Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (UK - BD)
Chris takes a walk on the Dark Side in his review of the best Star Wars movie
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.
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.
This Blu-ray release is all-but identical to the 2004 DVD release in terms of content. There are a couple of very minor cosmetic alterations used to fix or enhance existing effects shots, but nothing that changes the tone or pacing of the film. Thank the maker, as C-3PO would say.
Once again we have a transfer derived from the master created for the 2004 DVD release, complete with associated image issues. Broadly speaking the 2.35:1 widescreen (1080/24p AVC) image looks pretty good, but as with A New Hope there are a number of 'features' that take the shine off of things. Chief among these is the colour palette, which is over-saturated to the point where the image takes on a hyper-real quality. Whether this bothers you will depend largely on your attachment to the original colour timing, but in my opinion it's been pushed too far. The revised timing has drastically altered the look of the picture when compared to the original version of the film, particularly the scenes set on Hoth, and what used to be a white, snow-covered planet is now more of a steely blue. The boosting is particularly obvious with skin tones, with the majority of characters looking like they've been stealing makeup from Princess Leia's handbag. I really wish that things had been dialled back for a more natural look, but even so the stability is a lot better than that of A New Hope. There are still issues with the colour of lighsabers, which unlike the other films in the trilogy haven't received any digital touch-ups. Both Luke and Vader's blades still lack vibrancy and the latter's saber is still pink instead of red. Contrast is also an issue, with blooming and black crush in evidence throughout, although to be fair it’s not as extreme as A New Hope and more detail is retained in the shadows.
Speaking of detail, I would class it as acceptable rather than excellent. Although some of the close-ups look quite nice facial textures still have a bit of a mushy appearance and they lack the sort of fine detail you’d expect from the very best transfers. I'm not expecting razor sharp clarity from thirty-year-old anamorphic photography, but I've seen older films look more impressive. With that said I understand that the film was originally shot with a more diffuse look than A New Hope, which could account for some of the softness, but I can't rule out DNR. Another annoyance is the return of 'Lowry' grain, which occasionally looks like it’s taken a trip through the carbon freezing process. Thankfully a positive side-effect of the restoration was the removal of most of the print debris, so the image does look very clean. It seems redundant to repeat my comments about the need for a proper restoration, and while there is undoubted room for improvement I found Empire a more consistent presentation than A New Hope. Even so I don't think it warrants a significantly higher video score though, and as we don't do half marks here it remains tied with the original film. When compared to the DVD there is a noticeable bump in quality and I fully expect the 'average Joe' to be over the moon with what's on offer here.
Yet another DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 soundtrack graces this release, and it sounds every bit as good as the others. There's plenty of discrete action on offer, beginning right from the opening moments with the sound of probe droids launching from the hanger bay of a cruising Star Destroyer before hurtling off in different directions throughout the galaxy. I also got a real kick of hearing the tiny TIE Fighters buzz around the mammoth Super Star Destroyer as the Empire approached Hoth. Speaking of Hoth, the battle features a huge number of discrete effects, as snowspeeders circle the giant AT-ATs in an attempt to ensnare them with their tow cables and powerful laser blasts zip in every direction. Another highlight includes the chase through the asteroid field, in which the sound of the Falcon and pursuing TIEs twists and turns through the soundstage as hunks of rocky debris shot overhead. On the negative side the surround channels once again have a tendency to dominate the mix, and I would have preferred it if they had just a little less presence. Still, it seems that these mixes have intentionally been mixed 'hot' and although louder doesn't equal better I must confess that it made a pleasing change from the sometimes whisper-quiet surrounds that accompany many modern mixes.
As usual atmospherics are great, be it the wind howling across Hoth’s icy tundra or the sound debris falling during the attack on Echo Base. Speaking of the Rebel base, it feels genuinely 'lived in' thanks to the sound of engineers working to repair speeders, general radio chatter, and the high-pitched whine of tauntauns. Dagobah is another ambient treat; whether it’s the varied cries of the swamp or the torrential rain that batters Yoda’s hut, you really are transported you to the ‘slimy mudhole’ that our little green friend calls home. Another positive is the dialogue, which is much cleaner and clearer than A New Hope with almost none of the normalisation issues. One or two lines were a little indistinct, but if memory serves this has been the case in every version of the movie so far and occurs only when characters are almost out of earshot.
Bass is extremely robust, with everything from the weighty footsteps of the AT-ATs to the roar of the Falcon’s engines packing a huge punch. The various explosions are particularly powerful, although once again I felt that they had a tendency to be a little too powerful at times. I'm all for a bit of potent LFE, but when chunks of ice hitting the floor pack more of a wallop than the explosions found in most other films it goes a bit far. For me Empire features the most memorable music of the entire saga. It's certainly my favourite soundtrack, with iconic pieces such as 'The Imperial March', 'The Battle of Hoth', 'The Asteroid Field', 'Yoda's Theme' and 'The Clash of Lightsabers' on fairly consistent rotation on my mp3 player. On the down side Lucasfilm still hasn't fixed the very obvious audio synch error as Luke escapes the wampa's lair, and his saber can still be heard to deactivate while it's clearly still on.
Another release another commentary track lifted from the 2004 DVD release. This time it 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 Dennis Muren’s input had to be sacrificed to include him though.
The second commentary is yet another patchwork affair, this time drawing upon the experiences of Jeremy Bulloch, Ben Burtt, Anthony Daniels, Peter Diamond, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Stuart Freeborn, Steve Gawley, Alec Guinness, March Hamill, Joe Johnston, Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, George Lucas, Peter Mayhew, Ralph McQuarrie, Dannis Muren, Frank Oz, Ken Ralston, Norman Reynolds, Robert Watts and Billy Dee Williams. As I've said in the previous reviews, I enjoy these commentaries largely because they include guys like Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness, who haven't been terribly vocal about their involvement with the trilogy.
For my money 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 genre pictures around. It's the one film that I can honestly say that I never tire of watching. As with A New Hope the Blu-ray is a frustrating blend of the good and the bad. On one hand it is clearly superior to the DVD release visually and the audio is fantastic, but once again I can't help but feel that more care and attention should have been taken, particularly with regards to the inconsistent effects shots. However, it seems unfair to judge the release purely on my expectations alone and being as objective as possible I have to admit that I found it to be a pleasing viewing experience. There, you see Lord Vader, I can be reasonable.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable for all
Release Date: 12th September 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Portuguese, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Audio Description Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish
Extras: Audio Commentaries
Easter Egg: No
Director: Irvin Kershner
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, David Prowse, Billy Dee Williams, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew
Length: 127 minutes
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