I am a member of the Star Wars Generation. By that, I mean that I was of movie-going age when the first film was released and grew up with the anticipation of each subsequent movie. As the thirtieth anniversary of the release of “The Empire Strikes Back” sweeps the geek nation, I’d like to offer what TESB meant to me.
I was eight years old when Star Wars hit theaters. I was halfway to eleven when Empire was released. For anyone not alive during those long, yet exhilarating three years (May 1977 to May 1980), you missed something truly special. In many ways, it was the best years of my life as I lived with the Star Wars universe. The action figures and toys were sold and bought. Trading cards flourished. I think there were at least three sets of Star Wars cards, a green set, a red set, and a ___ set. The few books about the film I poured over. Heck, I still have them.
But what excited young minds the world over was not necessarily how Star Wars was made. It was all the exciting tales that had yet to be told. Marvel Comics published their adaptation of the first film in six issues. Beginning with issue #7, you got *more* Star Wars stories. In the years before Empire basically made the entire franchise a family history, comic book writers were free to just tell great stories (yes, even with the green bunny; bonus points if you remember Jaxxon). Alan Dean Foster added his take on the universe with Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. More than anything, however, was the active imaginations of all the young (and old?) folks who truly loved these characters and the adventure. I made up scores of stories with my action figures. I may have even written some but I can’t remember now.
Nothing, however, matched the real thing. When the original film was re-released in 1979, it had the first (and only?) trailer for Empire attached to it. Finally, after nearly three long years, we got to see images from the sequel. Snow! Asteroids! Some future city! Then, for the fall of 1979 and the spring of 1980, we got to ponder how those images fit together. Talk about putting young imaginations into overdrive. That movie was the first Big Thing I longed for (other than attending a KISS concert; never went) and was rewarded for my patience.
When the movie was finally released, I convinced my parents to see it on the second day. For those keeping score, that corresponded to 22 May 1980. And, yes, this past Saturday (the 22nd), with my family asleep, I broke out my VHS copy of Empire and watched it again. Still a fine, fine piece of filmsmanship.
But back in 1980, I learned a lot because of Empire. I learned how old, familiar characters can reappear in new, unfamiliar landscapes and situations. I learned how jokes from the first film (I had it memorized by that time) can show up again in different contexts. And I learned a little bit about the real world (although I didn’t know it at the time). Heroes don’t always win. I mean, think about it. By the end of the film, Han’s captured and been taken away, Luke’s hand is gone, and don’t even get me started on Vader-as-Luke’s dad thing. I saw betrayal (Lando) and redemption (also Lando). I saw utter defeat (Rebel base overrun by the Imperials). I saw that Vader wasn’t even the top bad guy, he was only the muscle. I saw Han’s torture and heard his screaming. The novelization confirmed that he was being electrocuted. I saw a young, impetuous man (Luke) vacillate over the right thing to do (regarding going to Bespin). Plus, there was that line from Yoda when Luke asks him if he should sacrifice Han and Leia. Yoda: “If you value what they fought for, yes.” Speaking of Yoda, of all the wisdom he spouted, none is more pertinent to a ten-year-old or a forty-year-old that the simple line, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” And, as a preview for Forgotten Music this Thursday, the new music also changed my thinking.
I was fortunate to attend only one elementary, one middle school, and one high school. For a person my exact age, Empire arrived just as I was graduating elementary school. It was my first big experience. Because of the tone of Empire, the unresolved ending, there was a distinct feeling of growing up with Empire. Don’t get me wrong: I was still a kid in 1980. I bought more Empire toys than I did Star Wars toys. I played with those things forever. I had the trading cards, the books, and still read the comics. But there was still that hole left by the ending. Now, as I’m older and can reexamine my experiences, I can assert that the hole left by Empire was never completely filled with Return of the Jedi. But that’s a quibble for another day (perhaps three years hence?).
What are some of your experiences with The Empire Strikes Back?