Big news: the family sat down and watched The Empire Strikes Back the other day.
Yes, long-time readers of this blog will know that this is, indeed, big news. I am someone who has geeky (or is it nerdy?) interests and one of the joys of parenthood has been getting to share them with my children.
I was born in 1977, the year of A New Hope (is there a symbolic connection there?), and like many nerds (or geeks) my age Star Wars had an gargantuan influence on my imagination throughout childhood. I don’t remember my first viewing of The Empire Strikes Back (which came out the same year my little brother was born —which was absolutely an omen, I assure you) but I was alive when it came out and rocked everyone’s world. I can recall anticipating the release of Return of the Jedi quite vividly, although actually seeing the movie in the theater is a little hazy.
The experience of Star Wars that I want to share with my children isn’t just the movies themselves, but also that sense of waiting for and wondering about the next chapter. As I’ve written about in more detail before, my yardstick for how and when to expose them to the various films all boils down to their experience of a single scene. I’ll consider this venture a success if the moment in The Empire Strikes Back when [SPOILER] Darth Vader is revealed to be Luke Skywalker’s father comes as a real shock and surprise to my kids.
I first showed RU and MeToo Star Wars* about a year ago. That experience made me rethink my initial plans for spacing the movies a year apart. They were clearly too young to really get what was going on. I was probably being too hasty. No need to expose them to any of the sequels or prequels until they were older. The girls were a little more into it when we rewatched Episode IV about six months later, but it only confirmed for me that we should stick to just that film for at least a couple of years.
Then, on Saturday afternoon, the Wife said, “Hey, let’s watch Empire Strikes Back.”
To which I replied, “Um, I don’t know if… Okay!”
I couldn’t help it. The Force has awoken and excitement about the Star Wars franchise surrounds us and penetrates us — it binds the galaxy together…
Er, sorry. Where was I? Oh, yes! We went ahead and watched Episode V. The best of the bunch.
Before starting the film, we had a quick review.
Do you remember who Darth Vader is? Yes, he dresses in black and captured Princess Leia. His friends are the stormtroopers. They wear white and are very bad.
And who’s Luke Skywalker? I don’t know. Oh, he wears white clothes and helped rescue Princess Leia.
Who’s Han Solo and Chewbacca? They help Luke rescue the Princess with their spaceship. (MeToo: “I not afraid of Chewbacca! I like Chewbacca!”)
So RU had retained a lot more than I’d thought. Great!
The opening crawl was mercifully easy to follow from their perspective. They knew who Vader and Luke were, they could tell the good guys from the bad guys, and there wasn’t anything in the setup that was beyond their grasp. RU immediately understood that the Rebellion was hiding and the Empire was trying to find them. She even surmised that whenever they were found, the good guys would go hide somewhere else before the bad guys could get to them.
The very beginning is actually quite slow compared to pretty much any action-oriented movie I’ve seen in the past decade or two. Any moments of violence that might take up an entire action sequence in a modern movie, like the bits with the Wampa (the abominable snow-monster) or the probe droid, are incredibly brief. Most of what comes before the Battle of Hoth builds tension (oddly enough, by having the main characters ask questions that we know the answers to — “Where’s Luke?” “What’s this strange signal we’re picking up? Is it transmitting an Imperial code?”). The girls stayed with it, though; they were fresh out of nap time and fully committed.
Which was nice, because it meant that RU at least could follow what’s actually going on in the Battle of Hoth sequence beyond just watching all the action unfold. She was definitely into it, asking questions and saying “Uh-oh!” with each telegraphed danger. (The rebel officer looks through his space-binoculars and sees something out there, but only part of it. He scans upwards and — “Uh-oh!” RU says — reveals a titanic dinosaur-like machine with guns in its face! “What’s that?” “An AT-AT Walker.”) Watching the battle through her eyes, especially after pointing out how the good guys were just fighting to delay the bad guys long enough for most of them to get away, the desperation and dread of the Rebels really came through for me in a way it hadn’t in a very long time. The sequence masterfully punctuates the overall downbeat of a fighting retreat with momentary triumphs.
“YES!!!!” (RU, after the first Imperial Walker is finally taken down and blown up.)
“Whew! They made it.” (RU, as the Millennium Falcon finally gets off the ground and flies away just as Darth Vader enters the hangar.)
Dagobah was scary — there are a lot of scenes in Empire that have a sense of menace, even during calm parts of the story — and Yoda initially creeped the kids out. That surprised me. I had expected the girls to already know who he is just through osmosis. Z has Yoda pajamas, after all. Still, I remember that when I was young it took me a long time to really warm up to the diminutive Jedi master, too.
About this time, MeToo turned to me with a wait a second, let me get this straight look and said, “We have two Star Wars?”
We stopped for dinner about halfway through, taking a much needed break. Even though our girls can sit through eight episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood without blinking, an intermission was vital for helping them through a two-hour long plot intended for people with longer attention spans.
