The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition (1997, Irvin Kershner)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

WHICH VERSION? The special edition of The Empire Strikes Back, which added computer effects and new footage to the original version, was released in cinemas in 1997. For this review, I watched the DVD that came out in 2004. As I’ve already discussed the 1980 cut of the movie, this is a list of the notable changes made in the 1990s and since…

* The 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm logos have been updated.

* During the early sequence where Luke is attacked and captured by the bear-like wampa, newly filmed inserts give us a better look at the creature. After Luke cuts off its arm – seriously, what is it with George Lucas’s obsession with dismemberment?! – we see the wampa writhing in pain. The 1997 footage cuts in seamlessly.

* The scene between Darth Vader and the Emperor was untouched in 1997. However, there were significant changes when the film was prepared for DVD release in 2004. The original performance of the Emperor (by extra Elaine Baker and voice actor Clive Revill) was replaced by newly shot footage of Ian McDiarmid, who played the character in every Star Wars film from Return of the Jedi onwards. Bringing this film in line with the others is a nice move. Lucas also took to opportunity to tweak the dialogue so the Emperor now specifies that he knows Luke is the son of Anakin Skywalker.

* Although not altered in 1997, when the Special Edition came out on DVD Boba Fett’s dialogue had been dubbed by Temuera Morrison (the actor who had recently played the man from whom Fett was cloned in Episode II).

* The lengthy sequence in and around Bespin’s Cloud City has had a picturesque overhaul. Existing exterior scenes have been graded to push a more sunset-time vibe; a few new simple CGI shots establish the Millennium Falcon coming in to land; and whenever the city is seen in the background of shots or through windows, it’s now busier, even more artful and tonally warmer. All the additions work really well: they open out the previously studio-bound city and, by being so summer-evening-y, provide a nice contrasting bookend with the Hoth sequence.

* There are new shots – one of real actors, one a CG cityscape – showing people reacting to Lando’s panicked Tannoy announcement on Bespin.

* In order to salve a plot hole, Darth Vader’s dialogue has been changed from “Bring my shuttle” to “Alert my star destroyer to prepare for my arrival”. We then see him boarding his shuttle and arriving on the mother ship (in footage stolen from Return of the Jedi). It’s not subtle, but it does tidy up the moment in the original cut where Vader appears on the ship rather suddenly. The new dialogue sounds awfully like someone doing an impression of James Earl Jones…

REVIEW: There are far fewer changes than there were in the special edition of Star Wars. And the big, noticeable alterations actually enhance what was already a pinnacle of popular culture. Childhood nostalgia is the only thing that stops me admitting that this version might be the better one.

Ten negative power couplings out of 10

The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After their encounter during the destruction of the Death Star, Darth Vader is determined to track down the hero of the rebellion, Luke Skywalker – but young Luke is learning more and more about the Force…

WHICH VERSION? The original 1980 cut (as released on DVD in 2006). I like pedantry as much as the next geek, but childhood habit stops me calling it Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

GOOD GUYS

* Commander Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his pals in the Rebel Alliance are hiding out on the snow-covered planet of Hoth. Non-diegetic sources tend to claim this film is set three years after the events of Star Wars, but it feels more like a few weeks to me. Early on, Luke is attacked and captured by a bear-like creature – a sequence cooked up to explain some scars Mark Hamill had from a 1977 car accident – and uses his Force powers to escape. He then plays a big role as the Rebels evacuate the planet after the bad guys find them. But when Ben’s ghost pops up and tells Luke to go to the planet Dagobah, he abandons his pals with no explanation and heads off. On Dagobah, he finds Jedi master Yoda, who further teaches him the ways of the Force. One of his trials is a surreal sequence where he imagines fighting Darth Vader. After a slow-motion lightsaber duel, Vader’s mask is blown away… to reveal Luke’s face. It’s an omen of Luke’s future if he goes down a certain path. He then gets a precognitive vision of Han, Leia and the others in danger (which we don’t see, slightly oddly), so abandons his training to go help them. Fickle, isn’t he? Arriving at Bespin, he fights Vader for real and gets his hand chopped off. (Astonishingly, it’s 96 minutes into film two before Luke and Darth Vader actually meet.) In one of cinema’s best – but most widely known – plot twists, Luke then learns that Darth Vader is actually his father. Upset, he escapes Vader and is later fitted with a skin-covered robotic hand.

* Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is now a full-time member of the Alliance, but he knows he’s a dead man unless he pays off his debt to Jabba the Hutt so says he’ll have to leave. (Princess Leia is clearly upset by this, but would never admit it.) While the rebels evacuate from their Hoth base, he’s frantically tinkering away on the broken-down Millennium Falcon. He won’t leave until he knows Leia is safe, though (what a hero!), and actually takes her with him when she can’t get to her transport. To avoid the Imperial ships, Solo flies into an asteroid field then hides inside a big one. Later, the gang end up in Cloud City, a floating gas mine on the planet Bespin. When the Imperial forces arrive and capture our heroes, Han is tortured then cryogenically frozen and given to bounty hunter Boba Fett.

* Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) wants to make Han jealous, so early on gives Luke a robust kiss on the lips (she’ll regret that later!). She’s in charge of the rebel forces, but is separated from them after the evacuation. She and Han trade sarcasm like petulant schoolkids, but clearly fancy the pants off each other. They actually share a sweet scene together when the facades drop for a moment, but C-3PO interrupts their first kiss. The bickering is forgotten about when Han is later captured and tortured by Darth Vader. In one of the film’s best moments (in one of *film’s* best moments), a terrified Leia says, “I love you,” and Han stoically replies, “I know.” After Han has been frozen, Leia gets her fuck-you on again as she realises they can save Han – you wouldn’t cross her – but his rescue will have to wait for the next movie. Afterwards, she psychically hears Luke’s call for help: a hint that maybe she has some Force skills of her own?

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is upset when his path diverges from his friend R2-D2. On Bespin, he stumbles across some hidden Imperial troops and they dismantle him. Thankfully, Chewy soon finds all the bits and begins to reconstitute his pal. Near the end, 3PO shares a scene with Darth Vader – the only time the two are in the same room in the entire original trilogy. Given that C-3PO is in a sack on Chewy’s back, we can forgive Vader for not recognising him from the prequels.

* General Rieekan (Bruce Boa) is a high-ranking rebel leader who presumably enjoys Waldorf salads.

* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) goes with Luke to Dagobah, but he doesn’t enjoy it: he falls in a swamp, is menaced by a monster and gets left out in the rain. He’s involved more later on in the Bespin scenes.

* Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) doesn’t get a huge amount of focus – rescuing C-3PO is his main contribution.

* Major Derlin (John Ratzenberger) is a rebel officer who presumably enjoys recounting dubious anecdotes in bars.

* Ben ‘Obi-Wan’ Kenobi (Alec Guinness) appears only as a ghostly image and gives Luke vital plot information and emotional guidance. He’s had a haircut in the afterlife.

* Wedge Antilles (Denis Lawson) is one of the rebel pilots on Hoth; he was also in Star Wars, but I neglected to mention him.

* Yoda (Frank Oz) is a muppet with the voice of Fozzie Bear. In broken, jumbled-up English speaks he does. He’s short, green and elderly, and seems to be vague and comedic, so Luke at first doesn’t realise that he’s the Jedi master Ben recommended. Yoda is at least 800 years old, and he trained both Ben and Luke’s dad. The last we see of him, he’s making an enigmatic reference to Luke not being the good guys’ *only* hope… As well as Frank Oz and his team of puppeteers, Mark Hamill must take credit for how well the character works. By playing the scenes so sincerely, he makes us believe in Yoda as a character.

* Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is a gambler and all-round cad, who’s now the administrator of the Art Deco-styled Cloud City. He and Han go way back – Han won the Falcon from him, in fact – while he takes an instant shine to Leia. Han’s right not to trust him, though: Lando’s being blackmailed into delivering our heroes to Darth Vader. (Because of this betrayal, my six-year-old self would object to him being listed under ‘Good guys’.)

* Lobot (John Hollis, and not Mr Strickland from Back to the Future as I used to think as a child) is Lando’s mute, part-robotic sidekick.

BAD GUYS

* Darth Vader (body: David Prowse, voice: James Earl Jones) has been obsessed with finding Luke since their paths crossed in Star Wars. Now the Death Star’s gone, he hangs out on a Super Star Destroyer – a city-sized space ship – and we see him sitting in his giant, golf-ball-shaped command centre. No longer tempered by Grand Moff Tarkin, he seems to have executive power over the Imperial forces, though he kowtows to the Emperor when they talk over Skype. For the first time, we get a glimpse under Vader’s mask – he has a hairless, scarred head. Creepy!

* Admiral Ozzel (Michael Sheard) is an Imperial officer who presumably enjoys being the deputy headmaster of Grange Hill. Vader kills him after he misjudges a manoeuvre.

* Captain Piett (Ken Colley) is an officer who presumably enjoys playing Jesus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. He gets promoted to admiral after Ozzel’s death.

* General Veers (Julian Glover) is an officer who presumably enjoys being the baddie in both For Your Eyes Only and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He commands the Imperial troops as they attack Hoth.

