Release Date(s)1980 (March 31, 2020)
Studio(s)Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox (Walt Disney Studios)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
“It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy…”
Having struck a mighty blow against the Empire, the Rebel Alliance is on the run. They’ve only just begun building a new base on the ice world of Hoth when the evil Darth Vader finds them and sends a mechanized army to crush them. Fleeing for their lives, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) makes his way to Dagobah, sent there by the spirit of Ben Kenobi to train in the Force with an ancient Jedi Master named Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz). Meanwhile, aboard the Millennium Falcon, Princess Leia and Han Solo (Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford) escape through an asteroid field and seek refuge on a city in the clouds run by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), an old space pirate friend of Han’s. But even here, the Empire soon finds them. And when Luke races to save his friends, Vader reveals a shocking secret that will change his destiny forever.
Widely considered the standard by which all other film sequels are measured, The Empire Strikes Back is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is that its story is the polar opposite of Star Wars: A New Hope. The good guys don’t just lose here, they get their asses kicked from start to finish. Each of our familiar heroes is tested in unexpected ways, pushed to the breaking point and beyond. The new characters, including Yoda, Lando, and—for the first time in the Original Trilogy—the sinister Emperor (played Ian McDiarmid since the 2004 DVD release), add complexity without ever slowing things down. Once again, the analog VFX were advanced to a whole new level, with stop-motion animation used to an extent almost unheard of in a major Hollywood dramatic film. All of this is driven by a script from Lawrence Kasdan (with contributions by science fiction author Leigh Brackett), skilled direction by Irvin Kershner (Eyes of Laura Mars, a former teacher of producer George Lucas), and another dazzling orchestral score by John Williams (who somehow manages to top his work on the previous installment).
As fans will know, this film has a complicated post-production history. Its many tweaks, changes, and “improvements” have been well chronicled (including, most recently, here at The Digital Bits), but its restoration, remastering, and preservation history has been more of an enigma. After a good deal of research and digging on the subject, here’s what I’ve learned from those either directly involved in the work or in positions to know (and if there’s any inaccuracies, it’s not for lack of effort).
The Empire Strikes Back was shot on 35 mm photochemical film using Arriflex and Panavision cameras with Panavision C-Series anamorphic lenses, while its analog visual effects were produced in VistaVision. It was finished on film as a cut negative at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, from which a color-timed master interpositive and dupe negatives were created. For the 1997 Special Edition release, the cut negative was scanned in 2K, new digital VFX were produced at sub-2K resolution, and a new film-out master interpositive element was created. This process was repeated in 2003-2004 by Lowry Digital, with a new 10-bit 2K scan done for the DVD release (complete with more digital VFX tweaks and a color grade supervised by Lucas), resulting in the creation of a 2K Digital Intermediate. This source was used again for the 2011 Blu-ray release, though with a bit more Lowry Digital remastering (and still more new digital VFX and color timing tweaks).
In the wake of Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars franchise in 2012, a decision was made to protect the studio’s investment by creating new 4K Digital Intermediates of all the films and to ensure that all of the photochemical and digital assets were properly cataloged and preserved (a process that continued through 2014). For Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi, all of the original camera neg, the VistaVision effects footage, and SE film-outs was scanned in 16-bit 4K by Reliance MediaWorks (formerly Lowry Digital). Lucas once again took the opportunity to tweak the editing, digital VFX, and color timing. In addition to the new 4K DIs, new film-out protection master interpositives were created. New cut negatives were created as well, combining the original camera negative with film-out internegative of the new VFX. (This is why it’s often said that the original theatrical versions technically no longer exist—the OCN has been conformed to the new versions. However, I’ve confirmed with individuals directly responsible that everything—including all theatrical film trims—is well preserved and protected by Disney.) The studio’s new Ultra HD releases (and the recent Disney+ versions) were mastered from these 4K DIs, complete with color grading for high dynamic range (only HDR10 is available on the discs, but Dolby Vision is available on the Digital version).
