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Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

From the beginning, George Lucas had envisioned his 1977 epic Star Wars to be a trilogy. The phenomenal success the film attained gave him the opportunity to realize two more sequels, beginning with 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. It is usually common for a follow-up to an original to be a let-down, but this movie is not one such example. Directed by Irvin Kirschner, the new chapter in the saga doesn't just live up to its predecessor, it surpasses it--and then some.

The storyline takes a darker, more heavy-handed spin as Luke, Han, Leia, and the Rebel Forces find themselves under assault from Darth Vader and the Imperial troops. As the movie progresses, we root for our heroes to prevail--only to find ourselves downcast when we come to the somewhat sad (yet hopeful) conclusion. Yet the movie is all the more magnificent for it.

The Empire Strikes Back also gives a chance to expand upon the characters' relationships with each other--to entertaining and occasionally amusing results. It also provides the cast a glorious opportunity to expand on their characters (of course it helps to have a director who is competent with directors, which is what these two sequels were lucky to benefit from). The give-and-take banter between Han and Leia (which, of course, turns into a romance) is hilarious and made all the more memorable by Harrison Ford's swaggering portrayal of Han and Carrie Fisher coming off as a perfect foil for his bluster. The chemistry between them is definitely a lot more lively and interesting than, any of the love scenes involving Natalie Portman and Haydn Christensen in the prequels. Mark Hamill also deserves special mention. In this film, he displays an incredible range of emotion and growing pains, which helps the audience to identify with his struggle. His eventual growth from a reckless, unthinking youth to a mature, confident hero is completed full-circle in the final entry, Return of the Jedi, but tracing where it begins in this movie credits that.

Not only are we introduced to all-new worlds such as the freezing, snow-covered ice planet Hoth to the musty swamp bog of Dagobah, we are introduced to new characters. For example, on Bespin, we meet Lando Calrissian, a charismatic yet shifty rogue who shares a somewhat shaky friendship with Han Solo. Billy Dee Williams conveys the character to effectiveness; the transition from traitor to ally is well handled and believable. Of course, the most memorable character in the movie is Yoda, the crotchety yet benign Jedi Master who takes it under himself to lead Skywalker down the straight and narrow path. In the prequels, we see him flex his facial expression chops through computer animation, but in this film (in addition to Return of the Jedi) we see him as a rubber puppet operated by Frank Oz. His playful yet wise nature exudes through the latex and comes across as a staple character. There's a good reason why he's considered one of the best characters in the Star Wars saga.

The production values are spectacular, with unforgettably visceral action sequences highlighting every minute on screen such as the snow battle against giant dinosaur-like walkers, the daredevil chase through the asteroid field, and of course, the climactic confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. That each of these set pieces are so fully realized in rich detail and execution contributes to this film's greatness.

In 1997, George Lucas revamped this film (along with the other two entries in the original trilogy) as a Special Edition. Of them, Empire Strikes Back doesn't suffer too badly in its new dress. Unlike Star Wars or Return of the Jedi, which featured some distractingly controversial changes, most of the alterations are, for the most part, minor. Matte lines are smoothed out, and transparent cockpits from the original cut are thankfully fixed. There's also a lovely expansion of Cloud City which allows us to see an entire depth of dimension to the planet. The digitally added windows provide for some lovely shots. (Only exception is one brief roller-coaster flyby of some flying cars zooming through the city.) Perhaps the best change is in the scene where Darth Vader commutes with the Emperor. In this revamp, Ian McDiarmid, who created the role to begin with, takes over for the previous stand-in (dubbed over by Clive Revill), and he provides a more chilling turn. Although there was one added in line of dialogue I wasn't crazy about in this scene, it's still a welcome addition.

On the other hand, the moment where we see the ice monster approach Luke (the original version has only two brief cutaway shots of this creature) isn't as effective. It's not a bad addition by any means -- at least the monster is not a goofy CG creation -- but there is something to be said about the original scene having the creature implied to be coming instead of seeing it in full. Probably the only jarring, unnecessary change is an alteration of Darth Vader's "Bring my shuttle" line to "Alert the Star Destroyer to prepare for my arrival", as well as a brief shot of him walking onto the craft in question. This disrupts John Williams' score and briefly kills the momentum of the climax.

Still, if you have no access to the original cut, then the Special Edition will suffice, as it's at the very least not as jarring or distractingly cartoony. In either version, though, not only is The Empire Strikes Back one of the best entries in the Star Wars saga, but one of the best sequels ever. Period.