I Saw Return of the Jedi First: What Star Wars Means to Me as a Millennial
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I saw RETURN OF THE JEDI first.
I was being baby-sat a few blocks away at the White’s house. Their back-room was composed completely of windows, a green-house that grows people on couches instead of plants.
My body was haphazardly splayed across the carpeted ground, and we’d just wrapped up watching THE LITTLE MERMAID for the 1,000,000,0000 consecutive time.
My babysitter, somehow growing tired of The Little Mermaid, switched to TV instead. The screen lingered on a giant dome in the desert, and my journey into Star Wars fanaticism began:
“The doors open and a cloaked figure enters a cold, long hallway. Our hero(?) slowly makes his way into the house of a giant slug monster. Who also has a friend with a HUGE ear or something. He pulls back his hood to reveal his true identity… it’s some guy! ”
Because I hadn’t seen A NEW HOPE or EMPIRE yet, every reveal of an old cherished character in JEDI was baffling to me. Han Solo’s first appearance is melting out of a wall. Leia is a short alien with an explosive bocce ball. But I. LOVED. IT. When the Sarlacc ate Boba Fett, I didn’t know who the fuck he was, but I giggled like crazy when it BURPED AFTERWARDS.
And then, much later, a planet full of mother-fucking teddy bears danced.
George Lucas knew exactly what he was doing.
JEDI, even though nothing made any goddamn sense to me, was the perfect first Star Wars movie for a five-year-old kid to see.
As soon as I realized that there were MORE movies with giant burping pits and War Teddies I wanted IN. I immediately found out that our neighbors had all three movies on VHS and got to work.
A NEW HOPE was intense. I mean, if you think about it, everyone’s always saying that EMPIRE is the darkest movie. I can dig, the overall tone is hard-times for the Rebels, but nobody dies. PEOPLE FUCKING DIE in A New Hope.
Luke’s Aunt and Uncle? Those kindly, older people? BURNED TO SKELETONS! Seriously, they fucking linger on his Aunt and Uncle’s horrific, skeletal remains. And Luke’s just like “huh, guess I’m not going to be a moisture farmer anymore. Let’s go to town!” He’s waaaay more upset about Obi Wan, who he JUST FUCKING MET dying than he is upset about the people who raised him his entire life being ROASTED TO A CRISP! But I digress…
I loved a NEW HOPE, but in the way I loved something that was too old for me. I loved it in the way that I CHERISHED Robocop when I saw it later that year because I had never seen brutal, hardcore violence on screen before.
EMPIRE was a let down for six year old me. A NEW HOPE was the grown-up, mature Star Wars after JEDI, but EMPIRE? I thought it was boring. The snow fight with lasers and robots? Awesome. Then… they’re just wandering around now? Oh wait, a huge group of awesome bounty hunters! Bet our heroes are gonna fight ’em one by one! NOPE. Now Luke is in a swamp carrying Kermit around in his backpack… YAWN. Cloud city, greeted by that black dude guy from Batman dressed like a magician… YAWN. Ooo betrayal! Han Solo is transformed into a coffee table (oooh, that’s why he came out of the wall in JEDI) And then… a really long lightsaber fight in the dark where Darth Vader keeps throwing cardboard boxes at Luke. Then the big reveal…..
He’s Luke’s father? I ALREADY FUCKING KNEW THAT!
One of the greatest twists in film history? SPOILED
And then we moved to Botswana for a year, where there was no Star Wars. At least not on TV. But there sure as shit was Star Trek. Somehow, thanks to some Soviet era satellite floating through space, we could occasionally pick up reruns and new episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And for the only time in my life, I was a bigger fan of Star Trek than I was of Star Wars.
We returned home to Reed City, Michigan in the middle of summer vacation. With no school to distract me, I continued my full-time hobby of wasting my entire life watching movies. And I realized something: I hadn’t given Star Wars a fair shake. I asked my Dad for three dollars cash, which I promptly marched two blocks down to We R’ Movies and used to rent all three Star Wars movies for one day.
It does amaze me that, looking back, an eight-year-old could walk down and rent anything from We R’ Movies. And I did. Eight year old boy renting “Jason Goes to Hell?” Why not! Same eight year old boy renting “Sexy Ski Patrol 3: Honey’s Buns Return?” Yep!