Disney’s 4K disc presentation includes all the latest tweaks and changes seen in the Disney+ version, but the image quality is superior in every respect. The average datarate is in the 60-70 Mbps range (vs 15-25 Mbps via streaming) and that extra bandwidth makes a real difference. Detail is generally clean, apart from the occasional optical softness, with well refined fine detail and texturing. Photochemical grain is extremely light, suggesting some DNR applied. It’s apparent in VFX shots more than live action (especially during the Hoth battle). This is also a very restrained high dynamic range grade, which means that the film’s original theatrical appearance is well maintained. Peak brightness is 1000 nits with a deep floor (per the disc’s metadata), so the shadows are inky-black while retaining detail. The 10-bit color adds impressive nuances to the film’s palette. Skin tones are natural, you can see that Leia’s Hoth vest is a lovely cream color, and the environments of Dagobah and Bespin are enhanced with a greater variety of subtle shadings. It appears that some extra “film-look” processing has been done to the 1997 and 2004 Special Edition footage, so that while it’s still obviously of lesser resolution than the live action footage (with more DNR and some edge enhancement baked in), the differences are less glaring than they were on the previous Blu-ray release. As was the case with A New Hope, this isn’t a prefect image, but it’s definitely the best this film has ever looked in the home.
Primary audio on the 4K disc is available in English Dolby Atmos. Additional options include English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, French and Japanese 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, with subtitles available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, and Japanese. From the opening Fox Fanfare (yes, the 20th Century Fox logo remains intact) to the first trumpet blast of John Williams’ iconic main theme, the new Atmos mix offers lovely fidelity. The Probe Droids streak away from the Star Destroyer with real bite, and the impact of one on Hoth has firm and throaty low-end. The height channels and surrounds abound with subtle environmental effects and music, particularly effective in the cavernous ice hanger and command center on the Rebel Base. Dialogue is clean and natural at all times. The overheads engage nicely during the key action sequences, including the Imperial assault on Hoth and the chase through the asteroid field. As was true of A New Hope on UHD, this mix is pleasing but restrained, offering all of the precision and subtlety of Atmos without making this film sound like a more modern blockbuster. Its vintage sonic character is well preserved (the few recent sound effects tweaks aside). Note that the included movie Blu-ray offers 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, and French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, and Spanish.
Disney’s Ultra HD package is a 3-disc set that includes the film in both 4K on UHD and 1080p HD on Blu-ray (note that the latter is definitely mastered from the new 4K source, including the new shield generator explosion on Hoth). The package also includes a separate Blu-ray Disc of bonus material, but there’s nothing new here—all of it is curated from previously-available content. (Both Blu-rays are coded for Regions A, B & C.) Here’s a breakdown of what’s included:
DISC ONE – 4K MOVIE
There are no extras on the 4K disc.
DISC TWO – BLU-RAY MOVIE
- Audio Commentary (with George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Carrie Fisher, Ben Burtt, and Dennis Muren) – from the 2004 DVD
- Audio Commentary from Archival Interviews with the Cast and Crew (including Jeremy Bolloch, Ben Burtt, Anthony Daniels, Peter Diamond, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Stuart Freeborn, Steve Gawley, Alec Guinness, Mark Hamill, Joe Johnston, Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, George Lucas, Peter Mayhew, Ralph McQuarrie, Dennis Muren, Frank Oz, Ken Ralston, Normal Reynolds, Robert Watts, and Billy Dee Williams) – from the 2011 Blu-ray
DISC THREE – BLU-RAY EXTRAS
- Conversations: The Lost Interviews (HD – 9:31)
- Discoveries from Inside: Matte Paintings Revealed (HD – 4:42)
- A Conversation with the Masters: The Empire Strikes Back 30 Years Later (2010) (HD – 25:11)
- Dennis Muren: How Walkers Walk (SD – 1:54)
- Hoth Overview (HD – 3:31)
- George Lucas on Editing The Empire Strikes Back (1979) (HD – 3:25)
- Irvin Kershner Interview (HD – 3:02)
- Dagobah Overview (HD – 4:29)
- Pursued by the Imperial Fleet Overview (HD – 3:25)
- George Lucas on the Force (2010) (HD – 5:20)
- Cloud City Overview (HD – 2:54)
- Deleted Scene: Han and Leia: Extended Echo Base Argument (HD – 1:35)
- Deleted Scene: Luke’s Recovery (HD – 1:08)
- Deleted Scene: Luke and Leia: Medical Center (HD – 2:06)
