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Disney+ 4K streaming “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”

Updated: Jun 8, 2022


"Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father," says Darth Vader. "He told me enough. He told me you killed him," says Luke Skywalker.

"No. I am your father," says Vader.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)

4K frame shots courtesy of Disney+


4K Ultra HD; 1980; PG for sci-fi action and violence; Streaming via Disney+

Best extra: Sadly, only a handful of deleted scenes

REMEMBER HOW YOU cheered when the Millennium Falcon first jumped into hyperspace? It’s OK to do it again since the complete Star Wars franchise has just arrived on 4K Ultra HD in Disney Plus streaming featuring the expansive contrast and color levels of High Dynamic Range HDR10 and Dolby Vision, plus enveloping Dolby Atmos soundtracks.

The new Disney+ streaming service cost is $6.99 per month; a shade less when paid as an annual fee. It can also be bundled with Hulu and ESPN+ for $12.99 @ month. Disney, like other studios, would like its service to be another nail in the coffin for physical discs.

The first day of Disney+ brought in more than 10 million subscribers, far surpassing what analysts had predicted. It broke the Internet and wreaked havoc with Hulu subscribers who were also affected by surge of new viewers. The biggest plus is content, which included the Disney library, Marvel, LucasFilm, Pixar, National Geographic and Fox.

(1 & 2) "The Empire Strikes Back" opened May 21, 1980, in 1,278 theaters in the U.S. It finished as the No. 1 domestic movie for the year $209 million and made $400 million worldwide. A radio adaptation was broadcast on NPR in 1983. (3) An Imperial Star Destroyer, dispatched by Darth Vader, continues the search for Luke Skywalker by deploying probe droids across the galaxy, and one lands on the ice planet Hoth. (4) Luke Skywalker on patrol with his tauntaun discovers a probe, which he has mistaken for a meteorite.


Still, at this point, only content rated between G and PG-13 is available, so sorry fans of Marvel's Deadpool. Fox titles include the horse adventure “Flicka,” the three “Home Alone” holiday films, and rom-com “Never Been Kissed,” with Drew Barrymore. Those and James Cameron’s "Avatar" are only in HD.

Disney+ does include 37 exclusive 4K/HDR movies such as holiday comedies “Santa Clause” and “Santa Clause 2” with Tim Allen; “The Princess Diaries” films with Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews; “Hocus Pocus,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Christopher Robin,” the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, “Remember the Titans,” “National Treasure 2,” “Jungle Book” (2016), and animated greats “A Bug’s Life,” “The Sword in the Stone,” “Up,” “Wall-e,” “Monsters Inc.,” “Monsters University,” the “Beauty and the Beast” live-action and animated films, and the Star War collection.

We decided “The Empire Strikes Back” would get the first spin around the 4K galaxy. It was distressing to find most of the extras found on previous Blu-rays and DVDs have been deleted. Gone are “A Conversation with the Masters: The Empire Strikes Back 30 Years Later,” featuring interviews with creator George Lucas, director Irvin Kershner, who died in 2010, composer John Williams, and Lawrence Kasdan, who was recruited after finishing the script for "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Commentary with Lucas, audio guru Ben Burtt, the late Carrie Fisher, and Kershner, who provide the best anecdotes, has disappeared.

Kershner recalls filming the famous kiss between Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), just before Solo is frozen in carbonite. When the princess says, “I love you,” Han’s next line was supposed to be, “I love you, too.” Kershner says, “I hated that line.” He put lunch on hold while he tried to find a way around it. They improvised for 30 minutes, until Kershner ordered one final take. That time, Solo replied, “I know.” Kershner said, “Cut,” realizing that Ford had nailed it.

(1) "Afraid I was gonna leave without giving you a good-bye kiss?" says Han Solo. "I'd just as soon kiss a Wookiee!" says Princess Leia. (2) Hans asks the Deck Officer if he's seen Commander Skywalker. (3) Luke finds himself hanging upside down inside the cave of a deadly wampa. He tries using the Force to pull his lightsaber toward himself. (4) Luke is put inside a bacta tank for healing from frostbite and abrasions. (5) The Rebel Alliance discovers the Galactic Empire has found their Echo base on Hoth. (6) Darth Vader onboard the Executor as Gen. Maximillian Veers notifies him that Admiral Ozzel has emerged from lightspeed too close to the ice planet.


(1) Princess Leia rallies the Rogue Squadron before the arrival of the Imperial forces. (2) Commander Skywalker leads the attack against the AT-AT, but quickly realizes the armor on the huge all terrian scout transport are too strong. (3) The Imperial AT-AT's advance against the Rebel base.