All the porn with naked people actually on the cover, they kept in the back behind literal saloon doors. These doors made a loud, clanging sound when anyone went through them, and they were situated just off where they kept the new releases on the back wall.
There was no greater joy for me as a eight-year-old standing back there in the kid’s section, pretending to look, and hearing that saloon door swing open and close. I would get into position, grab the most innocent looking kid’s film I could find (the remake of Miracle on 34th Street was my favorite) and wait for my trap to spring. The poor, lonely wretch who stumbled out of those saloon doors clutching “Playboy’s Naughtiest Moms” would immediately make eye contact with me, a helplessly skinny eight-year-old kid clutching a movie with motherfucking Santa on the cover. Being a small town, they would feel obligated, having made eye contact, to speak. But, finding the correct words to address a random, eight-year-old boy after you’ve just emerged red-faced from the porno closet is hard. So they would just make a sound instead, usually a mixture of clearing their throat and shame.
Except that day. Because instead of holding “Miracle on 34th Street” I was holding all three “Star Wars” movies. And when the plaid-suited, John-Deere-capped man walked out of the Porno Closet that day, clutching “Playboy’s Naughtiest Stepmoms” and saw me standing there holding the entire Star Wars collection on VHS he smiled a big, wide, Marlboro-Red smile and said to me “This your first time?”
Which, out of all the things for a man to say to a random eight-year-boy after emerging fresh from the porno closet, could possibly be the worst. Besides “Where do you live?” and “Wanna see a dead body?”
Rather then shame, or guilt, this man’s feelings were wiped away by the pure thought that he might be meeting a kid right before they see Star Wars for the first time. Not wanting to take that away from him, I smiled and said “yep!” He took of his cap, and his eyes started to twinkle like a Redneck St. Nicholas.”I saw ’em in the theaters. They don’t make movies like that anymore. You’re gonna have the time of your life.”
And I did.
It had been almost two years since I’d seen the movies, so in kid years it had been twenty. This time I watched them in the order that God intended, and I literally had the time of my life. No other movies had made me feel that way, besides DICK TRACY and ROBOCOP, and for the rest of the summer I kept coming back and renting Star Wars again and again. For Christmas that year Santa, like tossing a bag of china white heroin to a junkie, brought me the VHS boxed set for Christmas.
And then, in 1995, the toys started to come out again.
There were a few of my oldest brother’s Star Wars toys kicking around our house like little nuggets of gold in a stream bed. And, like some old grizzled prospector, he would regale us with tales of the collection he used to have, and how it was all sold away in a tragic, fateful garage sale. BUT, he would always add, like any good ol’ grizzled prospector, there was still some motherfucking gold in them thar’ basement! I was CONVINCED that tucked into the walls of our house was a hidden Goonies-sized treasure trove of top-fucking-shelf Star Wars toys.
But the Star Wars figures we did have were busted. They had seen. some. shit. Plus, we didn’t have any major characters. We only had a pig midget from EMPIRE, who was very difficult to incorporate into GI JOE playtime (hey! It’s Colonel Pig Midget with some vital info on Cobra!)
Then, in downtown Reed City, our Ben Franklin store started to stock NEW STARS WARS TOYS. And I fucking. lost. my. shit. Luke was back, and he was RIPPED. Darth Vader was back, and he was RIPPED. I’m surprised they didn’t slap a six pack on Obi Wan. But this was 1995, and muscles were IN.
And Kenner rereleased everything. First, just the main characters, and then everybody else. Distant creature in the background on Tatooine? Yep. Evil Captain Giant Sideburns? Yep! I had them all. I even bought another, newer version of the pig midget (hey! It’s Colonel Pig Midget and his twin brother with some vital info on Cobra!)
Only I didn’t need to mix my Star Wars figures with my GI JOES anymore. I could make my own adventures now. And I did. With an army of Star Wars figures and more flying vehicles at my command than the Pentagon, I created new worlds.
Until I realized that someone had also been using the Star Wars characters to create worlds. BOOK worlds.
I found Timothy Zahn’s HEIR TO THE EMPIRE at the Reed City Library and couldn’t believe my eyes. Star Wars the book? With a completely new story starring all my favorite character ever? YES PLEASE.
And, like that addict taking his first hit of the pure after a year of sobriety, I was obsessed all over again.
