After the smash hit success of Star Wars, (which would be re-titled A New Hope) the new multi-millionaire George Lucas literally gambled it all on the success of a sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. By funding the entire movie himself, he could make sure that he would never again lose control of his creative vision, or need to cow tow to studio executives. But it was never going to be plain sailing. A notoriously fussy director in Irvin Kershner, a car accident that scarred Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher's descent into cocaine addiction, a screenwriters death, unique problems with special effects and the challenges posed by the Yoda puppet threatened to derail it all.
After the destruction of the Empire's Death Star, Darth Vader (David Prowse) spearheads the search for the location of the rebel's secret fortress. When drones pinpoint their location on the ice planet Hoth, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) must fight to save the rebellion. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) has some special training in store for the force-attuned Skywalker, which will come in handy for his impending showdown with Vader himself.
Despite some poor critical reviews upon release, The Empire Strikes Back is now almost unanimously recognised as the best entry in the Star Wars saga, with some strong, nuanced performances, believable characters and an emotional cliffhanger.
The Empire Strikes Back is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (its original aspect ratio), encoded with AVC MPEG-4 compression.
Similar to A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back was the subject of a chemical restoration which was prepared for the theatrical special edition release in 1997. Unlike its predecessor however, the film elements for The Empire Strikes Back were in far better shape, which made the work slightly easier. In 2004, this newly struck master interpositive was again handed to digital film restoration firm Lowry Digital, who prepared new SD transfers for the DVD release and 1080p transfers for broadcast. Again, this Blu-ray is based off that previous 1080p master.
The image is very clear and sharp. The production used newer cameras than the vintage 1950's models used for A New Hope along with improved film stock and the results show on screen.
Contrast and colour are quite good. Some of the new colour timing that went a little too far in the previous DVD transfer has been rectified, but the image is still more blue tinted than necessary, especially during the Hoth sequences. The colour timing is also a little inconsistent from shot to shot.
Overall, the HD transfer for The Empire Strikes Back is very good and certainly the best available yet. However, this is not to say that it couldn't have been bettered; I suspect it could have.
The main audio track is encoded with DTS HD Master Audio 6.1 at 24 bits.
Unlike A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back receives the same audio release as the previous DVD, albeit upgraded to a lossless transfer. This is not terrible however, as the original recordings are in far better shape than their predecessors. Recording methods took a fair jump in quality in three years and the elements were obviously kept in much better shape.
Dialogue presents well, with just a hint of ADR replacement. Ben Burtt returns to continue his work creating signature Star Wars sound effects and he doesn't disappoint. These are mixed relatively well, being very balanced and creating a good surround presence. This is a good example of the strength of this mix - be it some more subtle echo effects inside the giant asteroid slug, to the blown out battle sequences with bombastic militaristic score.
Again, John Williams' score soars, with one of the most well recognisable, intricate and satisfying motion picture scores in the history of cinema. The Imperial March (otherwise known as Darth Vader's theme), is so well known that it's become as much of a pop culture icon as the character himself. This was Williams at the height of his powers and it's presented in pleasing sonic quality, mixed well and presented losslessly to home video for the first time.
Again, no reason to ever listen to the DVD.
Again, Lucasfilm have included some worthwhile extra features designed to co-exist with the previous DVD supplements. That is, they aren't replicated here, so you'll have to hang onto your old DVDs to retain everything.
The main disc features two audio commentaries. The first is carried over intact from the DVD release, featuring George Lucas and many members of the crew, including Sound Editor Ben Burtt and ILM staff along with the legendary Dennis Muren. The second, newly produced track is comprised of interview comments and edited together in a fairly relevant and cohesive manner.
More bonus features are contained on the first extras disc, along with the bonus features for A New Hope and Return of the Jedi For this review, I will talk about the bonus features relevant to The Empire Strikes Back. The bonus features are divided by the four 'worlds' relevant to the plot: Hoth, Dagobah, Pursued by the Imperial Fleet and Cloud City.
Next up are 10 Deleted Scenes and again these unearth some rare nuggets that fans have waited decades to see. We've had stills. We've had a one second shot from a trailer, but never before have we seen any of these scenes. The most notable lost sequence being an entire subplot revolving around the Wampa snow monsters on Hoth, excised because the man-in-suit monster looked so laughably terrible. But damn, it's awesome to see. There are also a few minor scenes of Lukes recovery in the Hoth medical centre and the fate of General Veers at the hands of a kamikaze rebel pilot.
Next is the return of the multiple Overview segments for each of the menu worlds. The most notable segment is that which looks at the pioneering stop motion work by Phil Tippet and Dennis Muren which brought to life the AT-AT walkers, one frame at a time.
The Interviews section houses just two; a vintage George Lucas spot, and one with Director Irvin Kershner. The more I see of Kershner, the more he reminds me of Yoda, albeit a lot taller.
The Collection returns again and shows a few of the stunning models, costumes and creatures created for the film, with impressive 360 degree turns which show the detail the artisans went to. Some of the artifacts have degraded pretty significantly, but are good to see for posterity. Imagine what they'd go for on eBay…
Finally, the concept art gallery brings a handful of high resolution concept art sketches and artwork to screens. Star Wars fans will recognize a lot of this art from the 'Art of Star Wars' series of books. These Ralph McQuarrie pieces are very famous, but I much prefer them in book form.
For purchasers of the Complete Saga boxset (as opposed to the three disc 'original trilogy' boxset, there are some extra bonus features relevant to The Empire Strikes Back on the additional 9th disc.
The original 1980 Empire Strikes Back SPFX documentary takes an hour long look at predominantly the creation of the pioneering visual effects, and the 25 minute A Conversation with the Masters: The Empire Strikes Back 30 Years Later documentary is a retrospective featurette made last year and features the last on-camera interview with Director Irvin Kershner who died aged 87 late last year, along with other principals including composer John Williams.