WARNING: STAR WARS SPOILERS AHEAD!
It’s the late 1970s. My parents are visiting with friends, and I’ve been relegated to the upstairs room with the other kids even though I’d prefer to be sitting downstairs with the adults. There’s a television upstairs, and a VCR, and a movie playing on the screen. It shows a desert planet, and little guys in robes with glowing eyes. A creature gets his arm cut off, another creature gets shot, then there are spaceships and lasers, a princess and a trash compactor, a fight where the good guy “dies”, a huge explosion, a joyous award ceremony. I’m entranced. Some primal buttons have been pushed inside of me, an awareness of good and evil, life and death, the hero’s journey. When the movie ends, we watch it again. In my memory, we watch it again and again and again and again.
It’s 1980. My friend Mike is excited about The Empire Strikes Back and gives away a critical moment in the movie: Luke gets his hand cut off! I’m so terrified of seeing someone get their hand cut off that I keep leaving the theater “to go to the bathroom” whenever I think the dismemberment might occur. I wind up seeing it anyway, but it’s bloodless and not so bad. I’m more upset by the weird encounter with Darth Vader in the swamp, and by how battered Luke’s face looks. My brother and I get Han, Luke and Leia action figures in their Hoth clothes (I love Han’s Hoth coat, and Leia’s Hoth hair). We get bounty hunters, and Lando in a plastic cape (to go with our old Princess Leia in a plastic cape, and Darth Vader in a plastic cape with a plastic light saber you push down his arm). We get a C-3PO that comes apart (constantly). Mike gets an AT-AT, which looks awesome when we play with it in the snow.
It’s 1983. I’m ten years old, and I am obsessed—OBSESSED—with all things Star Wars. I’m so excited about seeing Return of the Jedi that my heart feels like it’s going to burst every time I think about it. They show a preview clip on TV—the sail barge battle (“Get the gun! Point it at the deck!”)—and I think I’ve never seen anything so thrilling. They sell the Return of the Jedi novel in the Kroger grocery store, and I peek at the pictures but try not to spoil the story for myself. When we finally see the movie, it’s everything I want it to be and more: Luke striding into Jabba’s palace in that long black cloak, Leia rescuing Han, the funny Ewoks, the stunning space battle, and the end—the awful encounter with the Emperor, the horror and frisson of seeing a hero tortured and a bad guy redeemed. I know Darth Vader’s helmet is going to come off eventually and I’m frightened to see what’s underneath, but it turns out it’s just a sad old man.
We get the Return of the Jedi read-along book and cassette tape and memorize all the lines. Mike, Jeb and I plan to make our own audio tape of the movie, using my Merlin toy to make R2-D2 sounds. We record the first scene, with Mike playing Darth Vader and me playing Moff Jerjerrod (“Lord Vader, this is an unexpected pleasure. We’re honored by your presence”). I don’t think we get any farther than that, but it’s enough. We’ve made the movie our own. We want to be Ewoks, too, and we spend hours running around our wintry neighborhood, collecting odds and ends for our Ewok village (stones, pieces of bark, tiny snippets of colored wire and plastic from around the junction box at the base of the telephone pole down the street). The Ewok village is in the pine trees at the front of our house.
We get cuddly Ewoks for Christmas. We get all the trading cards (I’m really pleased when I finally get Max Rebo). We get Luke in his black outfit with his black hand, and we get the Emperor’s Royal Guards with proper fuzzy red cloth capes (no more plastic). We get a speeder bike that comes apart (constantly). My dad brings back a Boushh/Princess Leia action figure from a business trip, and I think it’s the most amazing thing ever (she has a long rifle and a tiny helmet you can remove to reveal an even tinier head). She stands on my dresser and I look at her before going to sleep. We get Jabba the Hutt on his throne with a little hookah and a little Salacious Crumb. Salacious Crumb gets tossed up into the air in our front yard at some point and doesn’t come back down; he’s stuck somewhere in the huge tree. I reluctantly give him up for dead, but maybe a year later we find him again when he mysteriously falls out of the sky. We don’t have as much luck with Yoda; he goes missing in the stones at the bottom of Mike’s driveway and is never seen again.
I read the Return of the Jedi novel. I get the best poster and it hangs on my wall for years. I get a Return of the Jedi cake for my 10th birthday. I keep a tiny Jawa action figure (cloth robe) on my dresser, along with the prodigal Salacious Crumb. I write Star Wars fan fiction.