After Zahn’s series, I burned through Kevin J Anderson’s YOUNG JEDI KNIGHTS and JEDI ACADMY series, and the books kept. on. coming. I bought blueprints to all the ships I owned, and all the creature guides telling me Greedo’s favorite toothpaste and other made-up things I. NEEDED. TO. KNOW.
I was swimming in Star Wars now, but like any universe with many Captains at the wheel, a lot of the books were underwhelming because NOTHING CHANGED. No matter what happened to Luke, Leia, Han and the rest, the Expanded Universe could only take them so far.
Meanwhile, the plan that George Lucas started with the release of Return of the Jedi was coming into focus.
Because he didn’t end the series with a shameless grab towards kids just to let Star Wars fade away. Now that books and toys were stoking the fire, it was time to bring in the big guns.
I remember when the Star Wars: Special Editions were announced. It was like a bombshell had dropped in the Expanded Universe zines. New material. NEW SCENES! MORE BIGGS! MORE JABBA! EXACTLY THE SAME AMOUNT OF LUKE! I was on a Star Wars BENDER.
Sitting in the hundred-seat theatre of Big Rapids, Michigan watching Star Wars on the big screen for the first time was comparable to me at that time to meeting the pope. Even better, in fact, because the force is way more excitingly vague than Catholicism.
As for all the “new shit” that was added? Great! Sure! Have some footage of Harrison Ford talking to some fat, bearded dude before you figured out that Jabba should be a giant slug monster? Cool! Just use Microsoft Paint to slap a younger slug monster on the screen. Does that mean we get to make another Jabba toy too?
You bet your fucking ass it does.
I saw all three re-releases in theatres, and I was on Cloud City. No way it could get better than this.
Until I found out that they were making a new movie.
A NEW STAR WARS. Brand. new.
I jumped in the air when I found out. I danced around like an idiot, like I’d just found it was going to be Christmas every day, forever.
So what if they were Prequels? The way I’d seen Star Wars, JEDI first, the first two movies WERE prequels. Who cares if I knew what eventually happened? We’d get to see Darth Vader as a kid, and then watch him grow up to be a dude with an elevator button console chest and a sweet-ass cape. I knew that they’re be a lightsaber fight between him and Obi Wan in the end, because on the back of the Power of the Force Darth Vader action figure it had gone into great detail about their battle to the death on a lava planet. LAVA. PLANET. folks. I’m sold.
It’s hard to describe to someone who didn’t live through the anticipation just how much Episode I meant to people. Just as impossible as it is for people to describe what it felt like to see Star Wars for the first time in theaters on May 25th 1977. Or to find out Darth Vader was Luke’s dad on May 21st 1980. Or to finally get to see Teddy Bears go to war on May 25, 1983.
Episode I was the reason why some people got up in the morning. The reason why some people kept on living at all. For better or for worse, a new Star Wars movie meant enough to at least a few people in the world out there to keep breathing another day.
Every magazine was about Episode I. When I saw Darth Maul’s face plastered across Entertainment Magazine’s cover, it was more titillating and exciting then a thousand Playboys.
May 19th, 1999 to many around the world was a day like any other. Somewhere, deep in the jungles of the Amazon, an undiscovered tribe enjoyed a festive meal of a roasted wild pig. Or played Dreamcast. Or did whatever it is that undiscovered tribes do.
But to many, it was a day of infamy. When it was like every day was Christmas, only instead of Santa there was Hitler, and instead of leaving toys he left behind Polaroid photos of himself banging your mom.
No movie experience has matched the feeling in my chest when STAR WARS first appeared on that screen, and the music sounded triumphantly, and the credits stared to roll up the screen.
I was thirteen when I saw Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and I LOVED IT.
Jar Jar Binks? HILARIOUS! Jake Lloyd as Darth Vader? AMAZING! Trade Federation whatever the fuck happens? GENIUS!
Most importantly, Darth Maul was super badass, and the lightsaber fight at the end was the. fucking. coolest.
And that was that. I saw the movie five times in theaters, a stupid grin on my face. Because I had only waited seven years for this. I hadn’t been waiting since May 26th, 1983 to see another Star Wars movie. I hadn’t told my kids since the day they were born that Star Wars is the best thing ever.
