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Life and Darth

Irvin Kershner's The Empire Strikes Back, the continuation of George Lucas's Star Wars, is a classic in its own right, one I vastly prefer to the first film. Its textures are richer, its emotions deeper, and it's an honest-to-Jedi movie rather than a dozen jammed-together episodes of a serial. On its own space-opera terms, you can rank it with The Godfather Part II as a sequel that magnificently expands on the original. Although The Empire Strikes Back never ceases to be a swift and luxuriant spectacle, it's more than a bubbly cinematic funhouse. In collaboration with executive producer Lucas's team of magicians, Kershner provides visual music for the soul, streaked with anguish as well as humor and a volatile comic-book lyricism. Full of the manic-depressive highs and lows of characters on the brink of maturity, it's Growing Up Absurd in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.

From the sight of a camel/kangaroo/ram called a tauntaun racing across the snow planet Hoth to the climactic light-saber battle in Cloud City on the planet Bespin, this film features the most piquant creatures, gadgets, locales and set-tos in the Star Wars trilogy. Empire proves that even gimmickry is elevated when actors settle into character and a director arranges ingredients for emotional variety and grace. Kershner's film is two-fisted and poetic -- a space extravaganza about the getting of wisdom.

In this movie, Luke Skywalker and Mark Hamill hit an airy stride. In Star Wars, when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke of the energy that binds the universe -- the Force -- it comes off as Marin mysticism. But here, when Luke has to learn the Force's discipline under the guidance of Yoda, the super-elf and Jedi Master, it hits home as an American, can-do form of Zen. Yoda tries to teach Luke how to be a Jedi Knight -- to live intensely in the moment, so he can act in the present with potency. One small step in the plot becomes one giant step for Luke, and for Hamill. The actor looks different -- more intriguing -- in Empire. His Skywalker is still a juvenile, but a ravaged one. Hamill develops instant character lines and a new edginess. The improvement in his performance is one reason Empire wins hearts as it blows minds.

Since Empire centers on Skywalker's maturity, you might expect it to be heartwarming. But the imagery and the narrative twists and turns are bracingly stormy. It begins in a titanic, icy battle between white-clad rebels and the evil Empire. The Empire's space dreadnought is like an enormous demon giving birth to a nightmarish arsenal of spidery probes and elephantine tanks; the rebels must counterattack with harpoons, like Nantucket seamen going after whales. Kershner unleashes this unforgettable armory in the first half-hour. The peak of the thrills comes later, in a whirlwind chase through an asteroid field, but these battle scenes stay fixed in our minds as the background to the entire film. When Luke's friends -- Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) -- continue to spar with the Empire while Skywalker and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) go into spiritual retreat with Yoda, we know that a conflagration could ignite any second.

At the start, Hamill's Skywalker feels as if he could conquer the Empire by himself. But when he meets Yoda, Luke discovers how inadequate he is. Yoda is a wonderful creation, as tiny and spry as a Hobbit, but with an omniscient Eastern face. As operated and vocalized by master puppeteer Frank Oz, Yoda dispenses knowledge gleefully instead of dropping it like weights. Though the Force apparently impels all creatures great and small to speak in boring abstractions, Yoda's teaching is sensible: He urges Luke to be patient and objective, to rid himself of evil pettiness and jealousies and to believe that if he struggles in good faith, the Force will burgeon within him. It takes confidence for an actor to hold his own with a puppet such as Yoda chattering by his side, but Hamill doesn't choke under the pressure. In the Yoda sequence, Kershner forsakes nonstop action for sly metaphysical ballet; it's refreshing that this film, unlike Star Wars, gives us a chance to catch our breath and watch the characters grow.

Star Wars introduced a JFK-style idealism to Luke Skywalker's odyssey -- an ask-what-you-can-do-for-your-country slant that underlay the farm boy's urge to mix things up with the Empire. In The Empire Strikes Back, Skywalker may, for a while, find a separate peace, but he's still itching to wade into battle. Yoda urges calm; Luke can't stand still while he knows his pals are in danger. The need to find equilibrium -- to land on psychic dry land -- permeates the movie and gives it a coming-of-age-in-the-'60s atmosphere.

Hamill isn't the only one who changes. If Harrison Ford play-acted Bogart in the first film, here he resurrects him. And in Empire, Han Solo, the bluff gambler-adventurer, and Leia, the spunky princess, finally bring their romance out into the open. If Fisher still isn't much of a performer, her petulance does strike sparks. She and Ford conjure an air of sexual frustration that catalyzes flirtatious bickerings. The movie needs this mating dance -- it completes Kershner's imaginative evocation of adolescence.

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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