Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Frank Oz, Billy Dee Williams, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, James Earl Jones
George Lucas, Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan
The adventure continues ...
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back: Three years later Imperial forces continue to pursue the Rebels. After the Rebellionís defeat on the ice planet Hoth, Luke journeys to the planet Dagobah to train with Jedi Master Yoda, who has lived in hiding since the fall of the Republic. In an attempt to convert Luke to the dark side, Darth Vader lures young Skywalker into a trap in the Cloud City of Bespin. In the midst of a fierce lightsaber duel with the Sith Lord, Luke faces the startling revelation that the evil Vader is in fact his father, Anakin Skywalker.
$6.415 million on 126 screens.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
English DTS-HD MA 6.1
English Dolby Descriptive Audio 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
French DTS 5.1
Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1
Runtime: 127 min.
Release Date: 9/16/2011
Available as Part of ďStar Wars: The Complete SagaĒ
• Audio Commentary with Story Writer/Producer George Lucas, Director Irvin Kershner, and Actor Carrie Fisher
• Audio Commentary from Archival Interviews with Cast and Crew
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Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars Saga) [Blu-Ray] (1980)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 3, 2011)
Often when we hear a discussion of 1980ís The Empire Strikes Back, the participants tell us what a risky enterprise it was. They seem to feel its success wasnít guaranteed and it easily could have flopped.
I call shenanigans on those claims. I was 13 when Empire hit the screens, which put me firmly in its prime demographic. After all, I was 10 when 1977ís Star Wars hit, so all of my peers and I eagerly anticipated the continuation of the story. Since that group included many millions of us - plus plenty of older folks too - there was little to no chance that Empire would flop. Yes, it was daring for George Lucas to put up his own money, but I still donít think it was actually risky.
I desperately wanted to deny my inner nerd back then, and for a while, I frowned on and mocked the kids who liked this kind of flick. No matter - once Empire debuted, I got caught up in the fervor along with my own true nature and went with friends to see it on opening night. The immense crowd who attended indicated that any fears of failure in regard to Empire were totally unfounded. No, it didnít make as much money as Star Wars, but it still raked in tons of cash and remains one of Hollywoodís all-time top moneymakers.
Note that because Empire comes as the middle part of a trilogy, my review inevitably will include some spoilers. Honestly, I doubt too many readers wonít already know these movies well, but if you fall into that category, youíll probably want to skip my synopsis and movie discussion entirely.
Empire continues the story initiated in Star Wars, though not in a perfectly connected manner. We donít watch the characters from the first flick immediately after its events, as we skip ahead a brief period to see the continued battle between the evil Empire and the freedom-loving Rebel Alliance. This takes us to an ice planet called Hoth, where the Rebels have set up camp. The Empire discovers their whereabouts there and sends troops in enormous walking tanks called AT-ATs to take down the Rebels.
Some intrigue occurs before this happens. Although rising Rebel star Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and already-established leader Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) demonstrated some romantic involvement in the first flick, rascally rogue and pal Han Solo (Harrison Ford) starts to show more interest in Leia, and some sparks clearly fly. This sets up a love triangle that will mildly inform the movie, especially when Leia exhibits disappointment at Hanís stated plans to abandon the Rebels and do his own thing.
After an incident in which Luke goes missing and Han rescues him, the Rebels battle the Imperial troops but canít keep them from overrunning the base. They flee, and because Leia canít make her transport, she gets stuck with Han, his furry Wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and their droid buddy C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). He plans to take her to the rendezvous point, but Imperial intervention prevents that and sends them on the run. They must attempt to avoid bounty hunters hired by chief baddie Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) and other perils. Vader doesnít care about Han and the others outside of their importance to Luke, who he wants to capture. The bounty hunters do desire to nab Han to capitalize on the money offered by intergalactic gangster Jabba the Hutt.
In the meantime, Luke acts on a near-death vision of mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and flies with little droid assistant R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) to a world called Dagobah to meet with Jedi trainer Yoda (Frank Oz). There Luke learns the ways of the Jedi and gets forced to confront his own anxieties, most of which connect to Vader. Some bombshells emerge along the way as Luke eventually attempts to reconnect and assist his friends. All of this leads to an ultimate confrontation with Vader.
