There was no event that took place during my vacation that equaled the impact of the screening I held for my sons Toshi and Allen of the final film in the “Star Wars” series, “Return of the Jedi.”
And really, how could there be?
When we started this, I admit that I wasn’t really thinking about it as a pivotal moment in their filmgoing lives. I had no idea what sort of impact the films would have on them, even though I knew what kind of impact the films had on me. One of the things I’ve tried to do as I’ve been sharing movies with my boys is be careful not to try to force them into liking the things I like. I’ve been very careful about the way the iconography of “Star Wars” was introduced into their lives, never placing it on a pedestal above everything else. There are certain little things around the house that have been there as long as they’ve been alive. A Yoda figure in one room. A Battle Droid on another shelf. An old toy lightsaber in their toy box. Toshi started asking me about seeing the “Star Wars” films about a year ago, and when the Blu-ray box set showed up, I finally decided to give it a try. Part of me thought I was doing it too soon, but I couldn’t deny the interest was there, and that’s been the big guiding light so far with this series. I make things available on an age-appropriate basis, and then they tell me what interests them.
Now, on the far side of the full series, it’s obvious that they’ve been deeply marked by the movies and by the experience itself. This year, Halloween was all about “Star Wars” for them. Have you ever seen Anakin Skywalker locked in mortal combat with Jedi Master Yoda?
Well, now you have. A still picture doesn’t really do justice to the idea of how ridiculously adorable it is to have a three year old walking around telling strangers at every door, “Do or do not… there is no try.” The two of them were determined to wear their costumes for a few days before Halloween, and Allen still hasn’t gone a full day without wearing his.
Even this far into this series, I’m still getting people asking me about the order in which I decided to show the kids the movies. Up until now, it’s been a hypothetical idea on my part, but this was my opportunity to put it to the test, and it wasn’t until we were really neck-deep in it that I started to fret about whether or not I was doing it right. After all, they’re only going to see these for the first time once, and if I screwed it up, then it would change the way they think about the movies.
I am happy to report, then, that I can’t imagine the films playing any better than they did to the boys. “Return Of The Jedi” has been a film I’ve had a rough relationship with ever since it was released in 1983. It’s not a terrible movie, but it frustrated me enormously as a follow-up to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and while I understand choices that Lucas made on a thematic level, they drove me crazy as dramatic choices. For Allen and Toshi, this was a return to the world of Luke, Leia and Han after a loooooong digression in which they got all the back-story they needed to fully understand the stakes of this final film, and I think they walked into it far more pumped up and invested than I was at 13.
Expectation can be a funny thing, though. For Allen, there was only one thing he wanted to see from “Jedi,” and he told me about it repeatedly in the days leading up to the screening. “Daddy, Yoda is the best, best, best, best, best fighter, and he’s gonna kill Darth Sidious with his lightsaber, right?” I would just smile and tell him he’d have to wait and see, already cringing inwardly at the thought that his expectations were going to be crushed in several ways.
When we actually started the film, there was a period of settling in and asking questions, but what amazed me is that I wasn’t the one answering the questions: Toshi was. Allen needed to be reminded of who everyone was and what happened last, and Toshi not only read him the opening crawl, he took it upon himself to explain it all.
“Okay, Allen, that’s 3CPO and R2D2 and they work for Luke Skywalker and that place is the house of Jabba The Hutt, and he’s that ugly worm guy who gave Boba Fett the money to get Han Solo frozen and steal him, and so he did in ‘Empire Strikes Back,’ you remember? And he was in that thing and he was all frozen? So the robots are gonna get Han Solo somehow.”
That was all the set-up needed for both of them to dive back into the world, and one of the things that really does make “Star Wars” such a potent fantasy world for young viewers is the density of detail. They want to know the names of every single weird and freaky thing they see onscreen, and they like saying the names, and they like testing each other on their ability to recall all the names. They can dig as deep as they want, and they keep coming up with little things to look at or talk about or add to the ongoing game of imagination that they’re engaged in now. Every day, at least three or four times, one of them will say to the other, “You wanna play ‘Star Wars’?” And then they’re off and running, Jedi Knights battling enemies together or sometimes against one another, and they’re constantly inventing rules and adding details. Allen really likes to not only use The Force in fights, but also to react to Toshi using it on him. Maybe he’s going to be a stuntman, because he gets enormous pleasure out of throwing himself across the room and letting go of his lightsaber so he can then scramble to go get it.
Toshi noticed right away that Luke Skywalker did not have his lightsaber with him in the opening scene when he shows up at Jabba’s palace, and when he was fighting the Rancor, Toshi was practically apoplectic at the idea that Luke would show up without the weapon. “Daddy, why didn’t he make his new lightsaber?” I had to play stupid, and when the entire plan dropped into place and R2 shot the lightsaber out to Luke on the skiff, Toshi roared. He was thrilled. That entire Jabba sequence, start to finish, played like gangbusters for the boys, and the way it gradually kept bringing characters in, one at a time, really did work to reintroduce them all after the long digression of the prequels. Almost like it was designed to do so. It’s funny how much better this order works in terms of set-ups and pay-offs, with the prequels in mid-stream serving to make sure that all of the relationships have some weight behind them.