Because no movie could have lived up to that hype. No matter what happened in Episode I, if Anakin Skywalker had been played by Haley Joel Osmett and Jar Jar Binks had died of Lupus within ten minutes, people still would have been disappointed.
No movie could have matched the endless worlds that the imaginations of millions could come up with in sixteen years.
While the rest of the world cried for Lucas’ head, I was sitting in the theatre watching Episode I another goddamn time.
Star Wars for me then was the culmination of my childhood. My toys, books, games, movies, all entertainment had a single focal point.
It wasn’t until Episode II that I realized why people hated the prequels. That’s when I realized the man from the porno closet’s musings from all those years ago were true.
They don’t make movies like that anymore.
George Lucas didn’t make the original trilogy of Star Wars by himself. He was surrounded by some of the best filmmakers and craftsmen of. all. time. Everyone from Frank Oz to Ralph McQuarrie, Irvin Kershner to Lawrence Kasdan were at the top of their game, and they and countless others lent their talents and expertise to Star Wars to make it great. Lucas was, at most, the CEO of one of the greatest teams in cinema history. For comparison, if you had asked Steve Jobs to build the first iPhone by himself, it probably would have just electrocuted you to death.
Now, look at the credits of the Prequels, and you’ll notice something not-too-shocking.
George Lucas made the Prequel Trilogy by himself.
And like that iPhone that Steve Jobs would’ve cobbled together in his basement, alone, Lucas needed a team around him to do the things that he just plain sucks at.
Like direct actors. Take a look at this clip of Natalie Portman from the Episode II bloopers and you’ll see the problem right away:
Lucas is having his actors run around giant, blue-colored dildos like rats in a maze, but they have no idea what they’re actually doing. Pair that with Lucas’ love for casting inexperienced actors, and you’ve got a recipe for some bad acting.
And it’s not the actor’s fault. When Jake Lloyd was on set as a boy in Episode I, I’m sure he had the time of his life. And when he said his lines to the camera as if he were reading them from a cereal box across the room, I’m sure that Lucas watched the take and thought NAILED IT.
Because his head was a million miles away, planning the outfits of the spectators during the pod race, not trying to guide a little child who doesn’t know any better to a good performance on screen.
And by doing everything by himself, there was no one to tell Lucas no, or to do a take two. There was also no one to split his paychecks with.
So by the time we reach the Anakin, Padme love story in Episode II, Lucas’ total inability (or interest) to direct his actors comes to the forefront. Everything is a first take, and I can just see Natalie Portman and Hayden Christiansen balancing on a giant, blue Q-Tip on a sound stage, doing one take of the lines that were written for them yesterday and Lucas shouting CUT. WE GOT IT. MOVING ON. And everyone thinking “well, he’s George Fucking Lucas, I thought that take was garbage but he must know something I don’t.”
He did know something. The real reason why he made the Star Wars Prequels, and why Return of the Jedi was so kid friendly.
To make himself the richest celebrity on the planet.
Brian Warner, in his article How One Brilliant Decision in 1973 Made George Lucas a Multi-Billionaire Today for celebritynetworth.com explains how Star Wars made Lucas rich:
Thanks to the success of American Graffiti, Lucas was entitled to a salary of $500,000 for directing what was now being called simply “Star Wars”. Instead of accepting the nearly 300% pay raise, George went to Fox with a proposition. He offered to keep his salary at $150,000 in exchange for two seemingly insignificant requests: 1) That he retain all merchandising rights, and 2) that he would retain the rights to any sequels. As crazy as it sounds now, at the time this was actually a fantastic deal for the studio. Fox had previously lost a fortune in the merchandising business with monumental failure of 1967’s Doctor Dolittle. Moreover, merchandise just wasn’t a meaningful revenue stream in general back then. As for sequel rights, these were also not an important factor for Fox considering the fact that no executive thought the movie had a snowball’s chance in hell of making money the first time around. So off George went to finalize his script with $150,000 and a what seemed like an incredibly naive contract in his pocket.
Every bit of Star Wars merchandise, from Taco Bell Cups to C-3PO toilet seats put a dollar into George Lucas’ pocket. So when he made Return of the Jedi, he made a planet full of teddy bears as one big toy commercial.
