May the 4K be with you: The Empire Strikes Back

esb4kSome twenty years ago, I was on holiday in America, on the West Coast, and it was late at night. We were somewhere near Santa Barbara I think, stopping in a motel overnight, and we went across the road to a supermarket- I think it may have been a Walmart, I’m not sure. We’d gone away with Claire’s folks, and she was with them, looking around, and I’d gone off looking at the electronics/home entertainment section by myself. I walked past some televisions and heard John Williams music for Cloud City. The televisions were showing The Empire Strikes Back (possibly another boxset just recently released on VHS) and it was the scene with Han Solo calling to the pesky Cloud City security that he was looking for Lando Calrissian, and the music swept up as the Falcon flew through those beautiful skies of Bespin and landed. I could have wept. I suddenly had an overwhelming feeling of homesickness. It was so strange. I was in a strange town in a rather odd country on the other side of the world, and while I was enjoying myself greatly, suddenly I was in the midst of the familiar, the comforting- Empire the film felt like home. Nowadays whenever I see/hear that scene, it always throws me into that oddly lonely ‘space’ on holiday in America, go figure.

40 years. Its been 40 years, pretty much, since I first saw The Empire Strikes Back in the summer of 1980. I can so vividly recall the various previews in Starburst etc, the paperback novelisation, the Marvel comics adaptation, the soundtrack album, the Meco album, the poster magazines….

To be clear, my post has as much chance of not being biased as I have of bumping into Ridley Scott in Sainsburys tonight.

So full disclosure: I adore this movie, and consider it the best of the Star Wars franchise. Indeed, to me its more than just a movie, its more an audiovisual experience, amazing imagery with an incredible John Williams score (in my mind the best soundtrack score ever written) and those glorious Ben Burtt sound effects that somehow define the saga to me. Seriously, remove the dialogue track and just play the picture with the music and I’d be a happy camper. John Williams was at the very height of his powers here and this score, from start to finish, is just an extraordinary work. Empire has also got that great, incredibly young-looking cast (some of whom no longer with us, sadly) and that gorgeous cinematography (prettiest Star Wars movie, certainly) and yes, those breathtaking ILM effects. I’m confident the film has plenty of flaws but I can’t see them, don’t think I ever will; I think its perfect.

It also looks pretty amazing on this 4K UHD disc. Sure, I know there are plenty criticising it on forums, but really, I date from an era of b&w mono televisions and VHS and I think that allows a certain reality check; this 4K presentation is absolutely marvellous to me, the best I have ever seen the film, including those first cinema presentations, probably. I wasn’t going to buy this edition, until I caught a review online from someone that stated it was actually very good and nailed the colour grading of the original 70mm showings. Yeah, that got my attention,and I have to say, the author of that review/forum post, whoever he was, was damn right in my book. The Empire Strikes Back looks gorgeous here, the colours all de-saturated and no longer ‘blooming’ crazily as they used to do, even on the Blu-ray edition several years ago: the colour scheme here is much cooler, and looks much more authentic to me. Likewise the detail afforded by the additional resolution (I confess to picking up things I don’t recall ever seeing before) is a pleasure, and the restrained use of HDR very welcome.  I know some will analyse it frame by frame, bemoan things like DNR or crush or grain, but to me its a great film that’s never looked greater. There’s something weird going on in one shot with the Falcon on the landing pad at Cloud City when there’s a flash of light on the platform as the camera pans down, as if catching a flash of reflection that shouldn’t be there, but I don’t care. I had to put up with drop-outs and dodgy tracking and all sorts back in the VHS days and I adored that too. This is better. Its also on a 55″ panel, the biggest I’ve ever owned and possibly ever will (I watched and enjoyed Empire on a 28″ 4.3 CRT years ago so its all relative).

40 years though. I believe I’m getting to that age where some films are just unimpeachable. Its true that contrary to what media claims, Empire isn’t universally lauded as the best of the franchise (some very suspicious individuals somehow prefer Return of the Jedi), and I’m sure someone has written posts raising very good points ripping it apart, but to hell with any of that. To me its… well, I guess nostalgia rears its dangerous head here, but yeah, the film represents a bubble of spacetime, a sense of time and place and mood, the way things used to be, flavoured with that unique period of growing up and all that goes in with that. We identify with certain movies, especially those we grow up with, and yeah, as I found out on holiday back in 2001, they can even feel like home.

6 thoughts on “May the 4K be with you: The Empire Strikes Back

  1. I very nearly blind-bought that big Amazon-exclusive Skywalker Saga 4K set when they announced it, but then the list of special features came out and it felt half-arsed (even the feature-length original trilogy doc from the DVDs isn’t on there!) You’d think Star Wars, of all things, would be subject to rigorous completism. But I was just looking at some comparisons on Caps-a-holic, and it does look ever so good. Rather dark, but the added detail is incredible. Maybe I should just pick up individual editions of The Good Ones, but damn if I’m not a completist.

    1. You’ve possibly seen my earlier post regards me deciding to just buy Rogue One (looks brilliant, esp the Tropical planet stuff at the end), Star Wars (incredibly haven’t seen yet) and Empire in 4K. The other Star Wars films will do me fine in their Blu-ray variants from the box-set several years back, I just can’t see the value of the upgrade for the prequels and the Disney films, well if I ended up double-dipping those I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror. Maybe I might slip and buy ROTJ in 4K someday, especially if it comes out cheap or in a Disney twofer offer, but that is likely years away.

      Empire really is gorgeous, the cooler colour scheme and the added detail (fabrics, details in sets etc) really is brilliant. The usual naysayers are finding plenty of faults in it but they do with most releases, and I do think some of those folks forget its supposed to be about the movies, and we’re supposed to enjoy them rather than be so distracted looking for faults for the sake of it. Maybe these 4K Star Wars films could look better (except re: the limitations of the prequels) but they don’t and they never will, I cannot see Disney ever remastering them for another 4K release, physical formats won’t survive long enough. I’m simply enjoying what I have here and its brilliant, especially compared to what we had in the past.

      1. Caps-a-holic have grabs from Episodes I-VI in 4K, and the prequels don’t really look any better than the previous Blu-rays, just changes to the colour balance. Maybe that’s why they put more effort into their special features! The quality of IV-VI is mighty tempting in some shots, but there are others where it looks like the desaturation has gone way too far… It’s always hard to tell for sure via screengrabs, of course, especially when they lose the benefits of HDR. As you say, this is likely the only version we’ll ever get, so is there any point holding out?

        That said, I intend to get Disney+ soon to watch Hamilton, so while I’ve got it I can at least get a sense of the 4K transfers on there.

  2. This movie holds a special place in my heart as it was one of the very few that the whole family saw together. It wasn’t often my father joined us. I’m not sure why but watching brings back good memories.

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