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THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Jan. 3, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Because I wrote my first professional movie review for the Deseret News in 1978 I was a bit late for ‘Star Wars,’ which opened the year before. Ditto ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in 1980, which was released before I became the full-time critic; my predecessor reviewed that one. I did get a crack at ‘Return of the Jedi’ in 1983, however, and in early 1997 I reviewed all three when they returned to theaters in their first ‘Special Edition’ form. Now, Disney/LucasFilm has reissued the trilogy on Blu-ray, so let’s look back at them. This week we’ll take a look at my Feb. 21, 1997, review of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’; ‘Star Wars’ was here last week (see the ‘Recent Stuff’ link above) and ‘Return of the Jedi’ will be here next week.

The big surprises in "The Empire Strikes Back" are saved for the final act — and if you've somehow managed to miss this film, trust me, they're doozies.

And "Empire" certainly takes for granted that moviegoers have seen "Star Wars," with no attempt to explain in any detail the events that lead up to the goings-on here. What's more, there are unanswered questions and open-ended plot elements that remain unresolved.

With all of that on the table, "Empire" is still, in my opinion, the finest piece of filmmaking in the "Star Wars" trilogy. Dramatically sound, visually captivating, full of wild ideas, loaded with perfectly timed comic relief and full of rich characters, this one is stronger cinematically than its predecessor — and it certainly left 1980 audiences salivating for the next chapter. (Thankfully, we don't have to wait three years this time — "Return of the Jedi" will be re-issued in two weeks.)

     

The story begins on the frozen planet of Hoth, where the rebel forces are routed out by the evil Empire.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has grown up, though he's still a whiny complainer, and Han Solo has become an officer in the rebellion, though he's still worried about the price on his head placed by intergalactic gangster Jabba the Hutt. And Princess Leia is drawn romantically to the arrogant Han, though Luke still thinks he has a chance with her. (Watch how the audience reacts when Leia kisses Luke full on the mouth … in light of what we learned about them the first time "Jedi" came around.)

After a dazzling battle on Hoth, Luke takes R2-D2 and follows the promptings of the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to begin his apprenticeship with Jedi master Yoda (a Muppet performed by Frank Oz).

Meanwhile, Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO do battle with the Empire and Darth Vader, eventually taking refuge (they think) in a floating sky city run by Han's old pal Lando (Billy Dee Williams).

The early scenes on Hoth and those set in and around Cloud City (where it always seems to be sunset) are particularly eye-popping, and the film remains a rip-snorting adventure from start to finish.

And, as with "Star Wars," the thrill is seeing it on the big screen again.

OK, the element of surprise is gone. It's more like visiting an old friend. And the gimmicky added scenes and effects are fewer here (and more subtly integrated) than with the "Special Edition" of "Star Wars."

But compare "Empire" to "Independence Day" or "Twister" — or even "Jurassic Park" — and you can't help but wonder why they don't seem to make 'em like this anymore.

"The Empire Strikes Back" is rated PG for violence and some gore (the latter added to the sequence where the Yeti-style monster captures Luke and hangs him upside-down in an ice cave).