Star Wars: The
Empire Strikes Back

directed by George Lucas
(20th Century Fox, 1980;
special edition, 1997)

With four simple words, "I am your father," part of the magic of Star Wars began to unravel.

The glory of the first movie was the notion that a nobody, a dreamer from the outskirts of the galaxy, could be thrust into circumstances beyond his ken and still come out a winner. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) went from lonely farmboy to galactic hero and everyone cheered to see him do it.

But in the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, creator George Lucas decided that letting Luke be a common man wasn't good enough. Instead, he decided Luke should be the lost son of the evil Empire's greatest villain, Darth Vader (David Prowse; voice, James Earl Jones). And that made Luke's accomplishments somehow less exciting. It was no longer chance that brought him into the conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion; it was Fate. He was no longer one of us; he was the scion of the second most powerful man in the galaxy. Phooey.

Otherwise, Empire managed to exceed Star Wars in many ways. The story is tighter, more dramatic, more romantic, more exciting and more suspenseful. The special effects that amazed us in 1977 were greatly improved by 1980. And compared to the well-choreographed duel between Luke and Darth, the battle between Darth and Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) in the first film was little more than two men bashing at each other with shiny clubs.

The actors, too, came more into their own. Although Star Wars had some veteran actors (Guinness, plus Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin), the cast was largely made up of unknowns. But Hamill, Harrison Ford (Han Solo) and Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) grew into their roles by the second film and managed to bring extra dimensions to the parts. Billy Dee Williams also joined the cast as the conniving Lando Calrissian -- an excellent addition to the story.

Lucas, who had already brought the non-human characters of C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to life in a realistic manner, now combined efforts with Frank Oz to create the remarkably lifelike Muppet, Yoda. He also left us with something Star Wars lacked -- a cliffhanger, which leads straight into the next chapter of the incredible saga.

The soundtrack by John Williams reprises much from the first film, but its grandest moment is the thrilling "Imperial March," an outstanding composition.

The special edition released in 1997 also updated the effects. Although not as dramatic as the changes in the first film, they certainly do enhance the experience -- particularly during the snow battle and in the Cloud City of Bespin. A brief interview with Lucas preceding the movie explains what was changed, and why.

Star Wars remains my favorite of the film series, in part because it introduced new wonder into my world, set new standards for film-making and is able to stand on its own as a feature. But Empire is undeniably superior in many critical ways. It also left fans yearning for a sequel with far greater anticipation than before.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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