* The Emperor (body: Elaine Baker, voice: Clive Revill) appears as a hologram projection when he contacts Vader wanting an update.

* Boba Fett (body: Jeremy Bulloch, voice: Jason Wingreen) is one of a gaggle of bounty hunters hired by Darth Vader to locate and capture the Millennium Falcon and its crew. Attentive fans at the time will have recognised him from the 1978 TV special. Fett easily tracks the Falcon to Bespin, then the last we see of him he’s carting Han off to Jabba the Hutt.

* Captain Bewil (Milton Johns) is an Imperial officer who presumably enjoys running the corner shop in Coronation Street. He seems to have a different voice for each of his two lines.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Luke and Vader’s lightsaber duel. It begins in a smoky, archly lit industrial space. Luke gets sweaty but is able to use his Force skills to escape being frozen. The pair then end up on an unbelievably high gantry: Vader cuts Luke’s hand off and implores him to join the Dark Side, but Luke refuses. Vader then reveals that he’s Luke’s dad, and Luke is all like ‘What the actual fuck?!’

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Han and Leia’s relationship is a succession of smartly written and brilliantly played moments, many of them sharp and witty, all of them brimming with sexual tension. The best comes when Leia falls onto Han’s lap and he grabs hold of her. She demands to be let go. “Don’t get excited,” he says. “Captain, being held by you isn’t quite enough to get me excited,” she replies huffily. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he says with a scintillating smirk, “haven’t got time for anything else.”

MUSIC: Even better than in the first movie. Scene after scene is scored by music of world-beating quality. Just check out the action sequence in the asteroid field! John Williams has also added a killer new theme – the Nazi-like Imperial March.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: When I was a child, I was allowed to rent one film a week from the local video shop in Ormskirk. I picked a Star Wars movie most weeks, occasionally slipping in The Karate Kid or Back to the Future or Superman III or Ghostbusters or whatever just for variation. So I’d seen this film several dozen times before I even owned a copy. I first bought it on VHS when the series was released in widescreen in about 1991.

REVIEW: Like any great sequel – The Godfather Part II, Aliens, From Russia With Love, Terminator 2, Police Academy 5 – this takes what worked in the first film, and then pushes every dial up a notch or three. So while the ambition, scale and spectacle get even bigger, the emotion becomes richer, the storyline more nuanced and the comedy wittier. This is Star Wars plus complexity. Star Wars plus feeling. Star Wars plus subtext. It’s irresistible to assume the credit must lie with the new injection of behind-the-scenes talent. Not having enjoyed the first film’s shoot, George Lucas took an executive-producer role and hired his old film-school lecturer Irvin Kershner as director. His contribution is superb. The first film rode along on a swashbuckling wave. This one does too, but it also puts us much more inside people’s heads. There’s added *soul* to what’s happening. There’s also a noticeable increase of comedy and characterisation. Han and Leia’s bickering is a never-ending thrill: their dialogue constantly fizzes with energy and charisma. Han and Luke’s friendship is similarly believable and fun, though they get very little time together. Even Darth Vader is less of a cartoon villain now: he has goals and desires and moods. As well as a new director, Lucas employed two new writers. Leigh Brackett, who had plenty of film-noir credentials, worked on a draft but then died – so Lawrence Kasdan, who later wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, was drafted in and he created magic. The script is wonderfully structured – there’s lots of edge-of-your-seat action, meaningful character moments and some terrific intercutting of the plot strands. And the story has a real sense of the shit hitting the fan again and again. Plans go awry, technology breaks down, characters are betrayed. It’s gripping stuff. Meanwhile, there’s a fresh visual tone from new director of photography Peter Suschitzky (Melody, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Krull, lots of David Cronenberg films). The cinematography is a galactic leap forward from the first film, which was actually shot quite flatly. The Empire Strikes Back is a beautiful movie. It uses shallow focus, moody and expressionistic lighting, faces lit by in-scene sources, lots of smoke, and some fantastic bold colours. (Just look at the reds and blues doing battle!) The first Star Wars film was more or less perfect. This is better.

Eleven stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herders out of 10

My 30 favourite films

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So, a few years ago – in order to complete an Empire magazine readers’ poll – I set about compiling my top 10 films. Narrowing them down that far was too tough, and I ended up with a shortlist of 30. Since that time, I’ve made one change: GoodFellas was reluctantly dropped for the most recent movie on the list.

I’ve added links to any films I’ve blogged about elsewhere on this site, whilst clips indicate my favourite five…

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)

WarGames (John Badham, 1983)

Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

Clue (Jonathan Lynn, 1985)

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)

Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1986)

Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)

D.O.A. (Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, 1988)

A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)

Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989)

The Hunt For Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)

Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010)

Never Say Never Again (Irvin Kershner, 1983)

Never Say Never Again

Never Say Never Again was a rival production to the ongoing Eon series and, for tedious legal reasons to do with writer/producer Kevin McClory’s claim on its authorship, was a second adaptation of the novel Thunderball. So, while not part of the ‘canon’, it is an authorised James Bond movie… Nevertheless, it’s like a photocopy: recognisable and more or less adequate, but you do wish you had the original instead. It was directed by Irvin Kershner, who three years earlier had made The Empire Strikes Back – but this seriously lacks that film’s blockbuster sheen. Compared to the main series, NSNA just comes off a cheap and gloomy. Whereas Cubby Broccoli gave us glamour and quality, McClory can only provide overcast skies and stock footage. There are some pretty hefty coincidences and plot contrivances too – not least that the whole story is based on the notion that, as long as the US President looks into a retinal scanner, he or anyone close to him can then do whatever they like with the American nuclear arsenal. Having said all that, the film does have a knockabout charm, Sean Connery is great fun, the Bond girl’s not bad looking, and the two main baddies are quite entertaining. Six Tears of Allah out of 10.

Bond: Sean’s back – 12 years since he quit the official series for a second time, but a few years before his Untouchables/Last Crusade/Hunt for Red October renaissance.

Villains: Fatima Blush is a vampy and increasingly deranged SPECTRE agent who, early on, poses as a nurse, beats her patient up, then teases him with a flash of stocking. After he’s done some espionage for her, she kills him by throwing a snake into his car as he drives along. She’s my favourite thing about the whole film. Max Von Sydow plays Blofeld; there’s no attempt to hide his face. The chief bad guy is Maximillian Largo, played with Euro-charm twinkle and flashes of real menace by Klaus Maria Brandauer. He has a fascination with computer games, solely so he and Bond can play a tense one-to-one arcade game that gives its loser an electric shock.

Girls: The opening scene has a woman tied to a bed; when Bond frees her, she stabs him (it’s part of a Secret Service training op). As in Thunderball, the health farm has a physiotherapist who is easily seduced by 007. Valerie Leon plays a fisherwoman Bond picks up in Nassau. In France, he has a dull female helper and visits a health spa – there’s a doe-eyed receptionist, then James pretends to be a masseur in order to get close to Domino (and sneak a peek at her naked body). Domino is the movie’s female lead. When we first see her, she’s dancing in a leotard and leggings – Largo is perving at her through a two-way mirror (as, by extension, are we). She’s played by Kim Basinger, a bit insipidly but very pleasing-on-the-eye-ily.

Regulars: Aside from Bond, it’s a new cast, of course. Edward – or is it James? – Fox plays M. There are pointed references to his ‘illustrious predecessor’, surely a nod towards the main series. Pamela Salem appears as a dippy Miss Moneypenny. Blofeld, as mentioned, and his cat show up. This film’s Q, named Algernon for some reason, is much more working-class than Desmond Llewellyn’s take. And Sean gets his fifth different Felix Leiter: Bernie Casey, the first black actor to play the role.

Action: The opening scene sees Bond single-handedly storm a compound. He has a long brawl in a gymnasium with Pat Roach, who played tough guys in all the 1980s Indiana Jones movies. It spills out into the corridor and a crowd of people don’t notice because they’re watching boxing on a TV. The scene ends in a lab – Bond throws some liquid in Pat’s face and it turns out to be his own urine sample. There’s also Jack’s snake-related car crash, a motorbike chase through narrow Riviera streets, and the climactic battle in Largo’s base. On horseback, Bond rescues Domino from a slave auction, then somehow persuades the horse to jump off a 50-foot-high battlement into the sea. Like Thunderball, there’s lots of dull underwater stuff. The best ‘action’ scene in the film is Bond and Domino’s dramatic, choreographed dance routine at the casino.

Comedy: Good humour is mined from Bond’s advancing age. M advises against too much red meat, white bread and dry martinis. “Then I shall cut out the white bread, sir,” he says. The famous “From here?” gag about giving a urine sample is repeated from an episode of Porridge (its writers worked on the shooting script). “I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence,” says Q during his one scene. Rowan Atkinson appears as a buffoonish embassy official. Bond tricks a doorman into holding a ‘bomb’ absolutely still, otherwise it’ll go off – it’s actually his cigar case. In the final shot of the movie, Sean winks at the camera.

Music: Michel Legrand wrote the not-very-Bondian score. At one point, it goes all rapidly plucked double-bass and scat-scat jazz trumpet. The terrible theme song, performed by Lani Hall, plays over the opening scene (rather than an abstract title sequence).