Happy May the 4th, Everybody!
If you’ve been paying attention around here, you may have noted that I have a child-like infatuation with Star Wars. It occurs to me that I’ve never fully explained why I love Star Wars so much, so I thought I’d use this geek holiday to give you a little explanation.
Star Wars, Episode IV, which at the time was just called Star Wars was released in 1977. I was nine years old. It was a moment in time when there was no Internet and geeky kids (like me) got beat up, not celebrated. Going to the theater, I was a clueless nine-year-old with no idea what I was getting myself into.
Then I sat in the theater with my popcorn, and George Lucas blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like Star Wars. I was entirely invested. I have so many memories of that first viewing. When Darth Vader escaped at the end, I was outraged. When Luke turned off his targeting computer, I was worried. When he blew up the Death Star, I was overjoyed.
Growing up my family was very working class. My parents grew up during the depression, and the thought of seeing a movie twice was not on the menu for the Sparks house. The film was in the theaters forever, but it took me months to get the money to see it again. In hindsight, I’d have been willing to sell a kidney.
My sister had bought the soundtrack by then, and it had great liner notes. With two viewings under my belt, I could visualize the movie just listening to that John Williams soundtrack. So I did that. Often. I sat on our living room floor with the record spinning, giant over-sized headphones on my head, looking at the album art and reliving Star Wars in my head.
For later generations, every new Star Wars movie arrived with a deluge of new Star Wars toys, but for that first movie, there was nothing. My friends and I figured out that empty cardboard tubes, the kinds that hold wrapping paper, made excellent lightsabers, and we destroyed so much cardboard in my backyard.
Another thing folks don’t realize is that there were three years between each movie in the original trilogy. That was three years of no content. It was a more innocent time for fandom. We all had fun, but there were no YouTube channels or blogs pumping out theories. So instead, my friends and I discussed endlessly our own ideas of what was going on. There was one line in the original movie about the clone wars. I remember staying up all night at sleepovers, debating precisely what that meant.
When The Empire Strikes Back was released, I was there on opening day. By then, I was old enough to make money off the neighbors doing chores, and as the movie release date approached, I began earning money any way I could. At that point, our currency moved from dollars to tickets. “How much do you have? Three tickets.” When the movie was finally released, George once again gave us a thrilling ride. Little Yoda being the great warrior of days past, completely threw me. When Lando betrayed our gang of heroes, I wanted Chewie to pull his arms out right then and there. “I am your father” literally made my jaw drop. And then that ending! As an adult, I love the way Empire ends. As a 12-year-old, I was outraged. “That’s it!? But they’re still losing!?”
So I was a bit older, but the next three years were like the first hiatus including theories with friends and endless debates. I wore the soundtrack record out. One thing that also started happing after Empire is that my friends and I routinely talked about the light side and the dark side. It became our moral code without any of us realizing it.
Then came The Return of the Jedi. We saw Luke Skywalker in his fully realized bad-ass Jedi self in the first scene. That is what I had been waiting for. I was hooked. I loved every moment of that movie. People today talk about how George sold out using Ewoks instead of Wookies for the Endor battle. None of my friends and I cared or worried about it. We loved those little storm-trooper-killing teddy bears.
The story I’ve shared with you so far explains why a kid in the ’70s would fall in love with Star Wars. But it doesn’t explain why a middle-aged man can still love Star Wars.
For me, it was the final battle with Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor. Specifically, it is the moment when Luke has Darth Vader on the ropes and then throws down his lightsaber. Everybody knows these movies now but try to transplant yourself to 1983, sitting in that theater for the first time. Luke, who has been on a Joseph Campbell-playbook heroes journey for six years and three movies, finally gets to the moment of victory. He’s evolved from a farm boy to a Jedi Knight, and rather than defeating the enemy, he throws down his weapon. When does that happen in movies? When does the hero win by refusing to fight? What was the last action movie you watched where the hero triumphed through an act of love? (This also explains my middle-aged outrage at how the Luke Skywalker was portrayed in Episode VIII. But I’ll save that one for another day.)
Luke’s decision was heavy stuff for me. I left that movie so happy to see how the story ended, but I also left that movie with a lot on my mind. How did Luke know to do that? Why did he do that? It was a lot to unpack for me. And it has stuck with me throughout my life. These concepts of the light and dark sides and showing love instead of delivering the killing blow mean something to me. They have stuck with me and helped me make the right choices throughout my life. I’ve failed on occasions. (Sometimes miserably!) But Star Wars morality gives me a framework to pick myself up, dust myself off, and try to do better. I don’t keep a Yoda statute on my desk because he had a funny voice. I keep Yoda there to keep me honest.
Anyway, that’s why I love Star Wars.