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"The Empire Strikes Back" review: Classic "Star Wars" at its very best

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Star Wars - Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

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Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)

Also known as “The Empire Strikes Back”

Directed by Irvin Kershner

Written by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett from a story by George Lucas

Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Dave Prowse, James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader), Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz

I think it went beyond "Star Wars". You had some humor, you got to know the characters a little better. I saw it as the second movement in an opera. That's why I wanted some of the things slower. And it ends in a way that you can't wait to see or to hear the vivace, the allegretto. I didn't have a climax at the end. I had an emotional climax. - Irvin Kershner

When George Lucas’s space-fantasy movie “Star Wars” became 1977’s box office champion, earning $178 million by year’s end, the question on everyone’s lips was, “When is ‘Star Wars: Part II’ coming out?”

Twentieth Century Fox, the studio which had had so little confidence in that “science movie” that it sold away the marketing rights to Lucas in exchange for paying the director less upfront money, now wanted a sequel as soon as it knew “Star Wars” was a hit.

Lucas, however, had not foreseen the unprecedented success of “Star Wars,” and though he had an outline for a low-budget sequel involving a quest for a crystal that enhances the Force, he resisted pressure from the fans and studio and decided to embark on a grander project: “Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.”

Set three years after the events of “Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, ” the film begins in “a dark time for the Rebellion.” The Rebels’ destruction of the Death Star at the Battle of Yavin was a significant victory, but the evil Empire is still large, powerful and able to wage all-out war. Imperial forces have forced the Rebels to flee from their hidden base and chased them across the galaxy.

The main Rebel army has set up a base on Hoth, a hostile ice world far from the galactic core. There, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is on mounted patrol and setting up sensors for Echo Base’s security perimeter. As he is finishing his assignment, he sees a meteor plunge onto the snowy surface close by.

But before Luke can investigate, he and his tauntaun (a furry snow-lizard native to Hoth) are attacked by a hungry Wampa Ice Creature. The Wampa kills the tauntaun, knocks Luke unconscious, and drags the young Rebel across an icy snow field to its cave-lair.

Meanwhile, back in Echo Base, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) returns from his own patrol and tells the Rebel commander, Gen. Rieekan (Bruce Boa) and Princess Leia that he can’t stay with the Alliance any more.

HAN: No sign of life out there, General. The sensors are in place.

You'll know if anything comes around.

RIEEKAN: Commander Skywalker reported in yet?

HAN: No. He's checking out a meteorite that hit near him.

RIEEKAN: (indicates radar screen) With all the meteor activity in this

system, it's going to be difficult to spot approaching ships.

Taking a deep breath, Han blurts out what is on his mind.

HAN: General, I've got to leave. I can't stay anymore.

Princess Leia, standing at a console nearby, is dressed in a

short white combat jacket and pants. Her hair is braided across

her head in a Nordic fashion. She overhears their

conversation and seems somewhat distressed.

RIEEKAN: I'm sorry to hear that.

HAN: Well, there's a price on my head. If I don't pay off Jabba the

Hut, I'm a dead man.

RIEEKAN: A death mark's not an easy thing to live with. You're a good

fighter, Solo. I hate to lose you.

HAN: Thank you, General.

When Han exits the command center, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) rushes after him as he walks to the hangar bay and tries to get him to stay.

LEIA: Han!

Han stops in the corridor and turns to face Leia.

HAN: Yes, Your Highnessness?

LEIA: I thought you decided to stay.

HAN: Well, the bounty hunter we ran into on Ord Mantell changed my

mind.

LEIA: Han, we need you!

HAN: We?

LEIA: Yes.

HAN: Oh, what about you need?

LEIA: (mystified) I need? I don't know what you're talking about.

HAN: (shakes his head, fed up) You probably don't.

LEIA: And what precisely am I supposed to know?

HAN: Come on! You want me to stay because of the way you feel about

me.

LEIA: Yes. You're a great help to us. You're a natural leader...

HAN: No! That's not it. Come on. Aahhh -- uh huh! Come on.

Leia stares at him, understanding, then laughs.

LEIA: You're imagining things.

HAN: Am I? Then why are you following me? Afraid I was going to leave

without giving you a goodbye kiss?

LEIA: I'd just as soon kiss a Wookiee.

HAN: I can arrange that. You could use a good kiss!

Solo is determined to leave Hoth with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) aboard their battered starship, the Millennium Falcon, but when he learns that Luke has not returned from his patrol, his better nature kicks in. Even though night is falling and so are the temperatures, he mounts his tauntaun and goes back out into the snowfields to rescue his friend.

