A long time ago in a Northern town far, far away…
I had a chunky old alarm clock, but it didn’t work reliably because I was too stupid to set it correctly. Plus, I was seven, and didn’t have the sort of constitution required to handle strange buzzing noises at such an hour. So I had an even better alarm clock.
If I felt especially lazy (see also: always), and if I had hit the metaphorical snooze button on my mom’s reminders to get out of bed before terrible things would start happening, such as not having enough time to eat a bowl of Corn Pops, watch Good Morning America, or catch a ride to my school, which was less than one half block away from where we lived—if I had rolled over and asked for five more minutes, mom would send in reinforcements.
I would hear him coming down the hallway, laughing his slow, ominous, throaty belly laugh. To borrow the words of Han Solo when he and his royal lovebird are so rudely interrupted: “I know that laugh.” I knew that laugh. It was Dad. But it was also Jabba the Hutt.
If I waited long enough, he would get all the way to my bedroom, put his arms under my mattress and shake them, “ho ho ho-ing” like a giant alien gangster the whole time. It was the worst, and by worst I obviously mean best.
People sometimes say they can’t remember a time before such and such a thing, and sometimes they mean it but usually they’re just exaggerating for effect. I tell you now, hand over heart, that I cannot remember a time that Star Wars was not a part of my life. Having two older siblings that enjoyed Christmases in the late 70s and early 80s helped, because part of my inherited hand me down fortune included an awesome assortment of Kenner Star Wars action figures. Which included a Greedo whose head had come off long before I even got to him, which made for great playtime sight gags involving running into walls and other characters. None of the Force-sensitive characters still had use of their build in, retractable lightsabers, which had all fallen out or broken off possible before even Greedo lost his suction-cupped cabeza. But I played with them for more hours than I can count, and I loved them all.
We also owned battered VHS copies of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, each taped from TV and came complete with awesome commercial breaks and previews for next week’s episode of Alf. I adored them, revered them, memorized them. You might have noticed one important thing missing from our collection: The Empire Strikes Back. We must have borrowed it from McDonald Rental, our local video watering hole, because I knew sort of what happened, but I had never given it the time or the attention of the others.
That is until I met my destiny while on vacation at a Canadian resort, was tackled by a dog so big it could have been neither a moon nor a space station, and was laid up for a day with a piece of gravel torn into my kneecap. All of that meant that I was given license to sit in the bunk bed and watch whatever the resort video library had to offer. Which included the coveted second act of Star Wars.
I watched it probably four times that weekend in pure ecstasy, which was a lot of time to dedicate when you’re like six. The law of scarcity had jacked up its value a lot, and each viewing was a thrill unto itself. I will not be the first person to sing the praises of The Empire Strikes Back—how it is in so many ways superior to its two siblings. The middle child doesn’t have an easy job, and the second installment of a trilogy is a tricky spot. But ESB does more than bridge the gap between A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. It catches the characters in the process of changing. The whining, dopey farm boy transforms to serious student. The sassy princess becomes a sassier princess, but one with more compassion for Wookiees. The lone gunslinger sacrifices himself for his friends. And Billy Dee Williams plays himself.
It helps that George Lucas passed along the director’s chair to Irvin Kershner, and that Leigh Brackett (a close friend of Ray Bradbury’s!) helped write the thing. What you get is a emotional richness, a sense of humor and playfulness, and a heightened sense of danger that the others lack. And you get Billy Dee Williams as himself at no extra charge, though he is a scoundrel and a swindler, so check your pockets before you leave.
A lot of folks love these movies and everyone has their reasons, most of which are variations on nostalgia. And I am sure that adults loved them as much as kids did, but I think part of the appeal was the nature of the world George Lucas built for us—a vivid, cinematic world that served as a canvas to our imaginations. How many back yards became the swamp of Dagobah? How many young girls and boys climbed trees and did handstands as part of their imaginary training to be a Jedi, to keep peace, to connect to something bigger than themselves, to face the slivers of Darth Vader in themselves just like Luke Skywalker had to do. Plus, as the first words of each imply, they took place a long time ago, which means we have a lot of empty space in which to stretch the legs of our own fantasy making.
And they’re a ton of fun; they are themselves a nostalgic throwback to westerns, WWII dogfight movies, samurai films, old school silent science fiction, Buck Rodgers, and others.
Tonight is May the Fourth, a nerdy day to celebrate a love of Tattooine, of droids, of the Old Republic, of savage little teddy bears that can tear apart an Empire if they get ahold of technology they don’t know how to use correctly (like alarm clocks, probably), of strong females who are brave and make a difference, of it being never too late to turn out to be a good guy.
I love it, and it’s what I’m going to carve time for this week. The Fourth will be with you. Always.
Empire Strikes Back, here I come.