Fans didn’t much like “Empire” when it debuted, but feelings changed over the years, and it is now considered the crown jewel of the series. It was also selected in 2010 to be preserved by the Library of Congress as part of its annual National Film Registry. “Airplane,” “All the President’s Men,” George Lucas’ student film “Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB,” “The Exorcist,” “Malcolm X,” “Saturday Night Fever” and 18 others were also selected that year.


After spending four-plus hours watching and capturing 4K frame shots from the new streaming “Empire,” we found it to be far less than perfect. Not sure if Disney or Lucasfilm created a new master with HDR10 and Dolby Vision applied, or if they used an older 4K master from the 35mm negative (2.35:1 aspect ratio) or a first-generation print.

Overall sharpness is superior to the 2011 HD version. It’s most evident in the dozens of wide shots that add detail to smaller and distant objects. An example is when Princess Leia rallies Rogue Squadron pilots inside the bunker on ice planet Hoth. She stands some distance from the camera within a sea of pilots, but her facial expressions are super clear. Close-ups expose fine facial markings and costume textures, while the shimmer of the fiberglass shell used to create R2-D2 by Peteric Engineering is more apparent.

Frame shots shown here provide samples of the added resolution. Film grain has been reduced, doctored by some form of digital noise reduction (DNR). Disney is notorious for removing film grain in its animated classics. It was completely removed on the 4K version of the original “The Lion King,” and somewhat reduced on “The Little Mermaid.” The grain varies from scene to scene in “Empire,” and is barely seen at times. In a film from this era, the grain should be dancing across the screen. Check out the recent Sony 4K remasters of "Glory" (1989) or "Stand By Me" (1986); Warner's "The Shining" (1980); and Studio Canal/Lionsgate "Apocalypse Now" (1979). They clearly show how it should be done. Here the picture gets a digitally manipulated look. Also, the HDR contrast is dialed up causing shadows to be blocked, and bright highlights slightly washed-out.

On the positive side, the expansive color palette is controlled showing natural and realistic facial toning. C-3P0’s metallic cast is more golden than its previous yellow, and the blue and orange cast inside the carbonite room, where Hans is frozen, is striking.

AUDIO The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is well balanced using height speakers to deliver better effects and music cues from John Williams’ Oscar-winning score. Not sure why, but the overall sound level from Disney+ and other streaming apps are a good five decibels below the levels received from most physical discs. So, keep the remote in hand to crank it up. Remember, Lucas is the guy who created the multi-channel surround sound.

(1) After Rebel forces abandon Hoth, Luke flies his X-wing starfighter to the marshy planet Dagobah in search of a Jedi Master named Yoda. (2 & 3) While Princess Leia makes repairs on the Falcon, Han grabs her hand. She quickly calls him a Scoundrel. "Scoundrel? he says. "I like the sound of that." Leia says, "Stop that. My hands are dirty." He responds, "My hands are dirty, too. What are you afraid of? "Afraid?" she says. "You're trembling," says Han. (4) Luke starts his training with Yoda. (5 & 6) With Han at the controls, the Millennium Falcon races toward the Cloud City.


(1 & 2) The Falcon arrives at Cloud City, a gas-mining colony run by Han's old friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). (3) It's a trap for Han and Leia, as Darth Vader his troops knew of their destination. Vader intends to freeze Han Solo and deliver him to Jabba the Hutt. (4) The last kiss between Leia and Han. (5) A carbon frozen Han Solo.


(1 & 2) The epic duel between Luke and Darth Vader. (3) Lando orders an evacuation of Cloud City. (4 - 6) After the duel, Luke receives a new prosthetic right hand onboard of the EF76 Nebulon-B escort frigate.


SINCE AT this time we don't have a direct comparison between a physical 4K copy of "Empire," which is expected sometime in 2020 vs. the digital streaming version, we decided to examine Disney's animated film "Moana." Within seconds, we saw the 4K disc had a more defined picture, while overall clarity, highlights and shadows produced a more dynamic picture.

On my setup, it was no contest. On smaller 4K setups the difference will be less. For true cinephiles, physical discs are still the clear winner, and we expect similar results when “Empire’s” 4K disc arrives.

Can everyone see the difference between the disc vs. the digital streaming version of the super cropped frame from Moana? With the website compression, it may not be obvious depending on the size of your screen. Just take my word it’s an easy pick.

Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

Can you pick which image of Moana is from the 4K disc?



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