I’m the only girl I know who likes Star Wars.
It’s 1994. I meet an Irish boy in Germany who seems pretty cool. We hang out a bit. He says he’s heading to France. The night before he goes, we spend hours eating Doritos sent from America and talking about life, the universe and everything. At some point he mentions Star Wars. I gasp—“I love Star Wars!”—and his face lights up, his big blue eyes and wide smile just about melting my heart. Then he asks me an obscure Star Wars trivia question that I can’t answer, but it’s okay. The cornerstone has been laid.
It’s 1999. There’s a new Star Wars movie! We’re still in Germany—no chance we’ll see the movie anytime soon, certainly not in English. Someone gets hold of a (very) bootlegged copy and we plan a screening in a squat at the edge of town. We sit on the floor, beers in hand, and watch the movie projected onto a sheet hanging on the wall. The sheet falls down halfway through and we all laugh and hastily tack it back up. The music is thrilling, the bad guy looks great, the final light saber battle is awesome. I do up Jeremy’s face as Darth Maul for Halloween. After we move to England, we stay up all night playing Pod Racer against each other on our computers. They start selling Star Wars Legos, and suddenly two of my childhood obsessions are united in one tasty package. We buy a Lego TIE Interceptor and display it proudly in our tiny flat. And when we move, I literally fly it from our old flat to our new one.
It’s 2002. We go to the midnight screening of Attack of the Clones. I want to like it more than I do. I want to feel like a kid again. But I don’t. Then it’s 2005, and there’s another movie, and there are some things I like and some things I don’t, and I still don’t feel like a kid, and I assume that my time for Star Wars has simply passed. I put away childish things.
It’s December 2015. I avoid all spoilers. I avoid getting my hopes up. I expect nothing more than a competent space romp which happens to be set in the Star Wars universe. We go to the midnight screening, and when the lights go down and STAR WARS blasts onto the screen with that old fanfare, I feel a little tug in my heart. The opening images are familiar but different, modern: an ominous silhouette, a juddering cinema vérité stormtrooper drop, a battle where you see actual blood. The archetypes: a dashing good guy, a frosty bad guy. The desert: once again familiar but different, bleak and beautiful, the startling wreckage of starships. And the heroine: tough, smart, competent, kind. Human. I’m on guard, waiting for her to be put into a situation or a costume that I hate, waiting for the eye-roll moment, the inevitable “lessening” of her—but it never comes. It never comes!
I’m on the edge of my seat the whole time, not knowing what’s coming. When Kylo Ren’s parentage is revealed, I turn to Jeremy in the theater, mouth agape. Really?! And when Kylo Ren starts to take off his helmet, I feel the same pang of fear that I felt with Darth Vader—“What’s under there? What’s under there?” (I honestly have no idea). I’m expecting a monster, but it turns out it’s just a beautiful young man. I’m as taken aback as the heroine. It’s a delicious feeling.
I’m not expecting the shocking death that comes later, though I’m not entirely un-expecting either; I know enough Star Wars lore to know that Han Solo probably isn’t going to stick around. And I’m not expecting to see, at the end, a lightsaber fight that encompasses everything I’ve loved since I was a child: fantasy and science fiction, a lightsaber like a medieval sword (sorry, h8ers, I love that crossguard), a dark cloak swirling in the snow, a tableau like something out of Lord of the Rings or Arthurian legend. And when I see Luke’s lightsaber fly out of that snowbank, past Kylo Ren, and into the hands of a terrified but totally-not-giving-up Rey, my heart leaps and I want to cheer.
We see it a second time. And a third time. The fourth time we go see it, on a Saturday afternoon, there are two young girls sitting a few seats away. They’re chit-chatting when we sit down, and I wonder if they’ll chit-chat through the whole film. They don’t. They sit silent, transfixed, soaking up the spectacle. I picture them with little Rey action figures on their dressers, running around collecting odds and ends as they play “Rey in the desert”, wearing Rey costumes for Halloween, placing themselves in the center of the action, where they know they belong. I picture them as just two of many girls who like Star Wars, not only because it still pushes those primal buttons, but because they see themselves reflected in it, in the brave heroine who goes on her own hero’s journey, a timeless journey for a new generation. And I think what a good time it is to be a kid—and what a good time it is to finally feel like a kid again.