Since it came as the follow-up to such an enormously popular, successful and influential flick, Empire lacked the ability to knock us off our feet as something fresh and new. However, that didnít prevent it from offering a better movie. One of the few flicks that consistently lands on lists of sequels that better their predecessors, Empire lacks the gleeful pop energy of Star Wars but it more than compensates with greater depth.
That aspect of Empire is what makes it so strong. As the middle portion of a trilogy, it suffers from problems inherent in that construct. In a way, Empire neither begins nor ends. Star Wars provides a concise introduction to all the characters and situations, while 1983ís Return of the Jedi ties up the story with a big, neat bow. Like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Empire picks up with a tale in progress and ends without any form of concise conclusion. No, the flick doesnít just abruptly cut off, but it leaves far more questions that it resolves and leaves us with a strong sense of curiosity.
Star Wars acts much more as a self-contained product. Lucas may have wanted to make more of them, but at the time, he didnít know heíd get the chance to do so. This means the first flick fits into the trilogy fairly well - some awkwardness remains - but it also stands alone without problem. The same canít be said for Empire, which makes very little sense as anything other than the middle chapter of the story.
I always respected that. Empire assumes a high level of familiarity with the earlier movie and doesnít baby the audience to give them a recap of the first piece. Actually, the text scroll that acts as the movieís preface tosses out some general information, but this wonít suffice to placate newcomers. Empire wants you to know the first movie and doesnít mollycoddle anyone.
Empire uses our presumed familiarity with the situations and characters to increase their depth. While Star Wars introduced the various participants, it didnít have the time to delineate them in more than a sketchy manner. One shouldnít expect intense navel-gazing and examination of the charactersí histories and experiences, but it opens them up considerably. We get a better sense of what makes them tick and their various fears and desires, and this helps strengthen their interconnections and relationships.
Much of this comes via the love triangle that involves Luke, Leia and Han. Actually, that component remains pretty one-sided, as it concentrates mainly on the developments between Leia and Han. To some degree, their connection feels a little out of the blue, but if you look at Star Wars, you can see the roots planted. During that movie, Luke and Leia take the obvious romantic forefront, but we definitely observe tension in that regard between Han and the Princess. Empire explores this side of things smoothly and believably.
In addition, Empire explores the connections between Luke and Vader. The first film mentions that Vader killed Lukeís father, and Empire depicts the bond between the villain and our hero. Some of this stretches credibility, but it mostly adds depth to the piece and helps set up confrontations and matters for the final chapter.
Donít interpret all this discussion of character and subtext to mean that Empire skimps on the action. Indeed, it includes many excellent pieces that work even better due to the dimensionality of the rest of the movie. The opening battle on Hoth certainly excels, and though the middle portion of the flick lacks lots of slam-bang footage, the flight through the asteroid field brings us enough excitement to tide us over until the climax. That sequence gives us a great confrontation between Luke and Vader as well as drama that highlights the other relationships.
Is there anything that doesnít work in The Empire Strikes Back? Not really. I canít say that it offers a perfect film, but I also canít think of anything about it that Iíd like to change. With the rich exploration of the underlying story along with solid performances, excellent action and brisk though deliberate pacing, it creates a genuinely terrific experience.
Note that this Blu-ray of The Empire Strikes Back presents an updated version of the flick. Many of the changes came with the 1997 ďSpecial EditionĒ but Lucas continues to tinker with the movie, so some additional alterations appear here.
If you want a detailed examination of the changes, throw a stick anywhere on the Internet and youíll find 100. I wonít get into that, as instead Iíd prefer to provide my general impressions of the changes. Of the three flicks, Empire includes the smallest number of alterations. The most significant one comes during the chat between Vader and the Emperor. Originally, Clive Revill played the holographic Emperor, and that conflicted with Return of the Jediís use of Ian McDiarmid in the role. Here the film presents McDiarmid in the holographic capacity, and it also expands the Emperorís dialogue. He relates his suspicions about Lukeís heritage to Vader and directly refers to Anakin Skywalker. I donít think these changes help but they donít harm the scene either.
