The Empire Strikes Back appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. 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 an absolutely stunning picture.
Donít expect any concerns with sharpness, as youíll find none. The movie consistently offered a crisp and well-delineated image. I noticed virtually no instances of softness in this rock-solid flick. 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 wonderfully clean transfer.
Empire lacked the generally bright hues of Star Wars and used its tones to greater effect. It went with a mix of hues through its various settings. 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 anything 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 26 years, the Dolby Digital EX 5.1 of the Empire DVD didnít floor me as much today, but it nonetheless offered a very strong experience.
Whereas Star Wars presented an erratic set of auditory highs and lows, Empire boasted extremely 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 very 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. In addition, the music all came from the correct speakers, unlike the reversed surrounds that marred the score of Star Wars.
The weakest link for the first film came from the quality of its audio, but Empire demonstrated massive 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 jarring variations that marred 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.
Note that this presentation of Empire exactly duplicates what we found on the 2004 DVD release. Disc One of this package is identical to that setís Star Wars DVD. No changes came with this versionís picture and audio.
That also means it includes all of the same extras, starting with an audio commentary with 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.
The Empire Strikes Back also features the THX Optimizer. Also found on many other DVDs, this purports to help you set up your system for the best reproduction of both picture and sound, ala stand-alone programs such as Video Essentials.
Lastly, the disc touts a DVD-ROM weblink. This promises ďexclusive Star Wars contentĒ. Unfortunately, this disc acted funky in my drive and I couldnít access it. Hope you have better luck!
Since DVD One simply duplicated the original setís presentation, all of the changes come on DVD Two. There we find a trailer and an XBox Demo for Lego Star Wars II. Since I donít have an XBox, I canít try out the game, but it looks like a lot of fun Ė Iíll have to grab it for my PS2.
Of much greater interest to fans Ė and the only reason most people will buy this release Ė is the original theatrical version of The Empire Strikes Back. Thatís right Ė we get the flick as presented in 1980. Since I already went over the changes made for the special edition, I wonít detail those alterations here. Instead Iíll focus on the quality of the presentation. The Empire Strikes Back appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered disc; as most folks already know, it hasnít been enhanced for anamorphic TVs.
That becomes the main complaint about this release of the original theatrical edition. Itís the same transfer created for the 1993 laserdisc boxed set and doesnít match up to more modern images. Always the best looking of the three ďOriginal TrilogyĒ films, this Empire looked noticeably superior to the non-anamorphic Star Wars but it still suffered from more problems than Iíd like.
For the most part, sharpness seemed pretty good. No, we didnít find the same crispness weíd get in a good anamorphic transfer, but most of the film looked reasonably distinctive and well-defined. A minor feeling of softness permeated much of the film, but not to a distracting degree.
In addition, although I saw occasionally instances of jagged edges and shimmering, they decreased after the rough-hewn strobe-fest that was Star Wars. Again, a nice anamorphic image would have eliminated these altogether, and they created more nuisances than Iíd like, but they werenít nearly as intrusive as during the first flick.
Source flaws also decreased. Though I still noticed more than a few instances of specks and marks, they werenít as pervasive this time. The movie appeared relatively clean throughout much of its length. Grain was an occasional distraction, though. This sometimes gave the film a blocky appearance and led it to seem murkier than expected.
Colors fit the film fairly well. Empire wasnít the brightest of the series, and the colors were affected by the grain I sometimes saw. Those made the tones even less dynamic. Nonetheless, the hues were generally good and never less than acceptable. The same went for the decent but unspectacular blacks, while shadows appeared adequate. Though some low-light shots were a bit dense, they never became problematic.
Based on all that, I gave the 1980 Empire a ďC+Ē for picture quality. That doesnít sound like much of a step up from the ďC-ď I slapped on the 1977 Star Wars, and in truth, this Empire was significantly more attractive than the original Star Wars - more than a change from ďC-ď to ďC+Ē might indicate. However, I held Empire to a higher standard. As I mentioned, it always was a more attractive film Ė it came with a much greater budget Ė so I cut it less slack.
If anything, the non-anamorphic Empire created a bigger disappointment for me. Sure, it looked better than Star Wars, but that was inevitable. With just a little polish and a new anamorphic image, Lucasfilm could give us a great looking 1980 Empire, so this mediocre non-enhanced transfer left me cold.
Happily, I felt much more pleased with the solid Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of Empire. It certainly held up well in comparison with the 5.1 mix found on the Special Edition version. Both offered pretty similar soundfields since the original 1980 track was so well-developed and involving. The SEís mix might be a little more active in the rears and a bit broader, but not by much. The 1980 version offered a simply marvelous soundfield that seemed radically more ambitious and satisfying than the average movie from that era.
Unfortunately, the quality of the audio wasnít as good as with the SE version. The track clearly could use a nice clean up, as some issues emerged. Actually, the material still sounded much better than most 1980 films, but I thought high-end was iffy at times. Speech could be a little brittle and edgy, and those qualities also crept into music and effects. There was a bit of distortion in both those realms. Low-end was quite good, and the audio usually remained more than satisfying. Nonetheless, the moderate roughness meant I didnít think the 2.0 audio deserved a grade higher than a ďB+Ē. I considered an ďA-ď but felt too distracted by the less satisfying parts of the mix.
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 DVD presents stunning picture quality, excellent audio, an educational and compelling audio commentary and the flickís theatrical cut. Movies donít get much better than this.
When it comes to recommendations, matters turn complicated since this is the third DVD release of Empire. First we got the deluxe Original Trilogy 2004 boxed set, and 2005 produced a three-flick package that included this versionís DVD One along with similar takes on Star Wars and Return of the Jedi. This is the first individual release of Empire and also the initial issue of the movieís original theatrical edition.
That cut remains the primary attraction here. For most people, Iíd endorse one of the boxed sets. Some people only want to own Empire - my Dad doesnít like any of the others, so thisíd be perfect for him Ė but most will want to have the full trilogy.
You could get all three individual releases, of course, but I think the deluxe boxed set remains the most appealing. This Limited Edition will appeal solely to Empire-only fans like my Dad or die-hard morons like me who want to own the theatrical cut of the flick. Of the three Original Trilogy movies, Empireís SE-version is easily the most tolerable since it makes the fewest changes.
That makes this LE an even more difficult sell, as unlike Star Wars, it doesnít offer a clearly superior rendition of the film. The archivist in me is glad to own this package, and if it included a nice anamorphic transfer of the theatrical Empire, Iíd heartily endorse it. As it stands, Iíll watch the SE version in the future; I maintain a marginal preference for the theatrical cut of Empire, but the SE looks and sounds better, so itís the way to go.
To rate this film visit the original review of STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK