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Star Wars Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
NOTE: The top screenshots are from the 'special edition' on disc one and the screenshots on the bottom are from the 'theatrical cut' on disc two. They might not match up perfectly but they serve the purpose of showing the difference in quality between the two discs contained in this set.
With the amazing success of Star Wars it came as no surprise to anyone that in 1980 the second film in the series would emerge. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was one of those rare 'middle films' that, along with The Godfather Part II proved that you could make the second film in the trilogy just as good, if not better, than what came before it or after it. Many middle films like Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom or the second chapter of The Matrix trilogy fail to capture the excitement of the first entry or of the final film and it makes sense in a certain respect. If one thinks of watching a trilogy like reading a book, it's quite common to find that in most popular fiction the first third sets everything up and the last third knocks it all down with the part in the middle stuck taking care of the details and tying up loose ends. The Empire Strikes Back breaks from that formula a bit in that yes, it does continue from the events in the first movie and it does set up Return Of The Jedi perfectly but unlike so many middle films, it's the strongest of all the Star Wars movies.
For the two or three people out there who haven't seen the movie, in a nutshell it explains how members of the Rebel Alliance had fled from the Empire and set up base on Hoth, a very inhospitable frozen planet. When the Empire came in with guns blazing to take down the base, Han, Leia and the droids took off in the Millenium Falcon but were captured by Darth Vader. While all of this is going on, Luke is on Dagobah training with Yoda in the Jedi arts. Soon though, Luke will have to go rescue the rest of his friends and throw down with Vader himself to save the day.
A much darker film than the first Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back never the less contains all the fun and charm of the first film only this time it's wrapped inside a much more interesting story. We loose some characters this time around – there's no Peter Cushing and Obi-Wan has passed on (though he appears in spirit form) but we also gain a few. Billy Dee Williams brings some suave slickness to Lando Calrissian and Frank Oz (best known as the voice of Miss Piggy on The Muppets) made Yoda the coolest green dwarf in the galaxy. We learn more about Han Solo's background when his past comes back to haunt him and Boba Fett shows up proving he's one of the baddest of the bad.
The pay off this time is incredible. By the time the end credits hit the screen we're completely pumped up for the next film and having seen this in the theater first run it's safe to say that audiences were left on the edge of their seats waiting with baited breath for the third (and at the time, final) film. We wanted to know what happened to these characters, how Luke and Leia's past tied in with that of Darth Vader and what would happen to Han Solo. Luke was still dorky but he was starting to come into his own and with his Jedi star on the rise, as proven during his showdown with Vader, he became a more interesting character than he was in the earlier film.
With Lucas out of the director's seat this time, Irvin Kershner was called in to hold the reins. Having worked with John Carpenter two years earlier on The Eyes Of Laura Mars he'd proven he could build tension and more importantly hold it for the duration of a film and that experience shows in The Empire Strikes Back. While his career hasn't been as significant as it could have been since working on this film (though Never Say Never Again is a fine entry in the Bond series and Robocop 2 is underrated in many respects) with this film he solidified his place in movie history once and for all. The fact that someone else was directing Lucas' vision might be part of the reason that the movie works better than what came before or after it, though how much creative control he had over the story is probably debatable. With that said, the opening scenes on Hoth stands as one of the finest moments in the entire Star Wars saga – it's exciting, it's action packed, the set design and special effects are fantastic and more importantly it furthers the storyline along perfectly. This sets the film up with a hard first act to follow but it manages to keep things moving along perfectly.
The marketing and completely vulgar exploitation of the franchise has turned a lot of fans off of the films over the years and it's perfectly understandable as many times it does feel like overkill. The Empire Strikes Back, despite all of that nonsense, remains a high point in science fiction and adventure movie making.
NOTE: For the record, the 'star ratings' to the right of this review reflect the second disc which contains the original theatrical cut of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the reasoning behind this being that the inclusion of this version is really the only reason anyone is interested in it in the first place, which is why that version of the movie is not being included in the Extras section of this review.
The 'special edition' of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back contained in this two-disc set utilizes what is essentially the same transfer that was included in the boxed set release from two years ago, which is fine as it looks great. We already know that it's a fantastic transfer and that some would even go so far as to call it reference quality. It's been painstakingly cleaned up, it's got a lot of really nice fine detail in both the foreground and the background of the image and the color reproduction is gorgeous. Going into any more detail would be redundant – the altered version of the movie looks great.
