Most able-brained people agree that The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the Star Wars trilogy. Perhaps that's why, for this Special Edition release, George Lucas has made so few changes. Star Wars and Return Of The Jedi got new scenes (some of them reinstated oldies), but Empire emerges for its second picture palace incarnation relatively unscathed. There are modifications, but they're fleeting and largely cosmetic.
And so it is that - without too many alterations to keep you on your toes looking for the new bits - Empire is the easiest of the trio to enjoy for what it is. And what it is is a peerless adventure movie. To watch Empire at the cinema, with the enhanced THX sound cranked way up, will be an Old Testament-scale revelation for those who've only ever seen it humbled by a TV screen.
Having said that, Empire is the Star Wars movie that needs the big screen the least. It's much less action-orientated than the other two, but this is precisely why it succeeds. After the relatively innocent, lightweight comic-book antics of Star Wars, this one probes deeper into that galaxy far, far away, revealing a... well, a dark side only hinted at before. The Empire throws its considerable weight behind wiping out the Rebels, and for the course of the movie looks on the edge of succeeding, while the mysterious Force, only referred to in the vaguest terms in Star Wars, now becomes the energy behind the story. Through Yoda (still impressive), the film preaches the exact opposite of the usual action-movie credo - Luke is urged not to rush in and be the hero, that to ultimately succeed he must learn restraint, looking instead for the strength within himself. Or something. Yes, this is mere psychobabble (Empire has enough plot holes to deter you from taking the metaphysics too seriously), but it does - somehow - give this movie a strangely serious, introspective, heart.
But that's not to say there's nothing here to assault your eyeballs. The battle for Hoth (the stop-motion animation of the Imperial war machines gives the opening a real Harryhausen feel) is still amazing, as is the heart-stopping chase through the asteroid field. As for what's been altered, look for newly filmed footage of the ice creature that tries to eat Luke (bad Wampa... very bad), and some stunning CGI work around Cloud City. The latter makes Bespin look 50 times more impressive than it did before - the original sets now boast windows with panoramic vistas.
Add to this the apocalyptic meeting between Luke and Vader (which, even when you know what's coming, still sends your follicles skyward), and some decent snogging between Han and Leia, and you have a very stylish sequel. Old criticisms still apply - the dialogue is poor, Luke makes an even less charismatic hero than he did in the first film, and the plotting is lopsided, giving you the most spectacular sequence at the beginning. But then you remember that this is part of the best film trilogy there'll ever be; and then you thank God that, this time round, you don't have to wait three years to find out what happens next.