Otherwise, most of the alterations revolve around fixed special effects. The movie cleans up some of these, and it also makes some auditory alterations. We get Temuera Morrison as the voice of Boba Fett to tie in to his work as Jango in the Prequel Trilogy.
I could live without the new Fett voice and the change in the holographic Emperor, but I wonít criticize these. They help make the Original Trilogy connect better with the three prequels and they donít cause any problems with the prior movies. As I noted, the changes to Empire remain pretty minor, and itís still an absolutely excellent movie.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture A-/ Audio A/ Bonus NA
The Empire Strikes Back appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. My review of Star Wars included quite a few caveats and a discussion of various alterations and choices. I didnít feel the need to do so again here, partially because Empire didnít present as many overt changes. In addition, it offered a substantially more consistent package, especially in regard to audio. As for the visuals, Star Wars looked great and Empire continued that pattern with a strong picture.
Donít expect any real concerns with sharpness. A few wide shots showed a smidgen of softness, but those instances didnít seem prominent. Instead, the movie appeared crisp and well-defined Ė well, within the movieís photographic design, as it opted for a softer feel than its predecessor. As with the first movie, no problems with jagged edges or moirť effects occurred, and I also witnessed no signs of edge enhancement. Once again, source defects stayed far away from the movie, as it presented a clean transfer.
To fit its moodier photography, Empire lacked the generally bright hues of Star Wars and used its tones to greater effect. It went with a mix of colors through its various settings. Bluish-whites dominated on Hoth, while Dagobah adopted a swampy gray/green and parts of Bespin took on an orange/red tint. Much of the rest of the movie used a moderately bluish tone. All of these were splendidly realized, with full, lush colors throughout the movie.
Blacks continued to appear deep and dense, while low-light situations were concise and firm. Given that Empire was darker than Star Wars, that latter element became more important, and the transfer made the shadowy shots clear and smooth. I couldnít find much about which to complain, as Empire looked great.
When I saw The Empire Strikes Back theatrically, its audio dazzled me. I still remember how impressed I was by the sound of that Star Destroyer at the start of the film. With all the stellar soundtracks over the last 31 years, the DTS-HD MA 6.1 of the Empire Blu-ray didnít floor me as much today, but it nonetheless offered a very strong experience.
Whereas Star Wars presented a mix of auditory highs and lows, Empire boasted few concerns. Its soundfield certainly excelled, as it consistently offered a smooth and dynamic environment. From start to finish, it created a great sense of place and movement, and the various elements were appropriately located. The ďspeaker specificĒ nature of Star Wars disappeared in this well-integrated track, and the pieces meshed together neatly.
The surrounds played a significant role and added genuine life to the movie. Not surprisingly, the space flight sequences worked the best, but even quieter moments like the rain on Dagobah managed to make the audio immersive and involving. Other scenes like the Mynock encounter also utilized the rear channels in a rousing manner.
The weakest link for the first film came from the quality of its audio, but Empire demonstrated real growth in that area. Unlike the spotty dialogue of Star Wars, the lines of Empire consistently sounded natural and distinctive. They blended together smoothly, as we didnít get the variations that could mar the earlier flick. A smidgen of edginess occasionally came with the speech, but those problems were exceedingly minor.
Music sounded well-balanced here, and the score presented a dynamic piece. It didnít get lost in the shuffle, as the music was bright and vibrant. Effects also prospered. Those elements were clean and concise. They lacked the distortion that cropped up in the first movie and while they featured nice low-end response, those portions of the mix didnít overwhelm like they did in Star Wars. Bass was deep and pretty tight; a little boominess still occurred, but not to the degree heard in the prior movie. Ultimately, the audio of Empire would be very strong for a modern movie, which meant it was really excellent for something from 1980.
