Reviewed By

Christopher Armstead
I have finally made it to the one I have been waiting for.  After starting my revisit of the Star Wars universe with 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace', it's really just been an excuse to get eventually get to the best of the Star Wars movies, at least in my opinion, and one of the five greatest movies of all time… 'The Empire Strikes Back'.  And unlike the Blu-Ray version of 'Star Wars' that I chose to watch over the lower resolution LaserDisk version, I had no qualms watching the Blu of Empire since the changes in this one are a little more subtle than those in the Star Wars Blu, being as how budgetary constraints weren't too much of an issue for George Lucas and this film back in 1980 considering the insane success that was 'Star Wars'.  Not having seen Empire in almost two decades, is it as awesome as I remember?  Why yes it is my friends.  Maybe even better.  With perhaps one slight caveat which we will talk about a little later.

When we last saw Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), he was blowing up the Empire's prized Death Star, sending Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) and his Tie Fighter tumbling about the galaxy.  Believe me when I tell you that Vader is PISSED!  A few years later, Vader, now sitting in one of his Star Destroyers, is almost obsessed with finding young Skywalker and making him pay.  And say if you happen to work for Vader, and you don't succeed in your mission, your trachea and larynx are finished.  Done.  Kaput.  But at least if you are next in line, you get a promotion.  And I guess a pay raise.  Though I never see anybody in the Empire ever pay for anything. 

Finally, Darth Vader finds out where those troublesome rebels are hiding and mounts a spectacular assault.  Alas, the people who he wanted on this rebel base, Luke, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and the Millennium Falcon escaped.  You know tracheae got mentally crushed over that screw-up. 
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This is the point where 'Empire' splits into three separate narratives.  After getting off the Ice Planet of Hoth, Luke goes to the swamp planet of Dagobah in search of the mysterious Yoda (Frank Oz) on the orders of the spirit of Obi-Wan (Alec Guiness) to complete his Jedi training.  Leia and Han leave Hoth on the Millennium Falcon only to be mercilessly pursued by Empire forces, but in between all of that, these two start to get a little cozy with each other and love is in the air.  The third part of our narrative centers on Darth Vader and his relentless search for these rebels, made even more urgent when The Emperor (Ian McDarmid) informs Vader exactly who Luke Skywalker is and his desire to bring him to the darkside. 

Eventually the split narrative merges back into one on the cloud city of Bespin, run by Han's great friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams)… and with friends like these… I think I actually yelled out at the screen… 'Han!  Don't let the smooth taste fool you!'  But did he listen to me?  No he didn't.  Before the bad stuff happens, Leia makes a proclamation to Han, which he agrees with, and Vader makes a proclamation to Luke, which he wish he couldn't agree with, but he has no choice.  And little to nothing is resolved before the credits rolled.  Which we will talk about in a bit.

Why is 'The Empire Strikes Back' regarded so highly by so many?  Well, I can't speak for anybody else obviously, but 'Empire' takes everything that was 'Star Wars', which was already a great film all by itself, and simply makes it better.  'Empire' had a couple of things working for it even before Team Lucas and director Irving Kirshner loaded up a single can of 70mm film stock in that it already had a solid film base in 'Star Wars', meaning there was no need to backtrack and remind anyone of who these characters are and the situations that they are dealing with, and secondly, they knew already that there was going to be a third film so there was absolutely no need to rush to resolve anything in this particular sequel.  What that leaves us with is more time to focus on building the story, more time adding depth to character, particularly Darth Vader who cemented his status as one of cinema's greatest villains in this film… before 'Return of the Jedi' ruined all of that… and director Kirshner was allowed to slightly alter the tone of the Star Wars Universe to one that is darker, more serious, and more pressing and urgent.  Luke, Han and Leia are also much more confident as characters as well, and the additions of Yoda and Lando were lightning strikes of casting and imagination.

It is said that George Lucas didn't direct this particular episode due to focusing on his company, Industrial Light and Magic, and other pressing production needs, but believe me when I tell you that this was time well spent by Mr. Lucas for in 1980 no one had ever seen anything like the effects we saw in 'Empire'.  The snow battle on Hoth, the presence of the AT-AT Walkers… still one of the most impractical weapons ever… the existence of the Cloud City, and of course even more impressive space battles and space scenes which by this time I think audiences were pretty much taking for granted.  Eleven year old me was awe struck… thirty plus years later, recognizing that Mr. Lucas has cleaned up a lot of the effects for the Blu-Ray version that I saw, the effects still hold up amazingly well. 

If there is an issue with 'Empire' and this is somewhat debatable… but not really… is that this is a sequel that relies more on the movie that came before it, and the film that will follow it, more than any sequel probably in film history.  You don't necessarily have to watch 'The Godfather' to watch 'The Godfather II' for instance, or even 'The Two Towers' before watching 'Lord of the Rings', and if you wanted to completely skip 'Return of the King', you could get by with that.  We don't recommend this, but you could do it.  As great as a film 'The Empire Strikes Back' is, I'm not sure one could just plop down and watch it without seeing 'Star Wars' first, and then choosing to completely ignore 'Return of the Jedi'.  I mean 'Empire' really has no true beginning and it definitely doesn't have a legitimate ending so it needs those two movies to kind of justify its existence. 

But then who wouldn't watch 'Star Wars' and the 'Jedi'?  Nobody I know, that's who.  'The Empire Strikes Back' is still one the finest examples of storytelling ever committed to film.  Now it's off to suffer through some Ewoks and Darth Vader completely not being true to the cause. 
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