The Star Wars brand faded, and so did George Lucas’ fortune. He famously had to sell Pixar in 1986 to Steve Jobs because of money trouble. But by pure dumb luck, Timothy Zahn in 1991 decided to drop a motherfucking classic book that just happened to be set in the Star Wars universe. And then 15 million copies of that book sold, and ‘ol George Lucas suddenly had a plan to put himself back on top.
So when those new toys appeared on shelves of Reed City Michigan’s Ben Franklin in 1995, it was Lucas who put them there to build excitement for three new movies; three big budget toy commercials.
When I saw Episode III, I realized that Lucas was trying to sell more than toys. He was trying to make the biggest sale of all, and the only truly valuable thing he ever had. Star Wars itself.
And it made me sad. It was like discovering your spouse of twenty years was really only in it for the money. And it was all the more frustrating because the Prequel movies could have been something. George Lucas could have still gotten rich, and made three damn good movies, but he instead decided to make as much money for himself as possible.
That’s why people hate George Lucas. Because he made something wonderful that everyone loved, and then used that love like an eternal bank account until he was worth 7.1 billion dollars.
But up until Episode III, I still had hope. That all the movies were part of one big plan for a final, kick-ass sendoff that explains the stupidity of the previous two movies.
I went to Episode III for the first time on a date, with a poor girl who had never seen any of the previous Star Wars movies. Rather then understand that meant she was actually interested in me, I remember feeling horrified that she had never seen a Star Wars movie before. In other words, I acted like a huge. fucking. nerd.
And, without knowing it, I continued the cycle of people seeing Star Wars movies out-of-synch that started with me seeing JEDI first. This poor girl, instead of someday seeing all the Star Wars movies fresh, instead saw the only film that spoils EVERYTHING in the entire franchise.
She also had to sit next to me during the moment when my Star Wars obsession, cultivated over a lifetime, withered and died in one fateful moment:
And that was that. In our silent car-ride home, where I furiously fumed and she silently counted the minutes until the “date” was over, I vowed to never be tricked again.
So years later, when it was time for me to scrape together enough money to make the move to New York City, I pulled a George Lucas to get there. Just as my older brother’s old Star Wars toys had all been sold in the infamous garage sale of yore, I had a garage sale of my own where I sold almost my entire Star Wars collection.
And, as various citizens of Grand Rapids stumbled into our garage and saw the fucking mother-load that I was selling, I understood why George Lucas did what he did. People. Went. Crazy. A guy in his early twenties came in, saw what I was selling, and bought two hundred dollars worth of toys on the spot. A grown man fought with an eight year old boy in a bidding war over who would get to bring home Colonel Midget Pigman.
If I was selling lemonade, and sold out everyday, I’d keep selling lemonade. If I then switched to selling apple juice, and everyone stopped buying, I sure as shit would start selling lemonade again.
And that’s all George Lucas is. He’s a kid at a lemonade stand, only people camp out for twenty-four hours in line to buy a cup of his lemonade, and over the years it’s been watered down to almost nothing.
I still love Star Wars, and I still have some Star Wars toys tucked under my bed, taking up invaluable space in our tiny Brooklyn apartment (much to my wife’s delight.)
Now, I treat Star Wars like an ex who I’m still on good terms with. I’m happy that Star Wars finally broke up with George Lucas, and seems to be happy with her new young, successful boyfriend J. J. Abrams.
But make no mistake, Disney has no other motives with Star Wars besides making money, and money they will make. The Force Awakens will have the biggest opening weekend of all time. And Episode VII has a fighting chance of being a decent movie, now that it’s not simply being made to make George Lucas a billionaire.
But no matter what kind of movie it turns out to be, Star Wars will now never end. Because as long as people are in line at that lemonade stand, the person selling the lemonade may change, but it will never close. And that means no matter what happens with Episodes 7, 8 and 9, Disney will not bring the Star Wars story to a close, and the movies will suffer for it.
So when Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in theaters this weekend, you won’t find me clutching a lightsaber shivering in line, or wearing a Chewbacca onesie and sleeping in a tent pitched on the sidewalk.
I’ll catch the movie in a few weeks, and it’ll be like catching up with my ex, I’ll remember why I was once so smitten and also why we broke up in the first place. And no matter what I see on the screen, I’ll remember the words given to me by that sagely man in the John Deere hat in front of the porno closet at We R’ Movies, and understand what they really mean;
They don’t make movies like that anymore.
Movies that end.