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
Writers Leigh Brackett
, Lawrence Kasdan
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