“The Empire Strikes Back” is a worthy sequel to Star Wars, equal in both technical mastery and characterization, suffering only from the familiarity with the effects generated in the original and imitated too much by others. Only boxoffice question is how many earthly trucks it will take to carry the cash to the bank.
From the first burst of John Williams’ powerful score and the receding opening title crawl, we are back in pleasant surroundings and anxious for a good time–like walking through the front gate of Disneyland, where good and evil are never confused and the righteous will always win.
This is exec producer George Lucas’ world. Though he has turned the director’s chair over to the capable Irvin Kershner and his typewriter to Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, there are no recognizable deviations from the path marked by Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz.
Having already introduced their principal players, the filmmakers now have a chance to round them out, assisted again by good performances from Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. And even the ominous Darth Vader (David Prowse [voiced by James Earl Jones]) is fleshed with new – and surprising – motivations. Killed in the original, Alec Guiness is limited to ghostly cameo.
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Responding, too, to the audience’s obvious affection for the non-human sidekicks, “Empire” makes full use of Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker). Among the new characters, Billy Dee Williams gets a good turn as a duplicitous but likeable villain-ally and Frank Oz is fascinating as sort of a guru for the Force. How this dwarfish character was created and made to seem so real is a wonder, but it’s only one of many visual marvels.
There are new creatures like the Tautaun on the ice planet Hoth and dreadful new mechanical menaces such as giant four-legged, walking juggernauts, plus the usual array of motherships and fighter craft, odd space stations and asteroids.
But it’s all believable given the premise, made the more enjoyable by Lucas’ heavy borrowing — with a splashing new coat of sci-fi paint — from many basic film frameworks. The juggernaut attack on infantry in the trenches with fighter planes counterattacking overhead is straight out of every war film ever made.
Even more than before, Lucas and Kershner seem to be making the comparisons obvious. Vader’s admirals now look even more dressed like Japanese admirals of the fleet intercut with Hamill’s scrambling fighter pilots who wouldn’t look too out of place on any Marine base today.
Oz’s eerie jungle home would not confuse Tarzan and the carbon-freezing chamber that threatens Ford could be substituted for any alligator pit in a Lost Temple. Naturally, too, the laser saber battles of the first are back again even more, along with the wild-west shootouts and aerial dogfights.
At 124 minutes, “Empire” is only three minutes longer than its predecessor, but seems to be longer than that, probably because of the overfamiliarity with some of the space sequences and excessive saber duels between Vader and Hamill.
Reaching its finish, “Empire” blatantly sets up the third in the “Star Wars” trilogy, presuming the marketplace will signify its interest. It’s a pretty safe presumption.
1980: Best Sound, Special Achievement Award (visual effects).
Nominations: Best Art Direction, Original Score