'Empire Strikes Back': to visualize the incredible; The Empire Strikes Back, Starring Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher. Directed by Irvin Kershner.

Sequels have been part of the "Star War" plan from the beginning. If all goes well, new episodes will blast off for many years to come, until the saga reaches its conclusion in the ninth feature-length installment. That means a lot of happy viewing for the countless fans who made the original "Star Wars" into the biggest box-office hit of all time.

According to earth reckoning. "The Empire Strikes Back" is the second episode in the series. But according to the master blueprint of "Star Wars" originator George Lucas, it's actually the fifth installment, coming midway in the overall yarn. It begins with Luke Skywalker and his cronies at their new headquarters on "the ice planet Hoth," where they are continuing their battle against the evil empire. Soon the menacing Darth Vader pops back on the scene, as villainous as ever, and thenceforth it's one light-saber duel and intergalactic dogfight after another.

In a nutshell, "The Empire Strikes Back" is more of the same "Star Wars" stuff. Only the locations are really new -- including the swampy planet Dagobah and a cloud city called Bespin. And a couple more characters have been added. One is a human named Lando Carlrssian, played with roguish charm by Billy Dee Williams. The other is a two-foot-high puppet named Yoda, wielded by Frank Oz of Muppet fame. Besides being a master of arcane Jedi lore, Yoda also does a fair limitation of Grover on "Sesame Street."

As before, the action zips from one planet to another, without always pausing to make sense. Through most of the gimmicks and plots twists look familiar, the new movie does show real development in one or two areas. The friendly rivalry between Luke and Han Solo for the affection of Princess Leia has taken on more of an edge. And Luke's relationship with Darth Vader has grown more intense, more threatening, and more resonant. The high point of "The Empire Strikes Back" occurs near the end, when Vader escalates his sinister campaign to lure Luke toward "the dark side of the force." Uncharacteristically for the "Star Wars" saga, it is chilling psychologically as well as physically.

For the rest, though, "The Empire Strikes Back" is good-natured hokum, got up in high cinematic style. Luke goes through long training sessions with Yoda, which aspire to mystical significances of unsurpassed silliness. Vader struts around his command post, terrorizing his underlings like a metallic Mussolini -- and we even get a peek under his helmet, discovering that his head looks something like a round sponge. There's a funny running gag about Han's beloved spaceship being too old and battered to "go into lightspeed."

And there's a brilliant set-piece in which Han steers the Millenium Falcon through a meteor shower, escaping disaster several times per second. In a scene like this, "The Empire Strikes Back" becomes as avant-garde as you can get, tossing shapes and colors around the screen with abstract-expressionist verve. Rarely have high filmic art and Saturday-matinee excitement been so successfully combined.

Some critics of the "Star Wars" syndrome have complained of a coldness and impersonality built into the story, with its uncomplicated characters and its simplistic confrontations between pure good and pure evil. As one observer has remarked, a whole planet can get blown up, and after a moment of perfunctory grief, the movie zooms on its merry way without a backward glance.

The situation hasn't changed in "The Empire Strikes Back." The atmosphere is as calculated as ever, and the emotions -- like the camera tricks -- seem to have been worked out by a computer. Even the violence is stylized to the point of ritual, except one unexpectedly strong shot of an otherworldly creature being sliced open, which may be unsettling for the youngest viewers.

This is all right, as long as we keep "Star Wars" and its sequels in proper perspective. The popularity of the series (so far) is well deserved, by virture of technical virtuosity and entertainment ingenuity. But "Star Wars" is not the Monument of Movie Genius that its bos-office grosses and critical notices might imply. the first films in the cycle are incredibly dazzling divertissements -- and that's all. Don't mistake their scintillating surfaces for motion-picture profundity. Even the glossiest science fiction has the capacity for thinking, probing, questioning, provoking. For all their enormous fun, these are realms so far unpenetrated by the "Star Wars" spacepersons.

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