The Jedi Returns
April 26, 2000
"The Force will be with you, always." --Obi Won Kenobi to Luke SkywalkerIf memory serves: I was two years old.There were some commercials on TV for this movie. Laser guns, helmets, ships, a black-cowled monsterman. I was so there.My uncle took me to the Wilma, and the place was a church, something holy and royal, the work of ancient hands. The most amazing thing was, it was daylight when we got there, and night when we left. There were things unseen in that darkened palace with the wall of moving light.And, I swear to God, somewhere between "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," and the Rebel Victory March, my brain was sucked out through my eyeballs, rearranged, and hyperdriven back into my skull. Since that day-to-night transmutation in 1977, the Force has been with me, always.Star Wars, the greatest movie ever made, returns to theaters this week for the first time in twenty years. The film most industry insiders thought would burn to a forgotten crisp in a matter of days tore open America's collective skull and rewired the works, leaving behind an itch that's never quite been scratched. My mouth has been watering for months.I am not alone in my slavery. Of course, everyone in the moviegoing world knows Star Wars. It was, for some years, the most successful film in history. With two sequels appearing in the '80s and literally billions of knick-knacks, spin-offs and tie-ins floating through the consumer bilge, no person living in the First World could be entirely unaware of the phenomenon George Lucas unleashed.But for people my age, the Gerald Ford Youth, Star Wars is something more than Chewbacca action figures and R2-D2 go-cups. In fact, the Trilogy is more than a series of goofy Flash-Gordon-meets-King-Arthur epics frozen on celluloid.Star Wars formed the backdrop for our earliest memories, brightest fantasies and worst toy cravings.What child under 12 didn't spend the years between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back lusting after Death Star play sets and glow-in-the-dark Storm Trooper helmets? The sacred, forbidden love triangle of Luke, Han and Leia formed the epicenter of millions of prepubescent crushes. Darth Vader played lead in untold nightmares; no one could forget his ominous survival of the Death Star's annihilation. Luke's archetypal (four-year-olds never used that word, but still) transformation from buck-toothed farm hand to Rebel golden boy was a ready-made script for endless play sessions.Then Empire came out to wreck little worlds. Luke lost his hand, Han Solo was frozen in carbonite and... Darth Vader was Luke's father! (Or at least he said he was, perhaps it was an evil ploy.) There was plenty of time of time to hash it out in playground salons. Luke's father was dead, wasn't he? Obi Won said! Would Obi Won lie? And what of Han, imprisoned in some creepy gangster's den of iniquity? How would this ungodly tangle get fixed?George Lucas learned his lessons from the old-school serial adventures. He left us hanging, big time. Years dragged by. I think old George was playing like a street-smart pusher. He hooked us early, gave us a confusing and unsatisfying hit, and then held out. When commercials for The Return of the Jedi, the very name of which promised glory, glory hallelujah, finally flashed on mom's TV set, I had a Chewbacca-sized monkey on my back.And then, victory. Han got the girl; those two earlier kisses between Luke and Leia started to seem a little gross. Darth Vader died, but not before turning back into Anakin Skywalker. He was Luke's father after all! The sicko Emperor got iced. And the New Republic soared to power.Here's the true genius of the Star War Trilogy: the Rebels won. No one quite remembers, what with the big money and the endless marketing, that Lucas was spoonfeeding subversion to little kids. These are movies that explode the boring real-world zeitgeist from within, replacing banality and mediocrity with bravery, destiny and freedom.Given the cultural milieu of the '70s -- spreading malaise, zero idealism, a middling and over-pious cracker in the White House -- the first movie's subtitle, A New Hope, seems very significant. And who can deny that the black-robed, zombie-faced fascist Emperor in Return of the Jedi, with his legion of snooty drab-gray henchmen, doesn't evoke a certain contemporary two-term Republican president?Check out our cultural milieu, right now, in the late '90s. You've got your pervasive malaise and disaffection, your dead idealism, your pious Southern president using sophisticated Jedi mindtricks on a tired populace. It's time to switch off the targeting computer and trust in the Force.We're ripe for Star Wars again, ready to be reminded that, at least in some galaxies, heroes can win against all odds, love can triumph over war, ragged freedom is better than efficient tyranny, a mask is not as good as a face, and people from whole different worlds can fight the good fight together. We need Luke to make the journey from the desert to his destiny again.We're ready for a new hope. Bring on the Empire.