical piece that covers the asteroid field chase is the perfect accompaniment to the scene. Yoda’s theme also inspires a magical, light-hearted emotion that resonates clearly with the character. This score is easily the best of the trilogy. Perhaps while much credit needs to be given to Frank Oz for his performance of the character, Mark Hamill should be praised for treating Yoda not like a puppet, but like a powerful Jedi Master. Han and Leia’s love relationship is very much love-hate, with Carrie Fisher doing everything in her not power to succumb to Han’s charm; she eventually surrenders to him, but still keeps the strength of her character. Again, the talented folks at Industrial Light and Magic deliver dazzling special effects sequences, particularly in the stop-motion effects used in the Hoth battle where they push the envelope by doing optical effects on a light background. Irvin Kershner had a near insurmountable obstacle in making the sequel to Star Wars. Instead of being intimidated, he gave us an incredible emotional roller coaster and raised the bar for quality in movie sequels.

Like A New Hope, there have been some changes to the 2004 DVD release of The Empire Strikes Back. Ian McDiarmid now plays the part of the Emperor. To me, this makes sense because he plays the same character in Episodes I, II, III, and VI, so for at least for continuity purposes, it makes sense. Also the voice of Boba Fett is now done by Temuera Morrison (who plays Jango Fett in Episode II - Attack of the Clones). Again this is for continuity because Boba is a clone of Jango. Neither of these changes is intrusive to me and only adds continuity to the saga. To the delight of many diehard fans, Luke’s scream as he falls into the air shaft in the end of the movie is also now gone.

Much like A New Hope, The Empire Strikes back suffers from a transfer in which the colour overall is too dark. Between this and the contrast settings, it causes Darth Vader’s lightsaber to be distinctly pink at its core instead of white. This is most apparent during Luke and Vader’s duel in the carbon freezing chamber, and is less noticeable as their battle wages on.

Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back
Overall though, I’d say Lowry Digital did an even better job on The Empire Strikes Back than A New Hope. This can most definitely be attributed to the fact that these negatives were in much better condition to start off with. The green on Yoda’s skin is decisively more vibrant. The blues and whites on Hoth look very dynamic on screen as well. Again, if there is edge enhancement, I did not see any. The print on The Empire Strikes Back is crystal clear, and is so good that it looks like it could have been shot yesterday. This is another sterling restoration job done by Lowry Digital on this set. Again, this film has never looked this good.

Fortunately The Empire Strikes Back does not suffer from the sound issues that were glaring on A New Hope. The dialogue as a whole sounds very crisp with no distortion present. John William’s Academy Award nominated score is well balanced over the action and the dialogue. My only gripe is that the 5.1 audio is not fully taken advantage of. Frankly I expected more of a subversive sound array during action sequences such as the asteroid field chase, but felt short changed. Overall the movie sounds as good as it ever has, and it is defiantly a vast improvement over A New Hope.

On the movie disc for The Empire Strikes Back an audio commentary is made available with Irvin Kershner (director), George Lucas (writer, producer), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Ben Burtt (sound designer), and Dennis Muren (special effects) as it’s participants. I’d say that the commentary for this disc is the best of the set, with do to the fact that we have a new member participating who happens to be the director. It was fun to hear anecdotes about the filming, such as how David Prowse (Darth Vader) was not given the actual dialogue to recite during the climactic scene between Luke and Vader. Hearing Kershner's philosophy on romance in Star Wars movies may raise an eyebrow as well. Also, it was interesting to hear that Lucas pretty much let Kernsher do his own thing while directing the movie. There are two participants I would have loved to have on this commentary: Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter) and Frank Oz (Yoda). I think they would have added even more depth to the track, particularly in their handling of major storyline twists. DVD-ROM users should have access to a script to screen comparison, but as of this writing it has not yet been made available.

Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back
The fourth disc again gives a plethora of information and trivia on the making of The Empire Strikes Back. Trailers and television spots promoting the film are fun to look at, and notice how the trailers never show Yoda trying to keep his identity a surprise to the audience. If you look carefully, you’ll also see hints of scenes omitted from the final cut of the film. Special Edition trailers and TV spots are notably missing from the disc. Kevin Burns’ Empire of Dreams continues documenting the making of the Star Wars Trilogy very well in his sections on The Empire Strikes Back. We get treated to a wealth of interviews again with those involved with the film’s production, and also get to see production designs as well. The making of Yoda and the risks of having a puppet as a main character are also well chronicled; see if you can pick out who Yoda’s image was modelled after. Some trivia that I found out for the first time was that Lucas was fined heavily by the Director’s Guild with frivolous accusations. This would lead to Lucas dropping out of the Directors and Writers Guild. To round out the disc, the three featurettes also include some fun production designs that apply to the Empire Strikes Back as well. If you have an X-Box, check out the playable demo for Star Wars: Battlefront. All in all there was a little less for the extras for Empire than A New Hope, but it’s definitely an enjoyable experience watching them.  

If there were ever a reason for the AFI to modify and edit their Top 100 Film’s list, it’s The Empire Strikes Back, which is criminally omitted from their list. Winner of two Academy Awards, this sequel achieves a task that very few in the history of cinema can make claim to: it surpasses the original. The meticulously crafted unfolding story is gripping, thrilling, and innovative. More so than any of the other Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back has so many elements that are engraved into our culture from it’s loveable characters to the most shocking cliff-hanger in film history. The Empire Strikes Back is hands down the jewel of this set, and is deserving of every bit of praise that it earns.

Look for my review of Star Wars: Episode VI- Return of the Jedi which will complete my review of the DVD release of the Star Wars Trilogy