Entering the 'Strike' zone, again Review: 'Empire' may seem like marking time. But it's not a bad way to mark time.

February 21, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

"The Empire Strikes Back" is a force of a different color.

Darker, more satanic, yet also more scattered and less focused, the second of the "Star Wars" trilogy to be re-released in the Special Edition format remains a deep pleasure to behold.

The film appears to have much less "new" imagery than the re-issued "Star Wars" of four weeks ago; either that, or my memory has been so eroded by overexposure to exploding X-fighters that everything is beginning to look the same. The ugly meat-eater who hangs Luke up like a rack of baby back ribs has a few more moments of gristly screentime, and the streets of Bespin, the floating city, are more crowded with less interesting people, and some of the cityscapes of that place look more like downtown Chicago than they did before.

The movie feels more helter-skelter because, unlike the original and "Return of the Jedi," which will follow March 7, "The Empire Strikes Back" doesn't have a single over-arching narrative situation. It's one of those first-we-run-over-here, then-we-run-over-there movies, essentially a holding action until Lucas can figure out how to bring the trilogy to an end in the third installment.

The movie also suffers somewhat in that its most powerful sequence -- the Imperial Walker attack on the Rebel Headquarters on the Ice Planet Hoth -- comes at the beginning instead of the end. This blast of Russian-front nostalgia is an evocation of winter warfare as chilling as anything in "The Iron Cross," and the cross-cutting between the separated protagonists as the panzer-like walkers clomp toward them is brilliant. But then the movie more or less goes flat, seeking adventures where it can find them, as it separates into undynamic subplots.

One takes Luke to the evening-college-in-the-sky where he goes to get his master's in advanced Force mechanics under the tutelege of you know who. Please. Let's hear it for the I-hate-Yoda club! Any more Yoda-haters out there besides me? No? Well, so what? That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Possibly Lucas' least compelling creation, the little green troll who utters Zen platitudes eats up entirely too much time. Yoda's No. 1 tip: To increase force, stand on head. Also, talk backward him do. Annoying, it is.

Meanwhile, Han, Princess Leia and Chewbacca are hiding in a giant space worm's spleen and the supremely annoying C-3PO is doing ancient British music hall shtick and nobody's getting any younger. For the longest time, "The Empire Strikes Back" simply whiffs: Nothing's happening.

It gets hot again when Darth Vader moves to center screen. That gigantic brooding presence is one of cinema's supreme icons of evil and once his Satanic Majesty takes over, the story picks up momentum. On Bespin, Vader lays a trap for his escapees who flock to him like flies to a spider. Or mediocre actors to a good one.

Anyhow, Han is frozen in carbonite and shipped off to Jabba the Hutt and Luke at last goes man on man against the guy in the black plastic gas mask. There's a dark revelation here that, even though it's 17 years old, I will hide, because a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Sun's previous critic gave it away in his review. Duh! That's the guy who should have been frozen in carbonite!

Anyhow, you could do a lot worse than standing still for two hours' worth of "The Empire Strikes Back" and it's an absolutely necessary step to enjoy the more powerful pleasures of "Return of the Jedi" in three weeks.

'The Empire Strikes Back'

Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher

Directed by Irwin Kershner

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated PG

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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