How did the Blu-ray compare to the original 2004 DVD release? Audio boasted better smoothness and depth; the DVDís track was very good, but this one sounded a bit more immersive and dynamic. Visuals demonstrated the typical jump; the movie looked more detailed and more vivid. This was another nice improvement.
This Empire Strikes Back Blu-ray comes as part of a nine-disc package called ďStar Wars: The Complete SagaĒ. It features one disc each for the six movies and three additional platters of extras.
Because so many of the filmís supplements show up on other discs, I wonít give Empire a specific grade for its bonus materials. Iíll wait until I get to a single ďwrap-upĒ page to look at the three discs and award an overall supplements mark.
We do find some extras here, though, via two audio commentaries. The first comes from the original DVD
and features story writer/producer George Lucas, director Irvin Kershner, sound designer Ben Burtt, visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren and actor Carrie Fisher. As was the case for the Star Wars track, all five sat separately for this compiled commentary. Whereas Lucas dominated the prior chat, this one offers a more balanced affair, mainly because of Kershner. He and Lucas fill most of the discussion with their remarks. Muren and Burtt once again provide useful details about the specifics of their work, while Fisher pops up infrequently to toss out some anecdotes about the shoot. These are good, such as her tale about what she and Ford did the night before they shot the Falconís arrival on Bespin, but she still doesnít show up as often as Iíd like.
Lucas goes over fairly general notes connected to Empire. He concentrates less on the movieís specific elements and more on its overall place in the series, its mythology and its themes. This leaves Kershner to get into the nuts and bolts, which he does well. The director occasionally devotes too much time to simply describing the action onscreen, but he usually does so for a reason, as this narration mostly leads into a discussion of the shot.
A broad, gregarious personality, Kershner adds life to the track and provides quite a lot of solid information. Iím especially happy to hear from him because oftentimes Lucas heavily overshadows his directors. Many may have the impression that Lucas really did all the work and the directors of the two sequels were little more than figureheads. Kershner lets us know all the leeway he had and the decisions he made. Overall, this becomes a very entertaining and informative commentary.
New to the Blu-ray, a second commentary collects material from archival sources. This one features George Lucas, Ben Burtt, Dennis Muren, Carrie Fisher, Irvin Kershner, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, associate producer Robert Watts, production designer Norman Reynolds, makeup/special creature designer Stuart Freeborn, design consultant and conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, producer Gary Kurtz, visual effects art director Joe Johnston, effects cameraman Ken Ralston, modelshop foreman Steve Gawley and actors Jeremy Bulloch, Anthony Daniels, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Alec Guinness, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz and Billy Dee Williams.
Like all the other archival tracks, this one uses outtakes from the sessions for the 2004 commentaries and adds statements from other sources. It melds both well, though I donít think this oneís as good as the track for Star Wars. While we learn a fair amount, Kershner often tends to simply narrate the film, and Fisherís snarky attitude toward the franchise becomes to be a bit tiring; some irreverence is great, but sheís starting to seem mean-spirited about it. Nonetheless, these are minor complaints, as the commentary delivers lots of useful material and is a good listen.
Very few sequels clearly surpass their predecessors, but The Empire Strikes Back outdoes Star Wars in almost every manner. As fantastic as the original remains, Empire seems even more dazzling and memorable. The Blu-ray presents very good picture and audio along with two interesting audio commentaries. Empire is a classic and the Blu-ray brings it home well.
Note that The Empire Strikes Back can be found in two different packages. As mentioned when I went over the supplements, my copy came from ďStar Wars: The Complete SagaĒ, a nine-disc set with all six movies and three platters of extras. However, it also appears in a package called ďThe Original TrilogyĒ. That one only includes the three original movies: Empire, 1977ís Star Wars and 1983ís Return of the Jedi. It throws in the audio commentaries found on the movie discs but none of the other ďComplete SagaĒ supplements show up on it. It may be the way to go if you only want to own the original films Ė and Iím sure thatís a popular sentiment, as many people donít care for the prequels - but realize that you lose a lot of extras in addition to the other flicks.
To rate this film visit the original review of STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK