I was two years old when the first Star Wars film came out. I have vague memories of simply knowing what Star Wars was around the time that Empire Strikes Back came out. Of course, I didn't really understand the film, but we would sit in nursery school playing with our Star Wars action figures. We all wanted to be Luke. We all thought that Vader was bad but kind of cool, and the Princess was the ultimate babe. It wasn't exactly an in-depth analysis, but we weren't even in first grade yet, and not one of us had seen either of the two films. Of course we all wanted to be the ones flying the X-Wings, not those clunky looking Y-Wings (or worse yet, A-Wings).
I don't think I actually saw the film until a couple of years later when it hit cable TV. While I don't think I ever saw it straight through, I must have caught hundreds of very short glances of different parts of the film. I finally knew just how cool Luke and Han were, although I still didn't really understand the story.
Even when I saw Jedi in the theatre a couple of years after that, I really had very little idea what was going on. Sure, I knew some of the basics. Vader was Luke's father. Leia was his sister, Yoda was the coolest Muppet ever created, and the Ewoks were second in coolness only to Yoda. I was still missing large sections of the plot, probably in part because I had never understood the first film, and never even seen the second one.
Of course, by the time high school rolled around, I had seen all three installments, and really understood the intricacies of the plot. At one or two points, several of us got together for a screening of the entire trilogy. I now understood what was going on. There was even one English teacher at my high school who insisted that the entire story was a rewrite of Homer's Odyssey, and insisted on showing the first film to her 9th grade English class every year, interrupting every so often with "See, it's the search for the father." Very few people actually figured out what she was talking about, but even fewer minded watching Star Wars.
In college, once or twice a couple of people in my fraternity tried to organize a session of "The Star Wars Trilogy Drinking Game." The game contained such tidbits as "Drink once every time a bad guy wears white or a good guy wears black." However, we were more interested in the film than the drinking.
So, last night I trekked downtown with an old friend from high school to go see Star Wars on the biggest screen we could find. We got there an hour before the screening, figuring that there would be a bit of a crowd. Neither of us anticipated what we found. The line was already going around the block, with about 1000 people already waiting. As I was waiting in line to pick up our tickets (this showing had been sold out for three days), someone asked one of the older ushers if he'd seen the film. "Yeah, twenty years ago. But I've never seen any crowds quite like this."
After I got the tickets, I surveyed the line as I walked by everyone on the way to the back of the line. Every single person in this line was between the ages of 20 and 30. Everyone had their own personal associations with the film. While I had seen long lines for movies before, I had never seen anything of this scale for a film that every single person in line had seen, probably more than once. It wasn't your stereotypical group of scifi junkies, either. Sure, there were some people who fit that description quite nicely, a couple carrying light sabers or wearing their hair in twin buns, but most of the crowd consisted of people who simply wanted to relive old memories, of the days before we had anything real to worry about.
When the film finally started, something amazing happened. We all had a new understanding of it, as though the twenty years had changed some fundimental thing in the universe, when it was really our perception of the world that had changed. Sure, we all cheered every time Obi-Wan told Luke to use the force, and we all laughed at the classic exchanges between R2D2 and C-3PO, but there was something more. We no longer had any sympathy for Luke when his uncle told him to clean the droids instead of going on his personal errand to pick up some power converters. Luke was nothing but a little brat. What's worse is that we had all been like that not too long ago.
All of a sudden, we all were Luke Skywalker. We had all been the naive little brat who just wants everything his way. Twenty years later, we had all found our Obi-Wan to teach us to trust our feelings, and we had all learned about the loss of such a mentor. We had learned the lesson of the Dark Side, that there are dangers in letting yourself be driven by anger. We had all found our Yoda, someone we could turn to when we needed to talk to someone who could help us through some of life's tough points, but wouldn't hold our hands through too much for our own good.
I now understood why this film had survived. I knew why even people who didn't like science fiction could appreciate it. It certainly wasn't the acting, which was hardly worthy of any kind of praise. It occurred to me that more than being anything else, this was a coming of age story. Unlike most coming of age films, (including the wide range shown at the recent Sundance Film Festival) this one is universal. While The Force may not have the powers associated with it in the films, we must all learn to trust our feelings and work within the framework of the world in order to succeed.
I am part of a generation that grew up with Star Wars as part of our lives even before we had seen or understood these films. When Ronald Reagan referred to "The Evil Empire," we knew what he was talking about. When someone spoke of the "dark side" said "May the force be with you," we understood. And when Yoda came into the picture in The Empire Strikes Back, we taught our parents something we'd known all along: There are many important lessons to be learned from a Muppet.
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