Thirty years ago today, audiences lined up for blocks to watch the second installment of the Star Wars film franchise. The Empire Strikes Back was ground breaking on several fronts; not only did special effects get cranked up a notch, but is probably the first sci-fi film to have a real downer of an ending, and a surprise twist that wasn’t ruined by the Intardwebz. It was also one of the few movies my father and I saw together as a team.
DAD AND ME
The first time I remember going to the theater with my father was when Disney re-released Snow White in 1975. It was an interesting experience as it was the first time I was around a large crowd of people who were excited about watching a feature length cartoon. I remember how my dad made sure I wasn’t too scared when the wicked queen turned into an old hag – a scene that had Radio City Music Hall replacing many seats due to wet pants of young kids in 1938. I don’t remember too much more than that other than people stood up and applauded when the film ended.
Two years later, I was introduced to the greatness that is Star Wars, but instead of a father/son activity, it was a group event with several of my parents friends making a party out of the feature by going to the drive-in to see the movie. It was the first time I was allowed to see a PG movie, and the core ideas of good vs. evil, with the lone underdog using the power within to defeat the big bad, rang true to me. Plus there was the whole space battle and light saber action that was pretty far out, too.
WANNA GO SEE A MOVIE?
Jump forward to May 21, 1980 – a warm early summer evening. I remember quite clearly there were rain storms in the area, and the smell of fresh cut grass lingered in the air. My dad came home and asked if I wanted to see the brand new Star Wars movie, something he “heard” was going to be really great. By this time I was all over the Star Wars brand, having amassed a fair number of action figures, vehicles, and other merchandise, George Lucas was wise enough to keep all rights to. My dad worked a half hour away from home, and it would take us another 30 minutes to drive back to Lawrence, Kansas to see the movie. I dropped everything I was doing, the two of us hopped in the car, and sped off at a speed that would have beat the Millennium Falcon’s Kessel Run record.
Unfortunately, speed limits, a thunderstorm, and crappy roads landed us back in Lawrence 10 minutes before the movie began, and it had already sold completely out. Needless to say, I was very upset that we weren’t going to see the movie that evening, and seemed to be a portent of disappointing events that would haunt me for year. My dad stood at the box office, and without blinking purchased two tickets for the 10 o’clock show. Even though this would mean getting home well past mid-night, and well past my bedtime, my dad knew this was a movie we both wanted to see – bed time be damned.
We spent the next couple of hours driving around the city, eating at McDonald’s (long before the brand was tarnished by trans fat and poor service), and venturing into a used book store down the street from the theater, where I picked up a collection of Alley Oop newspaper strips, back issues of Swamp Thing, and, if memory serves me, the Lando Calrissian action figure – SCORE!
The Granada Theater opened in 1934, and at the time was the premiere theater in Lawrence, Kansas, putting the Varsity across the street to shame. Seating well over 900 people, the theater going experience even back in 1980 was vastly different than the 200 to 300 person capacity of the multiplex today. Though I’ve railed against theater going today, the communal viewing of Empire Strikes Back was something to behold.
By the time the lights dimmed and the movie began, I was tired but excited to see what LucasFilm had in store for our heroes, as I was sure Darth Vader was going to get his ass handed to him for a second time. It wasn’t the kick ass little green Jedi, or Cloud City moments that blew me away. Nor was it the giant battle on the ice planet Hoth that had me fearing for the heroes. Yes, the asteroid chase still sticks in my mind as one of the great achievements of 1980s special effects, and the comedic moments between Chewbacca and C-3PO were good for a laugh or two, but it was the big reveal that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father that stunned everyone in the audience.
At its core, The Empire Strikes Back is a story about a young man coming to grips with his heritage and the realization that his father is his enemy. While that concept wouldn’t hit me for a few more years when the rebel in me decided I’d had enough of the parental units, at the time I did have a bit of an idea that we don’t have to become our parents when we grow up.
I think my father caught on to that idea right away. On the way home, we talked about what was cool and not so cool in the movie. I wasn’t really keen on the clean shiny look that became a tenet of many of the films that came out in the 80s, as the gritty feeling from the ’77 New Hope made the film see more real to me. My dad asked a few questions about the Vader/Skywalker father/son reveal, and how I felt about that, and he did make a point to say that like Luke, we don’t always end up like our fathers.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – A GUIDE TO GOOD PARENTING
As a parent, I think we all want something more for our children, yet at the same time there is that urge to have them follow in our footsteps; to at least acquire some of our likes and dislikes. While I’m sure it drove my father up the wall, he was always supportive of my comic book buying habit, and he did encourage me to go into television and film production as a career. My father was a computer programmer, and my mother was a teacher, and while I did pursue my own interests and opportunities, computer programming, and teaching have become a part of my life. So while I did take a different path, the influence is there, but unlike Anakin and Luke, I’ve embraced that influence, yet I sometimes wonder if I would have pushed further away from my father had we not had that bonding moment back in 1980.
The Granada Theater my dad and I saw Empire Strikes Back is now some kind of night club venue, and except for the marquee on the front, you wouldn’t even know it used to be the center for entertainment dating all the way back to 1934. At least I’ll have memories of the time my dad took me to see the Empire Strikes Back, and how that event influenced me today. While the movie may not be my favorite Star Wars film, the memory is one of my favorites.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
Thirty years have passed since my father and I sat in that darkened theater watching the battle amongst the stars, and having a great time of it. I’m now a father myself, and while my son has a few years to go before he turns 10, we do make time for Daddy-and-Me events. He’s gotten into Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and enjoys reading Batman: The Brave and the Bold comic books, but I’m still waiting for the moment when we can sit in the theater together and share a moment that he’ll remember for decades.
While the original trilogy of Star Wars films is all about Luke Skywalker, the entire Star Wars Saga (films, comic books, television series, and novels) is all about legacy. The Empire Strikes Back may be 30 years old today, but its influence, and our own experiences will affect our lineage for generations to come.