Return of the Jedi Remembered

30 years ago today, two friends and I ditched school to see the very first screening of Return of the Jedi on its opening day on the biggest movie screen in the county. It turned out to be a significant day in ways I didn’t suspect at the time.

I was a freshman in high school. My friends and I had been, of course, huge fans of the Star Wars franchise since the original movie, 7 years before. In many ways it had become the core of a SciFi and Fantasy obsession dating back even further, fueled by books, magazines like Analog, Starlog and Heavy Metal and the old movies featured by Bob Wilkins on his Saturday evening Creature Features show.

Significant anticipation had built up over the resolution of various plot lines left hanging in The Empire Strikes Back. Is Darth Vader really Luke’s father? Will they rescue Han from Jabba the Hut? And who’s this Boba Fett character?

We couldn’t wait to find out, and dared not run the risk of someone spoiling the surprise. And besides, we were old enough now to see the movies alone. No need to wait for our parents this time.

In those days I didn’t yet have that coveted driver’s license, but we did have the wonderful freedom of our bikes. I frequently rode the 4 miles between home to school. So on that Wednesday afternoon 30 years ago, my friends and I ducked out at lunch, grabbed our bikes and pedaled over to the big “dome” theater in Pleasant Hill to catch the very first showing of Jedi in our town.

It seemed like such a caper at the time. I’d never really been one for breaking the rules, and recall looking over my shoulder several times, half expecting an army of Assistant Principals and Truant Officers to be chasing after us like in The Great Escape.

In reality, I don’t think anyone noticed we’d gone. I certainly don’t recall any disciplinary fallout from that afternoon.

We arrived at the theater and found a small group of people waiting. Not a huge crowd, but we weren’t the only ones hoping for another grand installment in the story of Luke, Leia and the rebellion. We bought tickets, soda and popcorn, debated the best place to sit — we had most of the huge theater to choose from — and settled in for the coming attractions to roll.

The movie itself was great and fulfilled many of our hopes, until… the Ewoks. I remember thinking “Teddy bears? WTF?”

The rest of the movie wasn’t a total disappointment. I mean, the showdown between Luke, Vader and the Emperor was pretty badass. But that’s followed up by the uncomfortable makeup scene between Luke and Fat Vader, the Ewok hoedown, C3PO telling stories (badly I might add) and the bemused Jedi ghosts. (Let’s not even get started on the whole Hayden Christensen thing… that was a disappointment yet to come.)

By the way, here’s 30 things you probably didn’t know about Return of The Jedi.

At the time I probably felt somewhat betrayed by the trite ending and the indignity of a fat bushbaby tribe saving the rebellion. But I soon came to realize something else: George Lucas wanted to keep Star Wars accessible to children. And I was growing up. In some sense I’d moved on and realized these movies weren’t necessarily for me anymore. They were maybe for George Lucas or a new generation of kids or, anyway, people who were less snooty and cynical than this teen-aged cineaste was becoming.

(Ironically, I unintentionally ended up seeing The Phantom Menace on opening day 16 years later, but that’s a story for another day.)

The Star Wars saga no longer holds the position in my life it once did, but it still maintains a place of respect in my pantheon of great stories. I’ve seen all the films so far, if only out of curiosity, and look forward to JJ Abrams’ interpretation of Episode 7, lens flare and all.

I read and highly recommend Michael Heilemann’s Kitbashed blog, dissecting the creative work of George Lucas and the influences remixed into the Star Wars universe. It’s a very grown-up look at myth, film-making, creativity and what it means within our cultural heritage. From Kitbashed I learned of this excellent Michael Kaminski article In Tribute to Marcia Lucas from The Secret History of Star Wars, which outlines her significant contributions to George’s work through Empire (and perhaps why Jedi missed the mark).

As if to underscore the fact that Star Wars remains part of my childhood, that theater where we first watched Jedi shut down in late April and was demolished two weeks ago. Like many other landmarks of my youth, it’s gone forever. But I have fond memories.

And the original theatrical releases on DVD.

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