Although Han succeeds in his rescue mission and the two friends are whisked back to base by patrolling snowspeeders, the Rebels soon find themselves in jeopardy. The meteor Luke saw as it crashed down was an Imperial probe droid in a drop-pod, and after hovering across the icefields of Hoth, it has discovered the location of the Rebel base.

Now, a determined Lord Darth Vader (Dave Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones), obsessed with capturing Luke Skywalker, sends a squadron of All Terrain Armored Transports down to the planet surface. Its mission: to defeat the Rebel forces and capture the senior leaders in Echo Base, including young Skywalker.

After a short but fierce ground battle with the Imperial forces, Han, Chewbacca, Leia and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) escape from Hoth aboard the Falcon and evade the Imperial fleet.

Meanwhile, following the command of Skywalker’s Jedi mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), Luke and R2-D2 take off in Luke’s X-wing and fly to the planet Dagobah. There, Luke is to seek out Yoda, a powerful Jedi Master who had once taught Kenobi.

Now, with Vader in hot pursuit and the Rebel forces once again scattered across the galaxy, the fate of the Rebel Alliance rests on Luke Skywalker’s shoulders. Will he become a Jedi Knight under the tutelage of Yoda (Frank Oz)? Or will he succumb to the Dark Side and become an agent of evil, as Vader did?

The Middle Act of a Three-Act Drama

“Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” is considered by many film buffs and “Star Wars” fans to be the best installment in the series. As the second act in a three-act story arc, the emphasis in “The Empire Strikes Back” isn’t so much on action but on character development and setting the stage for the third act.

As such, “Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” surprised many viewers when it first came out in 1980. Because it’s Act II of the Classic “Star Wars” Trilogy, the film has no clearly defined beginning and only an emotional climax, as Irvin Kershner pointed out.

Executive producer George Lucas, who did not want to direct any more “Star Wars” films for the time being, chose to put the expected Big Battle between the Empire and the Rebels at the beginning of the movie and make the fight between Luke and Vader more of a personal struggle. Knowing that he needed to keep the audience interested between the two set-piece action sequences, Lucas divided the middle section of “The Empire Strikes Back” between Luke’s training with Yoda and his friends’ efforts to flee from Vader aboard the Falcon.

Although screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Body Heat”) sticks with Lucas’s 1930s serials’ structure and tone, he fleshes out the characters from “A New Hope” (as “Star Wars” was retitled when Lucas added its “Episode IV” subtitle) and gives them more depth.

Kasdan’s dialogue is in keeping with the general feel of “Star Wars” and is clearly rooted in the space opera genre, but it sounds more natural and less comic book like than the constant exclamations heard in the 1977 movie.

Under the direction of Irvin Kershner, the acting is also less campy and natural, even though “Star Wars” is essentially a 20th Century fairy tale set in space. The ensemble cast gives enjoyable and memorable performances. The best lines sometimes go to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, but the true trouper in “The Empire Strikes Back” is Mark Hamill. His scenes with Frank Oz’s Yoda and Dave Prowse’s Darth Vader show a wide range of human frailty and incredible courage as Luke undergoes Jedi training and confronts his most formidable foe face-to-face. As Kershner says in the DVD/Blu-ray’s audio commentary track. Hamill’s believability as the movie’s central hero is a key element in the film’s success.

The special effects in “The Empire Strkes Back” are impressive, even in the un-retouched-by-CGI-fixes 1980 version. Lucas spent $25 million of his money to produce the film, and a substantial amount of that was invested in the refined effects techniques used by Industrial Light & Magic. Although home video versions of the 1980 version still show matte lines and other visual flaws, the effects in “The Empire Strikes Back” reveal how much the art of special effects had advanced since 1976 and 1977.

Composer John Williams’ score for “Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” is a brilliant continuation of the Academy Award-winning music heard in “A New Hope.” Since the films are part of a greater whole, Williams’ music is a mix of existing motifs such as “The Star Wars Main Title (Luke’s Theme)” and “May the Force Be With You (Ben’s Theme” and new major themes for Yoda, Darth Vader, and the budding relationship between Han and Leia. Williams interweaves these themes with scene-specific cues and music for the new characters Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch).

Though “Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back’ ends on a “To Be Continued” note that leaves audiences waiting for “Star Wars – Episode VI,” it is widely hailed as one of the best American films ever made. “Star Wars” fans still consider it to be the best of the existing six live-action Episodes.

Blu-ray/DVD Availability

“Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” is currently available in the 2011 and 2013 Blu-ray/DVD box sets which contain the Original Trilogy. These include the “Star Wars: The Complete Saga” six-film set featuring the six Episodes released by 20th Century Fox before the Walt Disney Company’s purchase of Lucasfilm Limited. Earlier DVD editions from 2004, 2006, and 2008 are no longer in print, but may be found on eBay and other third-party sellers on Amazon Marketplace.

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