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The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition (1997)
Rated PG

Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Billy Dee Williams

Rating:
*****
out of
*****

After seeing the original Star Wars just a few weeks ago, returning to the theater to see its first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, gave me a real feeling of what it must have been like to go to the old movie serials in the 1940's. It's fitting, though, since the Star Wars series was inspired by serials like Flash Gordon and comic books.

The Empire Strikes Back picks up shortly after the first movie's end. The Rebellion, after defeating the Death Star, has had to retreat to another hidden base. This time, it's located on a desolate ice-covered planet called Hoth. The Empire is desperate to find the Rebels and crush them in retaliation for the defeat of their great battle station.

Darth Vader (David Prowse) is especially interested in finding Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who he knows is strong with The Force. Vader feels that if Luke can be turned against the Rebellion and toward "the dark side" of The Force, he would make a great weapon for the Empire.

Luke is instructed by the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to continue his Jedi training with Yoda, an 800 year old wizard who lives on a swampy planet known as Dagobah. The rest of the Rebellion, including Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels), are forced to evacuate Hoth when the Empire locates their base on Hoth and attacks it.

As Luke continues his training with Yoda, Vader plots an intricate trap to catch him using Han Solo and the Princess as bait.

This installment in the series is generally thought to be the darkest of the three. (Return of the Jedi, the final installment in the trilogy, returns to theaters on March 14.) Because the movie doesn't have a cut-and-dry ending, it can be viewed as a disappointing film by some. You have to see the third movie to find out the outcome of all of the situations that are set up by this film. Although it's a definite weakness, it doesn't take away from the fact that this is a more mature and stronger movie than the original in terms of character development. Although there are a few slow parts during the middle of the movie, the climax more than makes up for it.

Vader becomes more evil and, interestingly, more human as he pursues Skywalker across the galaxy at any cost. Han Solo, who was probably the most fully developed character in the first film, romantically pursues Princess Leia, who is much more likeable in this film as she also becomes more human. Luke is still pretty much the boy he was in the first film. His confrontation with Vader is the turning point in his character's development, but the movie ends shortly afterward and doesn't allow him to really reflect on things. A new character, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), is also introduced. Williams' acting and charisma make Calrissian a welcome addition to the band of central characters.

As with the first movie, some new special effects have been added as have some new scenes. The amount of differences between this version and the original version are not as wildly obvious as they were with Star Wars, but they're worth keeping an eye peeled for.

This was a strong movie when it was originally released in 1980. With the little bit of tweaking that Lucasfilm has done, it's even stronger now. Still a dazzling bit of movie history, the same advice that I gave about the original applies to this first sequel: See it as it was meant to be seen. But, remember, this time you don't have to wait three years to see the conclusion. It's only a matter of weeks until Return of the Jedi arrives.

Trivia: One of the asteroids during the scene where the Millennium Falcon escapes into the asteroid field to evade Imperial Star Destroyers is actually a potato. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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