20 Years of ‘The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition’

Twenty years ago today, February 21, 1997, I saw for the first time the Special Edition of my favorite movie of all time, The Empire Strikes Back. It remains a stunning cinematic achievement of epic proportions and largely skirts the complaints leveled towards the other Special Editions. 

Given the choice, I will watch the “original flavor” versions of Star Wars: A New Hope, and Return of the Jedi (technically, the THX remastered Laserdisc editions) but I will always opt for the Special Edition of Empire. Why? Well, put simply, all of the changes more or less work. While I still miss the original theatrical line where Luke tells Artoo “You’re lucky you don’t taste so good,” and a few other changes that were later changed back, every other one of the changes was a net positive or a wash. 

What perhaps is so “impressive” about the changes is how nearly imperceptible they are to all but the most eagle-eyed viewer. There used to be a white wall in Cloud City– now we see a gorgeous vista looking over the Tibanna gas mining facility. Echo-y distortions in the emotional climax of the film as we find out Vader is Luke’s father gave the scene a weird vibe, but a cleaned up audio lets that scene hit with the emotional resonance it deserves.

“Most impressive” however is that the changes are largely uncontroversial with a somewhat picky fanbase. There is no backlash over “Jedi Rocks” or digital Jabba the Hutt. No doubt there are purists who enjoy Empire unchanged at all to include less Wampa, less Cloud City, but there is little about those changes which is as aesthetically (visually) controversial or questionable as the changes to its sister films.

There have been some complaints, however. I’ve heard incredibly strong arguments about Luke’s scream that was added– and there’s a reason it was dropped from later versions (thank goodness). Because at its core, the Empire Special Edition was simply visually stunning. 

Roger Ebert, in reviewing the Special Edition, spent nearly his whole review praising the spectacle, production design, and cinematography of the film, calling it “a visual extravaganza from beginning to end, one of the most visionary and inventive of all films.” Empire was already one of the best looking films of the 20th century, and the Special Edition only cemented that legacy.

While Bryan already properly eulogized the amazing theater and the line-sitting experience we both enjoyed (yes, we were both in that line, although I’m not certain we met, as were dozens of people I would meet through the next few years) what really cemented that Special Edition experience for me was the big screen experience. The entirety of the film is beautiful– a first act in stark white on Hoth, a second act split between the black of space and earth tones of Dagobah, and a final act in oranges and reds on Bespin — but the colors were crisper and more cleaned up. 

There is still not a greater and more beautiful scene in the history of film than the carbon freeze chamber. And the Special Edition made those colors pop even more.

This is a beautiful film. And the Special Edition enhanced it in ways almost impossible to do. It is, as Ebert said, the most stunning looking film of the 20th century.