Note: There will be no spoilers here for the new film. I haven’t seen it yet. I will see it. I will not be stopped.
When the original Star Wars came out in 1977, I was utterly fascinated — it pretty much blew my wee child mind. I remember watching it at a drive-in theatre from the back of a green GMC Bobcat, noshing on a whole paper grocery bag full of home-made popcorn. It was a pretty intense experience for a small child with a vivid imagination, and I can’t say that I actually understood the implications of much of what I saw. It was amazing, and a little bit scary at times (Luke’s return home to the bodies of his aunt and uncle was a bit much for me to take on board at the time). I remember owning comic books and toys and the film (audio only) on cassette.
While most of my childhood interaction with the film was in the form of fantasy cobbled out of an incomplete understanding of what I was seeing/hearing, I look back now and realize that Star Wars — and to a much greater degree The Empire Strikes Back — was my first real step toward a more adult understanding of film. I realize one doesn’t often look to George Lucas for great narrative depth, brilliant dialogue, etc.; as an adult who’s seen all of the Star Wars properties (yes, including those TV movies where those kids get lost on Endor among the Ewoks, and the Droids cartoon, and that brilliantly bizarre Christmas special), I am acutely aware of what’s clunky and inelegant and sometimes straight-up ridiculous about the whole franchise (*cough*Jar-Jar*cough*). Just the same, for me as a little kid, trying to grapple with the world of the films and the sometimes genuinely devastating consequences of character choices in that world was an important part of learning to respond to stories in a more sophisticated way.
All of this is a long-winded way of getting to the fact that I absolutely hated The Empire Strikes Back the first time I saw it. I went to the bathroom several times just to escape from it, mostly because I struggled with the horrible sense that things were not going to end well for characters in whose existence and well-being I found myself deeply (imaginatively) invested. The Empire Strikes Back was, I think, the first time I remember really having to try to find a way to deal seriously with a story in which the good guys did not come out immediately on top, and in which there was genuine cause for worry that they might never be OK again. The bad guys were winning, and it was very hard to see much hope for the Rebel Alliance. It was incredibly stressful to watch my beloved characters struggle and fail, and to watch them face darknesses that I only dimly understood. There was something gritty and hard about this second film that was only hinted at in the first (to my little kid way of thinking, anyway). The first time I saw it, I…couldn’t. It felt like everything was going from bad to worse, and there was no real escape. Of course I hated that. This is not what I wanted to believe about my world, and I was fortunate enough to live a life in which I could, for at least a little while, imagine that I could reject that belief. I am aware now, as I was not then (in the supreme self-centeredness of a privileged childhood) that feeling this way was a luxury that many other children are not and have never been afforded.
It took growing up a bit to let me see The Empire Strikes Back more clearly, not as something hopeless but as something complicated, something much more true-to-life than a rollicking space fantasy might otherwise appear to be. It is to the film’s credit, I think, that it could be the occasion for learning such a lesson, regardless of anything else one might want to say about how it was made.
If there is anything I hope for from J.J. Abrams’ take on the franchise, it’s that he might provide a similar occasion for some other little kid to glimpse a greater and more complex world, and to learn a more grown-up relationship to stories.