Monday, May 24, 2010

Star Wars Week: What "The Empire Strikes Back" Meant to Me

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?


Paul D. Brazill said...

Nice piece. I saw 'Empire' at the cinema when it came out and I enjoyed it, although it's the only one of the Star Wars films that I've seen.

Leah J. Utas said...

To me, it means Yoda. You're right about that one piece of wisdom.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm older than you so it was more Star Trek for me. But I did think STar Wars really engaged the imaginations. It created a world in which all kinds of adventures could happen, and the visuals really let kids have physical touchstones for those adventures. Anything that fires the imagination deserves credit from my point of view.

Richard R. said...

Nice one, Scott.

I saw STAR WARS when it came out, (I was 32) and then, like you, waited...and waited...until finally ROTJ arrived, which I also saw in the theater. Actually I have seen all 6 on the big screen. I'm not sure I liked this quite as much as SW, but it was close, and certainly the scenes on Hoth were favorites. Yes, and Yoda, and that line you quote.

I liked the third film, Episode 6, the least of the three, perhaps (this will raise the eyebrows, and perhaps the ire, of Star Wars fans) like it the least of the six. It's the damn cute little teddy bear Ewoks that I dislike, the rest of the film is good. Why, oh why, couldn't they have made the Endor natives something - anything - else??? Avians, reptile people, anything. But that's getting ahead of your postOne thing that surprised me was you saying you took out your VHS tape of the film. You don't have it on DVD??

Richard R. said...

Duh, of course I meant to say I saw ESB at the theater... and all that followed. Sheesh.

Doug Warren said...

I am right with ya, Scott. I was 12 when ESB came out. The original three SW movies are the only movies I have vivid memories of the actual theaters where I went to see the movies. They made a huge impression.

Perplexio said...

I was only 3 years old when "Empire" came out so I was a bit too young to see it. I did see Return of the Jedi in the theater but oddly enough I'd never seen either Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back. I was about 6 or 7 when I saw ROTJ and thoroughly enjoyed it even minus the frame of reference with the previous films.

Chris said...

I love that you watched it on VHS. Nostalgic reasons?

Scott Parker said...

Paul - The only one?!? Heh. Don't worry. When folks ask me if I've seen Whatever Famous Film and I reply with a no, my defense is always "But I've seen Star Wars more than hundred times."

Leah - Yoda had more real-world wisdom in Empire than all of the babble in the three prequel films.

Charles - I came to Trek after Star Wars. I can't remember watching the show pre-1977 but, after Star Wars, I gravitated to any and every SF/F show. Now that I'm reading your series of posts on sword and sorcery books, I'm going to seek some of those books out.

Richard - For me, when I watch the original film, I can become the eight-year-old boy I was. With Empire, I go to a different place. At the time, in 1983, I liked Jedi. In the years since, I've seen all the glaring gross bad decisions in the film.

Re: VHS (to Richard and Chris) - I own the original trilogy (SE) on VHS. I've only purchased Star Wars on DVD and only after they made the theatrical version available. So, not for nostalgia but for expediency.

Doug - Right there with you. I know exactly which theater in which I saw Star Wars (Sugerland Palms), Empire (Westchase Cinema), and Jedi (Meyerland, special pre-release screening). These movies are like huge white flashes of light in my memory, almost like black holes where many, many memories circle around these cinematic experiences.

Perplexio - Jedi was special, at the time. It does answer questions and get the story resolved. And I watched it over and over the summer of '83. It's only now, with the passing of many years, that I wish Jedi could have been as serious as Empire was (and Sith, to some extent).

Perplexio said...

A lot of people discount the prequel trilogy and I'd have to agree with most of them about the first 2 prequel films, but I'd argue that Revenge of the Sith was the 2nd best of the SW films (after The Empire Strikes Back).

For all of its faults the prequel trilogy got one thing right, it showed what an absolutely Machiavellian puppetmaster the Emperor was. Ian McDiamrid was brilliant in the prequel trilogy (especially Revenge of the Sith).

Barbara Martin said...

I watched Star Trek in my teens and read Asimov and Robert Heinlein sci-fi books. The Star Wars put a new slant on the genre though, as the technology by that time had greatly improved. I loved the whole series of Star Wars and the various characters. Yoda was a particular favourite.