Life and Darth

Under Kershner's direction, the characters who scored in the first film veer closer toward the bull's-eye -- Darth Vader's armor seems to cast more striking shadows, while C-3PO's nervous dithering and R2-D2's blips and belches explore a fastidious versus slovenly chemistry that presages Ren and Stimpy. And the new characters add spice. Billy Dee Williams makes slick elusiveness alluring as Lando Calrissian, the boss of the Cloud City and its not-quite-legal gas mines; he keeps you guessing whether he's anti-hero or anti-villain. And we see a bit more of Boba Fett, the bounty hunter introduced in Star Wars Special Edition, who looks as bold and battered as a knight from Alexander Nevsky.

Working with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, Kershner goes after otherworldy textures and gets them right -- he ensures that a "carbon-freeze chamber" shimmers eerily, that the eggshell tones of the Cloud City are blissfully lulling, that Vader emerges from a mechanical-clam meditation room in a burst of light. Working with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, Kershner gives the characters more solidity and more opportunities to exploit their quirky humor. Even when Kershner and his craftsmen pay homage to classic screen images, they instill them with raw immediacy. When Han Solo guts a tauntaun, the image recalls the gutted buffalo in Jan Troell's The New Land -- and equals it in docu-poetry. Kershner's sometimes masochistic visceral thrust separates high adventure from kids' stuff, the men from the boys. It puts across the pain and the cost of physical heroism.

According to the current edition of The Art of The Empire Strikes Back, the 160 revised shots in The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition augment the backgrounds of Cloud City, remove the matte lines once visible in the fighting on Hoth and beef up Luke's encounter with a feral snow creature. But not everything has been "improved" by computer enhancements; the herky-jerky stop-motion quality of some of the special effects has been retained. At the time of the film's original release, Kershner remarked, "I hate slick films, because to me slick means polished with all the bumps and seams taken out. I think Empire is not slick because it's bumpy in places, and a little ragged and terribly real." Kershner's feeling for the reality within fantasy makes The Empire Strikes Back unique. In the years since its premiere, critics have dubbed movies such as Excalibur "pop Wagner"; The Empire Strikes Back is something just as epic, but more accessible and touching. Let's call it pop Mahler.

The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition.
Directed by Irvin Kershner. With Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams and Frank Oz.

Rated PG.
127 minutes.

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