2 items from 1997
Episode five of the "Star Wars" saga (grandly designed as nine films), "The Empire Strikes Back" is unquestionably the best installment of 20th Century Fox's science fiction trilogy and arguably the crowning achievement of the fantasy-adventure genre reinvented in the 1970s and '80s by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Destined for boxoffice glory in its rerelease as part of the hugely successful "Stars Wars Trilogy Special Edition," director Irvin Kershner's 1980 sequel to Lucas' 1977 boxoffice powerhouse is beautifully crafted, intelligently scripted and holds up very well.
Indeed, there were not many missteps in its original incarnation. Although there are no major new scenes, "Empire" nonetheless benefits from minor additions and tinkering by Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic (new views of the Cloud City are breathtaking), as well as the improved and remastered soundtrack.
From one of John Williams' finest scores to Norman Reynolds' excellent production design (both were nominated for Academy Awards) to its Oscar-winning sound and special effects, "Empire" continues the "Star Wars" story with an action-packed space opera that has the far-from-invulnerable rebel heroes barely surviving several new clashes with the oppressive Empire.
A major element of "Empire" that's an improvement on "Star Wars" is the film's overall visual scheme. From the superb work of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky ("Mars Attacks!") to the more attractive costuming and hair styles, "Empire" presents a more consistently compelling and wondrous array of planets, space battles and exotic interiors, not to mention many creatures and nonhuman characters, including a lovable and useful pair of robots (Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker), the growly Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the diminutive sage Yoda (Frank Oz).
Based on Lucas' original story, the script by science-fiction writer Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan incorporates the first film's sometimes goofy characters but keeps the humor to a minimum. Hiding on Hoth, a remote and icy planet, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are a team on the verge of breaking up.
Jedi Knight-in-training Luke gets a message from the specter of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), while Han has plans to pay off his debts. Enter again merciless Darth Vader (David Prowse, with James Earl Jones' voice), obsessed with finding Luke. Hoth is assaulted and the trio is split up.
One terrific thrill follows another. Han and Leia in the Millennium Falcon zip through an asteroid field, Luke crashes a speeder into the snow and an X-wing fighter into the swamps of a jungle planet. The viewer is taken for quite a ride, but the characterizations and plot developments are also richly satisfying.
Lucas' cinematic universe will never be confused with the serious science fiction of the Frank Herbert/Arthur C. Clarke variety, but in "Empire" there are many imaginative elements to the action -- and the interaction of humans and technology -- that are quite sophisticated for mainstream filmmaking.
Director Kershner proved to be the perfect choice to realize the somewhat darker thrust of "Empire", with its emphasis on Luke's struggle to resist Vader and the "dark side" of the Force.
A film without the usual upbeat payoff, "Empire" instead offers the brilliantly executed fight between Vader and Luke in the Cloud City's reactor shaft. Along with the capture of Han Solo and the unexpected help of his pal Lando Calrissian Billy Dee Williams), revelations about Luke's father and hints of Leia's Jedi abilities give one plenty to chew on while waiting for next month's rerelease of "Return of the Jedi".
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
20th Century Fox
A Lucasfilm Ltd. production
Director Irvin Kershner
Producer Gary Kurtz
Executive producer George Lucas
Music John Williams
Director of photography Peter Suschitzky
Production designer Norman Reynolds
Editor Paul Hirsch
Costume designer John Mollo
Sound Ben Burtt
Luke Skywalker Mark Hamill
Han Solo Harrison Ford
Princess Leia Carrie Fisher
Lando Calrissian Billy Dee Williams
Obi-Wan Kenobi Alec Guinness
C-3PO Anthony Daniels
R2D2 Kenny Baker
Chewbacca Peter Mayhew
Darth Vader David Prowse
Running time -- 127 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
"Star Wars", a Lucasfilm for 20th Century Fox, will undoubtedly emerge as one of the true classics in the genre of science fiction-fantasy films. In any event, it will thrill audiences of all ages for a long time to come.
The film, written and directed by George Lucas and produced by Gary Kurtz, is magnificent in scope, but the script and the engaging performances also add an effective human element to the totally believable technological aspects. Lucas combines excellent comedy and drama and progresses it with exciting action in tremendously effective space battles.
Likable heroes on noble missions and despicable villains capable of the most dastardly deeds are all wrapped up in some of the most spectacular special effects to illuminate a motion picture screen.
The story is set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," where the evil Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) rules the Galactic Empire from his Death Star, an enormous artificial planet manned by Imperial Storm Troopers.
Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), one of the leaders of the rebel forces, gets hold of the plans for the Death Star, which reveal its one weak point. When she is captured, she sends these charts on to Ben "Obi-Wan" Kenobi (Alec Guinness), the last of the Jedi Knights, who were once the guardians of peace and justice and who drew their power from the "Force", a mystical energy field composed of all living matter.
Kenobi enlists Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), whose father had also been a Jedi Knight and who has inherited the "Force", and together with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), a smug and cynical space smuggler whose ship and services they entice with promises of great riches, they go off to save the princess and the galaxy.
Cushing and Guinness are outstanding in their roles, and Fisher, Hamill and Ford all create personable characterizations, full of youthful energy and desires, who are capable or rising to heroic deeds despite their charming immaturity, which also adds fun and identification. Much of the comedy relief is provided by a nagging, pessimistic robot (Anthony Daniels) and a self-propelled computer (Kenny Baker), who are two of the most adorable characters ever to enliven a film.
David Prowse is commanding as Lord Darth Vader, a Jedi Knight who has sold his soul to evil, and Peter Mayhew is amusing as Chewbacca, a simian (right out of "Planet of the Apes") who is Solo's first mate. Credit for the success of the unique characters should go to special production and mechanical effects supervisors John Stears, costume designer John Mollo (whose futuristic designs are superb) and makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn.
The technical credits are extraordinary, although they are too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say that everyone involved should be extremely proud of this enormous achievement. Special mention, however, must be made of John Barry's fantastic production design, Gilbert Taylor's awe-inspiring photography, John Dykstra's special photographic effects supervision (which makes imaginative use of laser beams and other technological devices) and Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas and Richard Chew's perfectly paced editing.
John Williams has composed a rich, luxuriant score that engulfs the ear as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. The Dolby sound is also a major asset in that it is sparkling clear and, in the battle sequences, achieves an enveloping, thunderous pitch without hint of distortion.
2 items from 1997
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