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In this, the fifth of my Star Wars reviews for DVDActive, I’m going to be looking at The Empire Strikes Back, my personal favourite not only from the original trilogy, but the saga as a whole. Now I vented my spleen in the previous review, so I’m not going to bore you to death by treading over old ground. Instead I’m going to concentrate on my love of the film and the quality of Lucasfilm’s DVD set, so be prepared for a lighter, somewhat shorter, review.

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
1980


Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
2004


Feature


It has been three years since the destruction of the Death Star, and the Rebel Alliance is in hiding on the ice planet of Hoth. Luke Skywalker continues to develop his burgeoning talent with the Force, while cocky smuggler Han Solo and the beautiful Princess Leia continue to deny their true feelings for one another. When the Empire discovers and decimates the Rebel base, Han and Leia make a desperate break for freedom aboard the Millennium Falcon, along with Han’s loyal co-pilot Chewbacca and the fussy protocol droid C-3PO. Meanwhile, Luke and R2 journey to the mysterious swamp world of Dagobah at the behest of a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi. There they encounter Yoda, an ancient Jedi Master who reluctantly agrees to instruct Luke in the ways of the Force. As Darth Vader’s search for Skywalker intensifies, his plans to turn the young Jedi to the dark side threaten those Luke cares for most, and it is not long before the two meet in a titanic struggle at Bespin’s Cloud City…

I’m not quite sure when my love of The Empire Strikes Back began. As a child I remember preferring the wide-eyed innocence of the original Star Wars and the light-hearted fluff of the sequel, Return of the Jedi (furry little Ewoks and all). I guess those films held greater appeal for me at that time in my life because I wasn’t the cynical old sod I am today. Now that I’m firmly in the Dante Hicks camp of ‘life is a series of downers’, I look at Empire in a different light. I love the way it takes everything you think you know about the characters and turns it on its head, forcing the viewer to re-evaluate their perceptions of good and evil. I also love the way that you’re just not quite sure if the good guys are going to win in the end (at least not on your first viewing), as the situation looks pretty bleak as the credits roll. That sort of uncertainty is a rarity in science fiction and fantasy films, especially those aimed at such a broad audience.

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
1980


Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
2004


Part of the reason why it became my favourite and has remained so to this day is down to the relative lack of tampering for the 1997 and 2004 Special Edition releases. Whereas Star Wars and Return of the Jedi had lengthy CGI sequences inserted at various points, the alterations to Empire are more subtle. In 1997 the biggest changes were to the sequences on Bespin’s Cloud City, but even these were relatively incidental. A lot of people hate the additional footage of Darth Vader returning to his Star Destroyer, and although I’m not the greatest fan it doesn’t distract me in the same way as a bunch of comedy Jawas and a Sarlacc with a beak. Even the heavily revised footage of the Emperor included for the 2004 edition doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should, partially because it lends a little bit of continuity to the saga without radically altering the information presented in the scene, and partially because actor Ian McDiarmid is a bit of a legend.

Whatever my reasons for loving the film, it is a love shared by many others. Our own Tom Woodward often jokes that I can work Star Wars into just about any conversation, which isn’t too far from the truth, and I’ve had many discussions with people from all walks of life in which The Empire Strikes Back is frequently cited as the most memorable film in the trilogy. Okay, so the dialogue is sometimes contrived, but it is delivered in such an unassuming manner that you can’t help but to accept it (something the prequels could have learned from). Much of the credit for this has to go to director Irvin Kershner, who manages to coax some genuinely impressive performances from his actors. His ability to see past the script and go with what feels ‘right’ is what gave us Han Solo’s famous ‘I know’ line. For me, it is this ‘humanity’ that sets Empire apart from the other films in the series.

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
1980


Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
2004


Video


As with Star Wars before it, the original version of The Empire Strikes Back has been transferred to DVD in its theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 without the benefit of anamorphic enhancement. You’d expect the film to look slightly better than the original, given that it’s a more recent production with a larger budget, and you won’t be disappointed. Overall the film is cleaner than its predecessor, with less of those terribly annoying film artefacts popping up all over the place (although there are still many more than you’d find on the average transfer). Other than that, things are much the same as Star Wars. It’s sharper than any bootleg I’ve seen (which reveals excessive grain), colour rendition is reasonably faithful to the original theatrical experience, black levels are a little inconsistent (more noticeable this time as a lot of the action takes place in dark locations or in space), the telecine wobble is back again and there’s a fair bit of aliasing. Thankfully there are no alien-language sections in this film, so viewing with the cinema mode on my TV didn’t present any problems for me, but the same could not be said for anyone who actually needs subtitles to enjoy the film.

Since reviewing the first film I’ve had a chance to read several forums frequented by true videophiles; people who work in the industry and study these things in far greater detail than I do. One thing that was pointed out on these boards is that the original Laserdisc masters, used as the basis for the transfer of this and the other films in the original trilogy, had a lot of DNR (digital noise reduction) applied to them. This led to certain fast-moving objects leaving ‘trails’ behind them as they move. From the comparison shots I’ve seen (and made myself) this is far more noticeable on the Laserdsic releases than the new DVDs, but it is there if you look hard enough. However, I didn’t really have a problem with it even after I was aware of the issue. I guess it depends on the size and quality of your display, so your mileage may vary.