Also, putting “Sith” in the mix before this film underlines the idea for both of the boys that anything can happen. Anyone can die. Good guys can become bad guys. If it happened to Anakin, it can happen to Luke. After all, Anakin was a real Jedi Knight. He was a hero in the wars for a long time. Luke’s a shadow of his father, but like everything in the OT, muted compared to the prequels. I like that. There’s something more human scale and real about Luke’s story, about the world Luke lives in. Everything’s worn down, including the people themselves. The Owen and Beru at the end of “Sith” seem like they’re full of hope, but the old people in “A New Hope” feel worn down by years of reflection. Owen is bitter at any mention of the “heroes” of the Clone Wars, and I can imagine why now. And all of this is the stuff that Toshi seems to love about the films, the way the six films play off of one another. He’s delighted by the idea that after he sees them in order, he can watch any one of them he wants, any time he wants, any scene he wants. And he’s already told me he has a list of things he wants to see again.
The deaths in “Jedi” serve to tie up story threads and put the series to bed. Even in 1983, I think Lucas already knew this was it, the curtain call for the characters. I think it’s a bold move to kill Yoda when he’d only been in one film at that point, transitioning him to the Force and leaving the weight of everything on Luke’s shoulders. He shows up in this movie just long enough to say, “Yeah, sorry, it’s gonna suck, but you die or your dad does. Enjoy.” And then he’s gone. Allen was indignant, upset by Yoda not having one final showdown with Darth Sidious.
“Daddy, who’s gonna kill Darth Sidious now? Yoda is the best best best best fighter, and he was gonna kill him, but now he can’t.” I explained that Darth Vader and Darth Sidious were going to fight Luke together, and he was outraged anew at the suggestion. “But that’s CHEATING!”
The death of Boba Fett, though, was met with cheers and fart sounds, laughter at where he ended up. “He got EATED by the MONSTER!” Allen said this at least five times, and each time he said it, he laughed like a lunatic, so excited by the idea. “And the Princess, you remember? She killed the gross guy? You remember?” Allen will ask me if I remember something a good five minutes after it happens, as if there’s a chance that maybe I didn’t remember, and he needs to check his own memory to see if it was working properly.
I’m always surprised by how straightforward “Jedi” is, and especially after the sometimes tortured plotting and pace of the prequels. More happens in the first half hour of “Sith” than in most movies of average length, and “Jedi” opens with a busy first act as well, but they serve very different purposes. “Jedi” is all about getting the band back together and telling them what they’ve got to do for the rest of the film. Once they do that, Luke, Han, and Leia set out on a common quest for the first time since escaping the Death Star in “A New Hope.” It is unusual for all of them to be in one place at one time, and there’s a lot of value in keeping them apart. Indeed, almost as soon as they’re on the forest moon of Endor, they split up again.
Speeder bikes? Big hit.
Ewoks? Bigger hit. The boys thought they looked “weird” and “stinky,” not cute. Allen said he thought they all looked mean. Their attempt to cook Han and Luke and Leia went over like gangbusters, and the boys both yelled at the TV. It led to the first of about 47,000 times that Allen said to me during the film, “Daddy, I don’t want Luke to die.” I warned him that it was possible.
“Luke’s very strong, but anything can happen.”
“But, daddy, I don’t want Luke to die.”
“I know, buddy. Me, neither.”
The sequence where C3PO relates the story of the entire saga to the Ewoks was a particular highlight. Toshi narrated it, and Allen filled in details he liked, and they seemed to have a general sense of what parts C3PO was talking about. Again, that summing up feels appropriate if this is the last film in the series, and the sequence was also important to them because of the Luke and Leia conversation. They were particularly excited by the revelation that Leia could have the same powers of the Force that Luke has. That never occurred to them, even after seeing that Luke and Leia were twins.
“Daddy, is Princess Leia gonna get a lightsaber?”
“But in this one? Like is she gonna fight Darth Vader, too?”
Toshi seemed excited by the prospect that things would be fair after all, with two against two. I refused to answer, and a few scenes later, when Luke showed up and surrendered himself to Darth Vader, he looked at me like I had put the wrong movie in the player.
And Allen said it again, hugging me tighter this time. “Daddy, I don’t want Luke to die.”
The final section of the film, with the three different battle fronts, was a sustained emotional crescendo, and the boys spent much of it standing, participating. The attack on the Death Star, the Ewoks versus the Empire, and especially Luke standing face to face with the Emperor and Vader, all of them engrossing. It is quite clear now that there is no bad guy they’ve seen in any film that they hate more than they hate The Emperor. Allen gets angry every time he sees him onscreen, and the more the Emperor talked to Luke about converting to the Dark Side, the angrier Allen got. He was particularly offended by the idea that Luke might turn to the Dark Side. It’s something that had never occurred to him, but once it was introduced as an idea, it seemed not just possible but inevitable.
