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For people who spend the day saying and writing things that others accept, while thinking things that are infinitely more interesting.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Empire Strikes Back

On a warm summery night, I walked past the decrepit piss-pit of a movie theater that crouched across a gutted street from a church. As was my habit, I pushed the greasy door open, snarled a curse at the old man who asked for my ticket and made my way carefully down a sticky, steep ramp. I tucked myself in the first row, the screen towering above me into the scarlet darkness above. A few minutes later, with a rumble that shook the wall, a huge spaceship soared from behind me, passing heavily overhead as lasers fired in battle across a star-filled sky.

I was overcome with awe. The moment the movie ended, I ran to my house, got my sister and went back to see the movie again. I even paid for the tickets.

Star Wars was without a doubt the culmination of my childhood dreams. For all the pie-plate spaceships, rubber-suited aliens and wooden dialogue I put up with for years, George Lucas’s vision was my vision, space opera done with grandeur. The story echoed the fairy tales of good and evil we glossed over, but secretly longed for, as they made the world simple, dramatic and somehow more real.

But it was The Empire Strikes Back that catapulted the whole saga into the realm of permanence. Prosaically, sequels struggle to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle impact of the original, especially one so successful as Star Wars. So for all of us who had thrilled at the first movie, even with high expectations we were girding our emotions for a letdown.

It never came. The movie picked up the drama and energy of the first and deepened the story, raised the stakes and then closed with an obvious cliffhanger: Hans Solo in cryogenic freeze. What made it work was the confidence Lucas had in narrative, in telling a story the way it had been told for millenia. Yes, the story was set in space and the movie used much visual trickery (special effects are tricks to make you see what really doesn’t exist) as part of its stage, but it all hung together from a powerful story, oft-told.

At the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back, I left the new, air-conditioned theater with cloth-covered seats and carpeted floors and thought back to when I saw Star Wars. For a moment, I wished to be back on the wooden slats, lying down, the screen a towering wall above me, as the visionary magic of cinema carried me away for the last time.


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