Feeling the Force
My love affair with the galaxy far, far way started with The Empire Strikes Back. Mom had dug it out of a box packed with blank tapes all full of movies and cartoons that had been recorded off of TV. According to the peeling orange Kodak label on the spine of the tape, this one was a sci-fi double feature Dad had bootlegged off of HBO with Empire playing second to David Lynch’s Dune. As it wound up to about where Mom thought Empire should start, she cracked out the ironing board, looking to kill a couple of birds with one stone while she watched with me.
The tape was snowy and the sound a bit warbled at the tail end of Dune’s credits where it less than gracefully segued into the HBO logo from the late eighties.
“The following film is rated ‘PG,’” the tape declared in that generic, American man’s voice. The rating didn’t mean anything to me, but as the required bits of info—rating, content, close captioning—got rattled off like it does before anything starts on a premium movie channel, I became very eager about what I was about to see. I knew Star Wars by reputation only and couldn’t tell you a thing about it at the time. All I knew was that in a moment I was going to experience something monumental. Something very important. It was just a feeling I had, something deep in my gut.
When that epic Twentieth Century Fox drum roll began it snapped me to attention. The machine gun drumming of sticks and mallets hammered away the shame I was feeling about that afternoon’s ambush and demanded that I turn myself over completely to what was about to play out on the television. One screen faded to another, from the Fox logo to a black title card with Slimer green letters that read Lucasfilm, Ltd. The screen faded again, taking the sound with it, and for the first time in my life I read the words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” It was a moment that felt like several lifetimes. I hung on that moment, soaking in the image of those words so that now they feel as if they are permanently burned into my retina. When I blink, those blue letters flash against the darkness on the back of my eyelids. When the lights go out, they are plastered over the void. They chilled me down to the marrow and had me leaning off of the couch cushion, begging for more after only getting so little. Those few words were perfect in my seven-year-old eyes. They promised so much. Hinted to amazing feats. Such good. Such evil. With so little an entire galaxy was opened up for me to explore. Star Wars had me at “hello.”
Suddenly that brief, yet seemingly infinite silence was devastated by a blazing, sonic assault. The opening fanfare from the London Symphony Orchestra hit me square in the face, shoving me hard into my seat. If seeing the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” was a first kiss, than hearing that first chord of the Star Wars theme was my cherry getting popped. No, not sex. This was bigger, more important than a sex metaphor could ever possibly illustrate. My life was beginning again that day. It was a rebirth.
As the trumpets roared across space and the words “Star Wars” rocketed into view I felt like I was exploding out of the womb and into a world that I had always around me as I gestated for seven years. The title, The Empire Strikes Back, soared up into view, followed by a text scroll that alluded to things that were intimidating and foreign yet strangely familiar. Death Star. Freedom fighters. Luke Skywalker. Darth Vader. These words stood out to me like masked doctors looking down at my squirming, gooey body. Darth Vader was the only name that really rung any sort of bell. Upon reading it an image flashed into my head of a toothbrush with an evil looking, black-clad space man on it, a gift from my aunt. It was the toothbrush I used at my grandparent’s house in Lynn while our new house was being built. Dark Radar I had called him, the words Darth and Vader having no meaning at that time in my young lexicon. Maybe that toothbrush had been a sign, a marker on a road that was meant to lead me to this point. I would go into the bathroom just to take that toothbrush out of its holder and look at him. Evil, looming like death itself, staring back at me through those darkened helmet lenses.
“Brush your teeth or else!” Or else what?
For two hours I sat fixated on the TV. My parents were Trekkies, so I had grown up watching a new episode of The Next Generation every Sunday and syndicated re-runs most afternoons. Sci-fi techno-babble was plentiful but the action limited. No matter what the stakes were, no matter how perfect the Romulan or Borg plot seemed to be, the crew of the Enterprise always came out on top thanks to good ol’ fashioned science and some strong moral fiber. Empire was something else all together. This was a world where science and magic came head to head. There were no illusions of peace or any safe havens aboard a glamorous starship. There were no glamorous starships. X-Wings and the Millenium Falcon were the sci-fi versions of old hot rods and beat-around trucks. In this place hope and annihilation were spoken within the same breath. Trust couldn’t be taken for granted. Nothing was a sure thing. Heroes were always on the run, scraping by on anything they could get their hands on while the bad guys had limitless resources to find them and smoke them out. This, kids, was a whole new ballgame.
Before he even gets to do anything in the movie this Luke guy, who I’m meeting for the first time, is mauled by some nasty looking space-yeti. I couldn’t have been more scared. This is the Luke that the text scroll was talking about and he’s down for the count just two minutes in! Then Han tells everyone he’s leaving and Leia starts yelling at him. So far all of the good guys are either unconscious or pissed off at each other. This was the antithesis of anything I had ever seen on Star Trek. This went against what I had, up until that moment, come to understand as basic movie logic. There was conflict, real human struggle going on here. And robots! And that big hairy guy who looks like a real alien and not just a guy with latex skull-ridges slapped onto his forehead and some Hollywood snaggle teeth.