So what about the theatrical version? In a nutshell, it's not bad for what it is, but unfortunately what it is happens to basically be the laserdisc slapped onto DVD. That being said, as with the laserdisc releases, The Empire Strikes Back looks better than Star Wars though many of the same issues with that transfer crop up with this one as well. The image is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35.1 but no one has seen fit to give it anamorphic enhancement, which, to a lot of us, is a very big deal. Let the record show that the movie is perfectly watchable here but the differences between the loving restoration afforded the 'special edition' version compared to the theatrical cut is definitely very, very noticeable.
Going into a bit more detail, the first thing that you're likely to notice is the grain (though it isn't as harsh as the first film it is still pretty grainy in spots). While it's all but been completely removed on disc one, on disc two it is very noticeable. Some scenes suffer from this more than others do, but it's definitely there and the image really should have been cleaner looking than it is here. The colors are also fairly uneven. Some scenes are pretty bright, others look flat and almost dead in spots (see some of the outdoor Hoth scenes for an example of this).
The amount of grain coupled with the lower resolution stemming from the non-anamorphic transfer directly results in a significantly less detailed picture. Depending on how large your set up is, results are obviously going to vary a fair bit. For comparisons sake, the disc was sampled on a 20" set, a 32" flat screen tube set and a 78" screen by way of a projector and – though this should go without saying – the flaws were definitely more noticeable on the larger sets than the smaller ones, particularly the print damage and the over saturated reds in a few scenes. It's never overpowering and the movie is watchable even on a larger display but the fact of the matter is that this version of this movie deserved better than this. The video quality is okay, when really it should have been as good if not better than the 'special edition' version. These transfers were fine in the laserdisc days, but those are long gone and by today's standards they are just not up to where they should be.
The 'special edition' of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back on disc one has a fantastic Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround Sound mix in English and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mixes in English, French and Spanish with optional subtitles available in English. The 5.1 mix is very active and makes excellent use of all channels. The subwoofer gets some serious action during the combat and space battle scenes and the dialogue is clean and clear. This is a really nice mix, and there's little to complain about here in terms of quality.
One disc two, the theatrical version of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back contains Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mixes in English, French and Spanish with optional English subtitles. There's some nice channel separation contained throughout there aren't any problems understanding what anyone says at any given time. A true surround sound mix would have been nice to see here, but again, this is basically the laserdisc on DVD and in defense of Fox/Lucas, it's close to the original mix that played in theaters decades ago - so flaws or not, that's a good thing. The bass response in particular sounds surprisingly good on this disc, which is a nice touch.
The first disc, which represents the 'special edition' of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back contains only the audio commentary that was provided on the last DVD release that came out via the boxed set release in September of 2004. The participants on the track include George Lucas, Ben Burtt, Dennis Muren, and Carrie Fisher this time joined by Irvin Kershner. As with the commentary tracks on the other two films in the original trilogy, you can tell that they weren't all sitting in a room together and were likely recorded completely separately from one another. The addition of Kershner to this discussion makes it more interesting and more fun than the commentary that was recorded for the first movie (and the one recorded for Return Of The Jedi) as he's fairly enthusiastic about the movie and has quite a bit to say about his time on the set. The rest of the participants also look back on the movie quite fondly despite some rather harsh shooting conditions in Norway for the Hoth scenes and a few difficulties that they ran into for some of the effects work. It's a pretty informative talk, even if separate commentaries would have been preferable.
There's also a web-link included here for those who care to put the disc into their DVD-Rom and be whisked away to the official Star Wars website.
The only extra feature included on the second disc which houses the theatrical cut of the film is a playable demo and a trailer for Lego Star Wars II game, which admittedly looks very cool but is nothing more than an advertisement. Aside from that we get chapter stops and a menu screen. It might irritate some to learn that the menus for the theatrical version don't match those designed for the special editions and the three prequels and oddly enough, though the feature isn't anamorphic the menus are. Figure that one out, kids.
Inside the packaging is an insert that contains chapter stops for both discs and some nice artwork from the movie in addition to an advertisement for other Star Wars DVDs. It would have been nice if Lucasarts had given us the trailer for the film, but no dice.
Again, as with the two disc re-releases of the other two films, this offering of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back feels like little more than an attempt to milk fans out of even more money. The non-anamorphic transfer is perfectly watchable but just not up to current DVD standards and all signs point to an upgrade down the road. With that in mind, it's hard to give this any more of a recommendation than 'rent it' even if the movie itself is great.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.