- Deleted Scene: Wampa Attacks (HD – 2:35)
- Deleted Scene: The Fate of General Veers (HD – :23)
- Deleted Scene: Yoda’s Test (HD – 1:13)
- Deleted Scene: Hiding in the Asteroid (HD – :57)
- Deleted Scene: Alternate Han and Leia Kiss (HD – 1:51)
- Deleted Scene: Lobot’s Capture (HD – :49)
- Deleted Scene: Leia Tends to Luke (HD – :55)
- The Collection: AT-AT Walker Fallen Model Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 3:19)
- The Collection: Snowspeeder Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 2:42)
- The Collection: Tauntaun Maquette (360° Turnaround – HD – 2:54)
- The Collection: Rebel Transport Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 2:17)
- The Collection: Hoth Landscape Matte Painting (HD – :43)
- The Collection: Leia Hoth Costume (360° Turnaround – HD – :52)
- The Collection: Han Solo Interior: Hoth Costume (360° Turnaround – HD – :48)
- The Collection: Yoda Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 3:26)
- The Collection: Luke’s Severed Head (360° Turnaround – HD – :40)
- The Collection: Dagobah Bog Matte Painting (HD – :43)
- The Collection: Dagobah Matte Painting (HD – :36)
- The Collection: Luke’s Tan Costume (360° Turnaround – HD – :54)
- The Collection: Star Destroyer Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 3:14)
- The Collection: Millennium Falcon Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 1:19)
- The Collection: Space Slug (360° Turnaround – HD – :39)
- The Collection: Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 4:02)
- The Collection: Star Destroyer Hull Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 1:09)
- The Collection: Executor Bridge Matte Painting (HD – :43)
- The Collection: Boba Fett Prototype Costume (360° Turnaround – HD – 10:06)
- The Collection: Imperial Officer Costume (360° Turnaround – HD – :36)
- The Collection: Rebel Cruiser Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 3:34)
- The Collection: Twin-Pod Cloud Car Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 2:37)
- The Collection: Cloud City Models (360° Turnaround – HD – 1:57)
- The Collection: Cloud City Matte Painting (HD – :45)
- The Collection: Cloud City Landing Platform Matte Painting (HD – :54)
- The Collection: Cloud City Core Vane Matte Painting (HD – :41)
- The Collection: Cloud City Core Vane Platform Platform Matte Painting (HD – :39)
- The Collection: Lando Bespin Costume (360° Turnaround – HD – :37)
- The Collection: Cloud City Slave I Matte Painting (HD – :44)
Conversations: The Lost Interviews and Discoveries from Inside: Matte Paintings Revealed are from the 2015 Digital Collection. Dennis Muren: How Walkers Walk is actually from one of the early Laserdisc releases. Everything else comes from the 2011 Blu-ray release. The deleted scenes are missing the brief text introductions, but that’s all. The Interviews, Overviews, and Collection 360° Turnarounds all still have the stylized windowbox framing. The Turnarounds also include some of the enhanced video material (comments and interview clips). It’s worth noting that the Bonus Disc has optional subtitles available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Castilian Spanish, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch, and Japanese. As you would expect, there is also a code for a Movies Anywhere Digital copy on a paper insert.
On the whole, this is a fine collection of bonus content that represents nearly everything from the 2015 Digital Collection and nearly everything from 2011 Original Trilogy Blu-ray Bonus Disc. So… what’s missing? Well, the Digital Collection included a new trailer for the film. None of the Concept Art Galleries from the 2011 Blu-ray release are here (except for a look at a few of the matte paintings). Apart from the audio commentaries, virtually everything from the 2004 and 2006 DVD releases is missing (including all of the featurettes, the TV spots, the trailers, etc). The SP FX: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) documentary isn’t here. There’s also previous Laserdisc content that’s not available here. And of course, the original theatrical version of the film is not included. It’s therefore important to keep your previous disc editions if you want to retain all of the available bonus content.
Still the best entry in the Star Wars franchise to date, The Empire Strikes Back is thrilling from start to finish, an intergalactic rollercoaster ride of genuinely breathtaking scope and velocity. Against all odds, it not only bests A New Hope, it raises the stakes, adds a new level of depth to the story, and leaves you on the edge of your seat and eager for more. Disney’s 4K Ultra HD release is a significant upgrade over the previous Blu-ray edition and it’s probably also the last time the studio will release the film on disc. As such, it’s very highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt