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Heavy Breathing

The Empire Strikes Back
Pilot Error: Hapless Mark Hamill is the casting flaw in the special-effects ointment of George Lucas' "The Empire Strikes Back."

The second time around was the charm for the 'Star Wars' trilogy as the Empire stuck back

By Richard von Busack

THE REAL PRIZE in the marketing package, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is the best of the revived Star Wars trilogy. For once, the galactic mayhem is given formal balance: Luke (Mark Hamill) cuts off a snow monster's paw in the beginning and is himself similarly maimed by the movie's ending. This is also the episode that stresses the budding but doomed romance between the roguish Captain Solo (Harrison Ford) and the much tougher-than-usual Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). They are pilot and passenger, respectively, on the Millennium Falcon, a space ship as sleek as a dime. In battle scenes, it looks like a flipped coin dodging airborne Imperial cinder blocks.

Ford is at his prime here--not callow anymore and not yet burdened with that harried, vaguely embarrassed persona he grew like a shell later in his career. Fisher, a dark-eyed beauty, never looked better. We see the couple in cool blue and shadowy gray tones. Both appear older and smarter than they did in the first film, and it's not just the melting looks they give each other. They look like they've genuinely been through the wars. (Living in Hollywood in the late-'70s might well give anyone that appearance.)

The movie deals with its biggest casting problem handily, by isolating Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker, who is becalmed in a swamp with a rubber puppet--where he belongs. David Prowse (body) and James Earl Jones (voice) transcend that not-inconceivable problem of emoting with a bucket over your head. The asthmatic Lord Vader, assigned to squash the rebellion, is shinier here than he was in Star Wars. Cold fluorescent (white neon?) highlights flicker over his helmet like electronic hell fire. Escorted by a wonderfully catchy theme (a march in the key of F-sharp minor that's the noblest piece of fake Wagner that John Williams ever composed), Vader strides through the movie, dust trailing on the edge of his black, black cape, practicing his favorite management technique: psychically strangling his underlings, presumably to encourage the others. One officer is promoted before the last wretch has finished kicking. Director Kershner tends to push the trick off to one side or into the background, presuming that the audience, like Vader and his assistants, is accustomed to the tactic.

Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan collaborated on the script from George Lucas' story. Presumably Kasdan (The Big Chill) provided the me-Decade-isms mouthed by Yoda; Brackett (she co-scripted the Bogart-Bacall vehicle The Big Sleep many years before) probably supplied the sparring between Leia and Solo. Director Irvin Kershner keeps the romance low-key and personal, letting the dazzling science-fiction images carry the more rousing emotions. My favorite special-effects sequence is the slow attack of the behemoth five-story "walkers," an episode begun with a grisly borrowing from Jack London's "To Build a Fire." Thanks to Brackett's writing and the old-fashioned imagery of war--the opening shot of Luke reconnoitering through snow-crusted goggles resembles a Time/Life photo of the Battle of the Bulge--The Empire Strikes Back is a movie that looks backward as well as forward. For all its technology, it is a throwback to the golden age of movies.

The Empire Strikes Back (PG; 126 min.), directed by George Lucas, written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, photographed by Peter Suschitzky and starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher.

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From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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