I’ll be counting down the days until I see The Force Awakens with a series of remembrances and observations about the franchise. Today, the agonizing wait between Empire and Jedi.
Nobody was really surprised we were getting another Star Wars movie after The Empire Strikes Back. The whole nine episodes thing was out in the wild by then, promising us a new Star Wars movie every three years until 2001. And while Empire was the mammoth success that Star Wars was, well, what could be? It still broke records and made a lot of money and sold a ton of toys. No, it was how we’d be getting that next Star Wars movie that was the surprise. With the fate of one of the saga’s main characters unresolved, and one of the greatest revelations in movie history fresh in our minds.
Movies just didn’t do that back then. Every James Bond film pretty much reset everything back to zero at the end, ready to start fresh with the next one. Godzilla marched back to the sea to wait for the next monster to show up. Franchises knew what you liked and kept offering it to you, over and over again, never changing the formula that got you into the theater in the first place. And yet here was the sequel to the most popular movie of all time freezing Han Solo and dropping “I am your father” on us, then saying, “So long, see you in three years!”
It wasn’t just crazy, it was cruel. We didn’t have the internet to worm into every detail of the production. We had to glean what we could from Entertainment Tonight and Starlog and Famous Monsters. So we were left with nothing but our own wild speculation to tide us over until summer of 1983. And boy did we speculate. Han would be saved. Han would die. Vader really was Luke’s father. No, he wasn’t, he was just saying that to turn Luke to the Dark Side. Obi-Wan was actually Luke’s father. Obi-Wan killed Luke’s father. Boba Fett was somehow Luke’s father. Yoda was Luke’s father. Okay, maybe not that last one, but it wouldn’t have been completely out of place. And not being able to go online and find a spoiler thread to tell us if we were right or not made it a whole lot more fun. For three years, nobody could be wrong.
As Return of the Jedi‘s release date neared, I remember having a dream about it. There was a forest the heroes were trekking through, and then suddenly there were animated fairies flitting about, all Disney-esque and cute. There may have even been singing. I woke with a vague sense of unease at the prospect that maybe Jedi would be a disaster. But come on, these were the people who’d made The Empire Strikes Back! They’d never succumb to such cutesy nonsense.
The days were ticking down, and still I was in the dark on plot details. But this time by choice. I didn’t want to know anything. Oh, we’d still argue about it though. I remember a friend of mine holding forth with this outlandish theory that Vader was Luke’s father, and that he “died” when he became Vader, and Obi-Wan had hidden that from Luke deliberately. I couldn’t tell him he was full of crap fast enough. Then his mother casually mentioned he’d gotten some movie magazine about Jedi and had he told me about it yet? And I realized his “speculation” was actually the plot of the film. I didn’t punch him, but it crossed my mind.
And then it was May of 1983 and the time came to broach the subject with my parents of just when and how I’d see Jedi. Full of youthful optimism, I brought up the possibility of skipping school that Wednesday to see it the day it opened. Youthful optimism died that day as that door was swiftly and promptly closed. So it wouldn’t be until a Saturday matinee that I’d finally have my cliff unhung. It didn’t help that on that May 25th, my school bus drove by the theater where Jedi was playing. I could see the line snaking around the building, filled with real fans whose parents understood.
But then Saturday finally came and we had our seats and the grand finale unfurled before us. And for a 14-year old who’d been waiting for this for three years, not even the Ewoks could dampen the enthusiasm. Yes, I felt a slight stir of dissatisfaction at the way Boba Fett went out, but that space battle! That final duel! Vader turning back to save his son! We practically soared out of that theater. It wouldn’t be the first time we convinced ourselves a Star Wars movie was better than it actually was, but at least in this case, it didn’t require quite so much heavy lifting. Because it was still a ton of fun. And if it didn’t match the lofty heights of the first two films, that was nearly an impossible standard for anything to live up to.
Besides, next time we’d be going back to the Clone Wars to see how all this started, and it was going to be totally awesome. We’d just have to wait three years for it…
The Twelve Days of Star Wars