Ask twenty or so non-Star Wars fans who directed the first sequel in the popular franchise and 19 will likely get it wrong. Ask them what the major twist is at the end of the film and all of them will likely get it right. That's the effect this movie had on pop-culture. Darker and more powerful than the original, "Empire Strikes Back" doesn't rely on major special effects sequences (though it has those too), but on developing the characters created in the original.
It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy. Evading the dreaded Imperial Starfleet, a group of freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker has established a new secret base on the remote ice world of Hoth. The evil lord Darth Vader, obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space.
Twenty-four years later, the opening battle in "Empire" remains one of the most spectacular, fast, and impressive fight sequences in movie history. The stop-motion animation used for the AT-AT walkers is perfect, really giving them a mechanical feel and a strong reason for why the style should still be used today. Snow Speeders fly all around these impressive metal beats, an even more impressive feat in the area of model work.
Yet, it's not the best scene in the film. Just before Han Solo becomes frozen in carbonite, Leia finally tells him she loves him. His response IS the character: "I know." According to the "Empire of Dreams" documentary, they did at least 20 takes before finally hitting it just right. Any other wording, any change of that one line, and the entire scene fails. But there it is, just two words and the entire character finally has an added layer of depth audiences can finally figure out. Not a single scene in the rest of the film comes close.
This is also the film that first introduced audiences to Yoda, the aging Jedi master whom trains Luke in the ways of the Force. Even with all the computer power in the world, absolutely nothing can ever replace the original. Easily the most expressive and believable puppet in the history of cinema, Yoda shows a wide range of emotions during his screen tenure. The fully CG Yoda in "Episode II" fails simply because he is just another character in a crowded film of computer generated creatures, seemingly tacked on without a purpose. Here, without him and the brilliant puppet work, the film wouldn't be the same.
Then of course we have what can only be called "the reveal." It's the one single moment where everyone who watches this movie for the first time just lets their jaws hang down in a stunned silence. It is a line that will likely be even more unbelievable when the new trilogy is finished and all six films can be watched in succession. Everyone has a different reaction to it, but you almost certainly went into a state of denial soon afterward. It still remains one of the best movie moments of all time.
It really baffles the mind that director Irvin Kershner would go on to make "Robocop 2," his only real notable film after this. But, this remains an epic; a film whose only flaw is that is really doesn't end, but must be finished by a somewhat lesser sequel. The lack of any real changes to the film by Lucas is obviously a testament by how well this sequel turned out. Even still, when "Episode III" is finished, "Empire Strikes Back" will likely remain the pinnacle of the beloved series, not a small claim by any means. (***** out of *****)
As good as "A New Hope" looks, "Empire" looks even better. Opening scenes on Hoth have never looked better and the usual round of DVD problems with brighter shades of white are not an issue here. The entrance flight of the Millennium Falcon into Cloud City looks even better than it has in previous editions thanks to the completely remastered color scheme. The flickering problem caused by the resolution of the format is prevalent, but does seem a little better than it did in the first film. If you didn't know better, there is no way to guess this film is 24-years old. (*****)
Audio problems are not a factor here either. Once again, the battle on Hoth is the highlight just like it was in the video department. Each laser shot is accompanied by a stunning amount of bass when they connect and fly through the sound field when they miss. Inside the base, each of the AT-AT's footsteps resonates throughout the base and in the viewer's home. Luke and Vader's unforgettable fight is also highlighted by atmospheric bursts of steam from each speaker. This is powerful sound usage. (*****)
The individual disc for "Empire" contains only a commentary track. The rest of the features are over on disc four. Director Irvin Kershner gets his say along with the crew from the first films track, Lucas, Burtt, Muren, and Carrie Fisher. (**)
Even without the obviously enlarged budget, "Empire" would still succeed. Very few movies can claim to be this engrossing, powerful, and exciting while still giving the proper amount of time for the actors to add multiple layers to their characters. It's also that rare sequel that can eclipse the original on almost every level. This is an undeniable classic of American cinema.