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
1980


Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
2004


Once again the Special Edition is much sharper than the original version, but this is to be expected given the additional 25% of resolution afforded by the anamorphic enhancement. However, unlike A New Hope, the issues with the transfer are less obvious this time around. Anyone familiar with the film will notice that the palette has been shifted heavily towards the blues (especially noticeable on the ice world of Hoth), but this was obviously an intentional change and to be honest it doesn’t look too bad. Lightsaber consistency is also much better this time around, although there are still a couple of shots where Darth Vader’s saber lacks its white core (leaving him holding a big pink weapon). I also noticed a number of shots where the composition of the frame has been changed. These occur during scenes aboard the Millennium Falcon, and basically just tighten up various group shots of our heroes. All-in-all it is an impressive transfer, even if it does differ significantly from the original look of the picture.

Audio


Once again the original version of the film is accompanied by a solid Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track. The quality of the dialogue is clearer and more consistent than Star Wars, and some lines are even better than their Special Edition equivalents. Perhaps the best example of this is when Captain Piett informs Admiral Ozzel that a probe droid has found signs of life in the Hoth system. In the Special Edition you really have to strain to hear the dialogue, but it’s actually pretty intelligible here. There are a number of incidental lines of dialogue missing from this version of the film when compared to the Special Edition, but the fan-favourite ‘you’re lucky you don’t taste very good’ is here in all of its adlibbed glory. As with Star Wars, surround utilisation is good—although obviously limited by the limited bandwidth of the Mono rear channel—with John Williams’ score an almost constant presence and plenty of flybys and laser blasts to draw you into the action. When compared to a modern ‘blockbuster’ mix, bass is definitely lacking, but again this is to be expected. However, it would have been nice to hear that familiar deep rumble when the Flacon’s engines burst into life as Han attacks the Avenger head-on…

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
1980


Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
2004


The Special Edition offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track that is a clear notch or two above the one found on A New Hope. There are no real problems with the track (certainly nothing like the terrible audio glitches mentioned in my previous review), although there are one or two instances where dialogue is a little too low in the mix for my liking (the aforementioned scene with Captain Piett and Admiral Ozzel for one). There are also a number of changes to the dialogue over previous versions, such as Temuera Morrison’s re-dubbing of Boba Fett and the replacement of Darth Vader’s ‘bring my shuttle’ line. The score has also received a few tweaks here and there, with a number of jarring musical cues being smoothed over. The two I really noticed were both transitions from Dagobah to the Imperial fleet, where different versions of the Imperial March are used to those found in the theatrical release (and they sound much better).

Before I move on I’d just like to take some time out to mention John Williams’ score. For me, the music of The Empire Strikes Back has always been the best the Star Wars saga has to offer, and although the original Oscar-winning score is a phenomenal piece of work, I fell in love with tracks like ‘The Asteroid Field’, ‘Han Solo and the Princess’, ‘The Clash of Lightsabers’, and of course Darth Vader’s signature theme, the ominous ‘Imperial March’. Williams’ music played a very large part in the success of the Star Wars films, and nowhere is that more obvious than here.

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
1980


Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
2004


Extras


I covered most of this in my review of A New Hope, so I'll keep things brief. Once again the menus for the 2004 edition are very impressive, and include footage from some of the locations featured in the film (namely Hoth, Dagobah and Cloud City). Each sub-menu expands upon the theme of the main menu, with my personal favourite being the confrontation between Luke and Vader in the carbon freezing chamber. As before, the menus for the bonus disc are a bit of a disappointment compared to the 2004 edition. A group AT-ATs lumber onto the screen before the static menu comes into view (this time based on the 'style B' poster artwork). Each menu screen is accompanied by music from the film, which means some of the best music the Star Wars saga has to offer.

As with the previous title, disc two contains the original, unaltered version of The Empire Strikes Back, along with a demo and trailer for the Xbox version of Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy. Once again, the bonus material on disc one is a direct port of the disc found in the boxed set releases. This time the commentary track features George Lucas, Ben Burtt, Carrie Fisher and Irvin Kershner. It is Kershner’s presence on the track that actually makes things a little more interesting this time around, as he at least manages to sound enthusiastic about the film. It’s a pity that Denis Muren’s input had to be sacrificed to include him though. The rest of the extras are DVD-Rom oriented. We get the usual links to the standard and DVD-specific Star Wars websites, the latter of which still didn’t work for me…

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
1980


Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
2004


Overall


The Empire Strikes Back is undoubtedly the finest of the three original Star Wars movies, and therefore easily the best of the entire saga. It has just the right blend of action, romance, mystery and intrigue to engage audiences of all ages on different levels, and I think it’s one of the finest science fiction feature films around. My opinion seems to be mirrored by the majority of Star Wars fans I’ve encountered, including our own Bryan Rickert, who reviewed the Special Edition of the film back in 2004.

Once again, the original, unaltered release of the film is a bit of a disappointment on DVD. There are no extras to speak of—certainly none of any real worth, due largely to the fact that Lucasfilm considers the movie itself to be an ‘extra’—and while the transfer is superior to its older sibling, it is still blighted by a lack of 16:9 enhancement and more than a few film artefacts. It is for this reason that I have chosen not to award a higher mark in the video section. Thankfully the disc is up to scratch in the audio department, but once again the extras are a real let-down.

For me, this set is easily the best of the three Limited Edition releases. While I still prefer the original version of the film, the changes made to the Special Edition are far less obtrusive than those made to the other films, with less of the needless CGI responsible for the pacing issues in those movies. Alright, so I don’t like Boba Fett’s new voice, and the new Emperor sounds like he’s been puffing the magic dragon, but at least Yoda doesn’t morph into a Yuzzum and start belting out ‘Jedi Rocks’ when he first meets Luke on Dagobah. I’ve gotta be thankful for that…


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