“Daddy, is Luke gonna get a Darth name, too, if he’s the bad guy now?”
“I guess so.”
“So is he gonna be with Darth Vader and Darth Sidious?”
“No, there’s only two bad guys, so if Luke becomes one, he’d have to kill whoever he replaced.”
“So if Luke kills the bad guys, he’s a bad guy?”
“But if Luke doesn’t kill the bad guys, they’re gonna kill him?”
“Looks that way.”
“DADDY, THIS MOVIE IS CHEATING!”
I’ve always thought that perhaps the single most beautiful and haunting image in the entire “Star Wars” saga takes place in “Return Of The Jedi,” a moment where the sound and the music and the camera move and the performances all crystallize perfectly, and seeing the moment here, after the emotion ride we’d been on with the six films, it hit me harder than ever. It’s right after Vader realizes Leia is Luke’s sister, and he says that he’ll turn her if Luke won’t do it. As Luke attacks him, furious, fighting harder than ever before, the Williams score swells with a vocal chorus and Luke drives Vader back, the camera tracking along on the far side of a staircase.
By that point, Allen was holding around my neck, tight as he could, whispering it like a prayer, over and over. “I don’t want Luke to die. I don’t want Luke to die.”
When Luke drove Vader down, then hacked his hand off, Toshi stepped even closer to the TV, and I could see that he was on the verge of tears. “Don’t do it, Luke! You can’t!”
And as if he heard him, Luke stepped back from that brink of destruction and refused to continue. He refused to kill his father. And Toshi turned to me, thrilled and overwhelmed. “Now they’ll stop him, right, Daddy? They’ll stop him together, right?”
The Emperor pressed his attack, driving Luke back, then down, blasting him with one burst of energy after another, until it was too much for the boys, and they both started to cry. I reached out and paused the movie.
“Guys, if this is too upsetting…”
“YOU HAVE TO TURN THE MOVIE ON!” Toshi pointed at the TV as if he could make the movie start again with sheer force of will.
“Allen? Are you okay?”
He nodded, not even aware that he was crying, evidently. “I just don’t want Luke to die.”
“I know. I know, honey.” I hugged him and turned the movie back on, and they watched the Emperor push harder, Vader watching the scene, impossible to read behind his armor. When he finally stepped forward and picked up the Emperor, Toshi immediately got it. He started to yell.
Allen didn’t understand yet. It wasn’t until Vader threw the Emperor into the react shaft that Allen really got what he was seeing.
“Daddy, did he save Luke?”
“Is the Emperor dead?”
Toshi made the logical jump. “So did they win?”
“They’ve still got to blow up the Death Star.”
“THAT’S EASY. NOW LUKE IS THE STRONGEST AND HE CAN DO ANYTHING BECAUSE HE’S SO STRONG!”
Whatever they expected Luke to do, it wasn’t the moment at the base of the landing ramp, finally removing Vader’s mask and helmet. And while I’d held myself together emotionally up to that point, it wasn’t something they said that finally set me off. Instead, it was when Vader’s helmet came off and he and Luke were finally face to face. Allen reached up, looking at the movie, and touched my face, like he was reassuring himself that it was still me. That one gesture broke me.
Once the Death Star was blown up, which almost felt like an anti-climax after the emotional crescendo of Vader’s redemption, the film does that Special Edition thing where it cuts around the galaxy to show celebrations underway. It’s something I’ve never really felt strongly about one way or another. But this time, when it showed the first celebration on Cloud City, Toshi called out, voice thick with emotion, “Look, Daddy! They’re free!”
And when it cut to Tatooine, Allen joined him. “They’re free!”
And when it cut to Naboo, they called out, even louder, overjoyed now, “They’re free!”
And on that last cut to Coruscant, Allen stood up to join Toshi, both of them jumping up and down now, as thrilled by the idea of hard-won freedom as any one on the Chicago streets in ’68 or caught up in the Arab spring, both of them at the top of their lungs now. “THEY’RE FREE!”
And then we’re back on the Endor moon, back with our heroes, the final few images of the entire saga playing out now. And they kept celebrating, pure release, jumping and calling out and cheering. “THEY’RE FREE! THEY’RE FREE!” And when Luke looks over at the Force ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and the redeemed Anakin, they stopped.
Toshi looked over at me, surprised and delighted. “Daddy, Anakin’s a good guy again. He’s Anakin again.”
“Yes, he is.”
“He saved Luke, and now he’s a good guy again, right?”
“I like that. I like that, and that’s my favorite part now.”
That celebratory high has continued without pause for a little over a week now. There have been epic lightsaber duels all through the house. They slip from one character to another as they play, sometimes fighting each other, sometimes fighting as a team. It has become a major part of their daily lives. They speak a language now that their mother doesn’t understand, with words like “wookie” and “Jawa” and “padawan,” and Allen sings the Imperial March as he does tasks like picking up the playroom or brushing his teeth. I think it is safe to say that the Force will be with them… always.
And I like that. That’s my favorite part now.
“Star Wars: The Complete Saga” is available now on Blu-ray.