Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 23, 2004)
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 I and all of my peers 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 I saw 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 Princes 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. 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 richest 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 DVD 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 changes. The most significant one comes from an alteration to the chat between Vader and the Emperor. Originally, someone else 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. (Oddly, the end credits still list Clive Revill as the voice of the Emperor.)
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 Clones. One minor extra shot shows Vader as he takes a shuttle to his Star Destroyer. This seems unnecessary but harmless.
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.