By the time we started back up again (with the Millennium Falcon arriving at Cloud City), however, MeToo was getting restless. She was still watching the show but was wriggly and talkative. (“Chewbacca can’t talk. He just says, ‘ARR! ARR!’”) A lot of what she said, though, was, “Why are they being mean to each other?” She said it when Han decks Lando, when Chewie attacks some stormtroopers, when Han yells at Chewie to calm down, when Chewie tries to strangle Lando, and any time the stormtroopers shove anyone around. I didn’t want to ignore her questions, but without seriously interrupting the movie I didn’t have an answer better than, “They don’t like each other” (or “Chewbacca’s angry”). Besides, answers based on the plot would have little meaning for a two-and-a-half year-old. Maybe that explains why she wasn’t particularly focused on the movie at that point.
Then, something happened. Luke had arrived at Cloud City to save his friends (just as Vader planned). His friends, however, escaped on their own and took off (after having failed to rescue Han — even on my umpteenth viewing, my reaction to seeing Boba Fett just fly away is “Whaaat? Did that just happen?”). Luke is now wandering Cloud City on his own. The place should be full of Imperial troops but it now seems deserted. He walks into the chamber where Han got frozen in carbonite and… Everyone gets completely silent. Even MeToo. Even Baby Z. Something about that moment before Darth Vader steps into frame and the lead-in to it clearly signals stuff’s about to go down.
Luke and Vader square off, they fight, they separate, they fight, and then there’s the scene. I’ve been anticipating my kids’ reaction to this moment for years. In a way, I’ve been thinking about it even before I had children. Getting this right — making sure they are old enough, invested in the story enough, and paying attention enough to understand both this scene and the larger context for it — is the reason I’ve spent so much mental energy pondering the experience of the Star Wars series and not, say, health insurance plans or anniversary gifts.
When Darth Vader finally corners a maimed, defeated Luke and says, [SPOILER] “Luke, I am your father,” I’m watching RU. Her eyes are riveted to the screen but her face is drawn downwards in that look that usually means she’s about to cry. She doesn’t get any tears, but it looks like she’s watching someone take a family member off life support. This is not what I had expected. You can find videos online people took of their children watching this scene for the first time. They’re always full of gasps or expressions of disbelief. I’ve never seen one where the kid nearly starts bawling out of sympathy for Luke’s pain in that moment.
I should’ve considered it, though. It’s easy to say that The Empire Strikes Back ends without closure on an emotional down-beat and is the darkest of the original trilogy. However, it’s easy to forget what that experience was really like the first time around. If you don’t know it’s coming, it’s a big blow that comes at the end of a wrenching sequence. Because aside from the big reveal (which RU absolutely got), the whole light saber duel is like a nightmare. Darth Vader is scary. He’s powerful, implacable, and has that whole unhurried/unstoppable vibe that can carry an entire horror movie franchise. Luke can’t beat him, or even hold his own. The duel is just like the Battle of Hoth, but more intense. The whole sequence is a long defeat for Luke, who barely manages to save himself from moment to moment.
It’s not just that Vader is more powerful; the particulars of the fight are like something from a bad dream. Luke, weaponless, hanging from cables just inches above Vader’s swinging light saber. Vader using the force to pull the room apart and throw it at Luke. Luke getting blown out of a window — for a heartbeat, you just know he’s got to be dead. As RU pointed out, Luke can’t even escape: “Why is it that whenever Luke goes somewhere, Darth Vader is already there?” By the time of Vader’s revelation, our hero has been stalked, trapped, and beaten in one scene after another. I had forgotten how hard that is to watch when you’re a young kid who has been sucked into the narrative and doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. (Plus, my girls are rather tender-hearted and aren’t used to seeing people get dismembered, despite the fact that one of their favorite shows is about a tiger.)
I squeezed RU closer and made sure she was okay. When it was over, I made sure to tell her that there is another Star Wars movie after this one where the good guys save the day. After the movie, she and MeToo both said that they enjoyed it, although it had a lot of scary parts. “Now let’s watch the other Star Wars,” MeToo urged.
MeToo meant “the other Star Wars movie we’ve seen before,” which was A New Hope, but I’m wondering if we shouldn’t show them Return of the Jedi soon, despite my edict that we would try to wait a year between showing them each film. Until now, I had been thinking about all this from the perspective of an adult who loves the original trilogy but saw it at such a young age that I can’t really remember what it was like. I’ve been wanting to craft this experience for RU, MeToo, and Z so that they can not only enjoy these films but have a clear memory of falling in love with them. I’ve kicked myself for being so impatient and starting them off too early. That’s absolutely the case with MeToo — she may enjoy the movies but she’s too young to really understand much about them. RU, however, may be too young to get everything that’s going on but she was clearly catching a lot. The last act of Empire shook her a bit, and the best cure for that is to finish the story rather than leave her hanging in the middle.
When she’s thirty, RU may not remember the first time she saw Empire Strikes Back. But that memory is fresh today and won’t fade (if it does) for several years. After this, she’s going to need the closure and happy ending that Return of the Jedi can give. Heck, maybe the key to making her a life-long fan like yours truly is to get her into the franchise when she’s young, when it’s enhanced by the rosy glow of bonding with her mom and dad. You know, before she’s a jaded 8-year-old who’s had everything spoiled for her and ruined by derivative sci-fi/fantasy series trying to capture what Star Wars had.
And once the girls get these movies watched, I can put them away for a while and try my original plan with Z in a few years.
*To people of my generation “Star Wars” is sometimes also referred to as “the first movie” or “you know, the original one.” Less often, it may be called “Episode IV” or “A New Hope.”