Being that it was the second of three movies I felt completely overwhelmed by a history I knew nothing about. The characters’ relationships were already established and the villains’ motives unclear as I was bombarded with images I had to fight to keep up with and understand. When the Rebel Snowspeeders were systematically blown out of the sky by the Empire’s awesome, mechanical quadrupeds I panicked. “Why,” I asked myself, “are the good guys losing so soon?!”
Of course things didn’t let up. This was all just the first act and as the movie moved on from the Battle of Hoth, the momentum kept building, the stakes kept rising. As the Millenium Falcon ducked and weaved its way through asteroids, narrowly avoiding certain destruction at the hands of space rocks and an empire in hot pursuit I gnawed my nails to the bone. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was cooler than seeing that hunk of junk out-class those TIE Fighters, luring them face first into asteroid after asteroid. Or Han’s deducing that they were parked in the belly of a giant space slug. Just think about seeing that yourself for the first time, sitting there in your house or in a theater, and seeing this tiny ship fly up out of a crater, only to have this giant fucking thing pop out and try to snap its jaws down on it. It was clearly a case of, “Well, our heroes dodged that bullet, how can we shake things up and put them back into the Empire’s crosshairs? Anyone? Space slug, that’s how!” And it worked! And it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
Yoda brought with him a much-needed sense of levity to the harrowing spectacle that had preceded Luke’s arrival on Dagobah. The film so far had been a montage of pushing the good guys down and kicking them while they were there. A little green man with a funny voice and a Dennis the Menace sort of knack for irritating people was a nice break. Man, I thought, I bet Yoda’s gonna be like a kung-fu master and this is totally his goofy, comic relief sidekick. Nope, they were one in the same and I bought it, like Luke, hook, line and sinker. When Yoda switched from goofball to guru I couldn’t believe it. Everything that movie threw at me was a curve ball and I kept swinging at them. The challenge to get a hit was addicting, but I’d never connect with a pitch. Even as sure a thing as Han’s friend Lando proved to be just one of countless twists in the exhausting, curving road of The Empire Strikes Back.
But none of the twists compared to the climax of Luke and Vader’s epic confrontation. Lightsabers clashed with that classic electric nails on a chalkboard screech. Vader fought dirty, using his mastery of the Force to throw anything in his sight at Luke, knocking him off his guard, off his feet and through plate glass. Here was a villain who threw the rulebook out the window. He was evil incarnate, and nothing would stop him on his wicked crusade. Though Luke seemed out matched he never gave up. Maybe this was it. Maybe after all of that struggling—losing on Hoth, surviving the asteroid field and Imperial pursuit just to meet Han’s betrayal and capture, or Luke’s trials in the swamps—the movie would remember that good will always triumph over evil. I knew that that’s what would happen. Then Luke’s hand got hacked off and we both made the painful discovery that Darth Vader, yes Dark Radar himself is his father. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry out just like Luke did. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Taking a page out of Marty McFly’s book I thought, “This is heavy.”
After an exhausting two hours the heroes, minus Han, managed to escape with their tails between their legs and for the first time since the movie had started I took pause to think about my own defeat earlier that afternoon. As the movie ended I felt drained. Watching Luke and Leia stare out the window as the Falcon flies away while that sad music plays as the defeated Rebel fleet floats through space was almost too much to handle. Nothing good happened to the people it normally happened to. Nothing. It was the first instance I can recall of a movie ending on such a real, sour note and I absolutely loved it.
Without knowing it I had become a participant in the lives of these characters, a soldier for the Rebel Alliance. They were just so real to me, as real as they were fantasy. Han was a bastard—sarcastic, cocky, short-sighted—but he had a hero under all those scoundrelly layers. He was flawed, something I had never noticed or wanted out of my movie heroes before then. Leia was as far from a damsel in distress as she could possibly be, but ultimately, and despite her best efforts to the contrary, falls victim to her own love for a pirate. Luke Skywalker, true blue, hero of the day that he was, was in the middle of a crisis in faith. Particularly in Empire, these three were faced with the most daunting challenges of their lives and in many instances those challenges came from within. I came for the lasers and the spaceships, but I’ve stayed the rest of my life for the depth, the realism that these characters had. But don’t get me wrong, the lasers and spaceships are always a plus.
What really hit that movie home for me was that, despite all they’d gone through, they still clung to hope. Though one of them was gone, he could still be saved if they played their cards right .The rest of them, bloodied, bruised and scared, still lived to see and fight another day. That meant something to me. I know now know that they would come out on top in the next one, but at the time their futures were, as far as I was concerned, completely up in the air. In all the movies I had ever seen before then the hero hits that point somewhere in the middle of the film where there is still time to save the day. There was no time left. The three of us—Luke, Leia and I—h ad to wait for the sequel to take up arms one more time against the forces of evil. But you see it when they look out into space. You hear it in Lando’s voice when he leaves with Chewbacca to track down Han. They all have hope.
Then there was me, a seven-year-old boy in a new house in a new town, being terrorized by the older kids in the neighborhood and fearing to death the thought of a new school. I didn’t know any of the rules that any of the people in this strange new place lived by. I had no Obi-Wan or Yoda to lead me through it. I was flying blind, having a crisis of faith in myself that would last for the next decade and change. All I had was this new house to hide in and this new movie full of wonderful things to keep me company. To give me hope.