How I first saw “The Empire Strikes Back.”
For this “May the 4th” day, I’d like to share a personal Star Wars story. When I was all of 13 in the summer of 1980, my family and I went to see “The Empire Strikes Back”, with my dad driving the hour and a half freeway sojourn to Hollywood in order to see the film at the Egyptian Theatre (now the American Cinematheque). The Egyptian was a monstrously huge and beautiful theater—not at all like the multiplexes in the shopping malls of our neighborhood. A perfectly fitting venue to see this long-awaited sequel to the space opus “Star Wars” (not yet subtitled “A New Hope”); the movie that changed the cinematic experience forever.
We sat towards the rear of the theater with a slightly elevated view (no heads in the way!), and near the rear speakers. The film was to be screened in 70 mm with booming Dolby Stereo—mind you, this was decades before digital home theater systems would eclipse analog theatrical sound. I’d already read the novelization of the movie well before we went to see it, but even my then-fertile teenaged imagination couldn’t hold a candle to George Lucas’ and Irvin Kirshner’s film. It was truly magnificent… and the first rate presentation in which I’d experienced it made it all the more remarkable. “The Empire Strikes Back” was the next step in the “Jaws”/”Star Wars” revolution that virtually created the summer blockbuster—aka, the ‘event movie.’ That film, in that venue, was cinematic perfection.
Four decades later, the now fifty-something me was hunkering at home with my wife during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in May of 2020. Theater chains were all shuttered in my state, and mask-wearing in public was beginning to take root. There were no vaccines in sight, and we’d all become de facto shut-ins as we tried to ride out this horrible, deadly pandemic. The height of my social life in those days (a year ago) was cautiously masking up and hitting my local grocery store for nerve-racking resupply missions.
Our friend Alison, who is incredibly clever, had the idea of an outdoor ‘movie night’ on her back patio. My wife and a small group of masked friends tentatively joined her outside for a digitally-projected screening of “Knives Out” (2017) onto her patio wall. She’d purchased a portable Vankyo Leisure 3 digital projector, hooked it up to her AppleTV streamer along with a small (but surprisingly effective) Bluetooth speaker and voila! On comfortable patio furniture, we sat outside on that mild spring evening and enjoyed a movie under the stars—the first movie night with friends we’d enjoyed in months. It was wonderful. We were all feeling so much anxiety over the COVID pandemic that it felt good just to laugh and lose ourselves in Rian Johnson’s wonderfully over-the-top southern murder mystery. After that delightful experience, I was determined to bring Alison’s brilliant idea into our own house. A few weeks later, we ordered the very same projector from Amazon, and not long after that, we bought a large collapsible 7 ft. screen onto which we’d screen our films. I already had a small, powerful JBL Bluetooth speaker which I immediately repurposed as our portable sound system (sorry—no 7.1 digital surround here, folks). Had all the tools for the job, including a separately-purchased tripod with which we could set the projector. Earlier, we’d bought some very comfortable patio furniture in an attempt to enjoy a little fresh outside air during the pandemic.
Over the next few months, we held a few movie nights of our own. We watched a few of them on our own patio, but that was admittedly problematic—barking neighbor dogs, neighbor’s parties and other distractions (not to mention mosquitos) made outdoors a dicey proposition. We also tried the front yard—same issues. Nevertheless, we watched “Bill & Ted Face the Music”, “Mulan”, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and “Jurassic Park” before I had the idea of changing the venue to our two-car garage. Once we temporarily parked our cars outside, I had a lot more room to set things up than I did on our tiny patio. I dragged the heavy patio furniture into the garage (nice little workout), as well as one of our sturdy old camp chairs, and suddenly we had decent seating. I fully closed the blinds in our garage window, and I even duct-taped some black garbage bags over it in order to further darken the room (our bright California sun—damn hard to block sometimes). While our garage was (is) a bit of a mess, it made for a surprisingly cozy impromptu theater. Even though our little garage theater isn’t permanent, it is relatively easy to set up again and again, whenever we need it.
Now, months after we’d bought (and frequently used) our digital projector, we had a home theater. I had the idea to invite our friends Kathy and Adam over for a masked, COVID-mindful, indoor movie night. Their little boy, Joshua is a huge Star Wars fan, so the choice became obvious—we had to screen 1977’s “Star Wars” (now titled “A New Hope”) so that our friend’s son could see the movie in something approximating a theatrical experience. Personally, I feel bad for any kid who’s never had the chance to see the original Star Wars trilogy on a big screen, as I had growing up. Well, after dinner we fired up a little popcorn (movie calories don’t count) and we got ready to lose ourselves in that “galaxy far, far away…”
In our darkened garage, with our comfy chairs surrounding a 7 ft. screen, the experience was even more theatrical than I’d imagined. The proximity of our chairs to the screen made it appear roughly the same size it would be in an actual movie house. With the sound on our little JBL Bluetooth speaker cranked up, the familiar brassy blast of John Williams’ regal music filled our little garage and the movie went to work on us as it hadn’t worked on us in a long time. Yes, Joshua had seen the original trilogy on laptops and TV screens, but never quite like this. I would frequently glance over to see Joshua’s reactions to it, and predictably, he seemed to be soaking it in, just as I did at his age back in that summer of 1977. It was like experiencing the film anew.
Note: The best part? We could pause the movie whenever we wanted for restroom and snack breaks, too!
Well, the Battle of Yavin ended, the Death Star was destroyed, and our heroes received their medals from a grateful Princess Leia (save for poor Chewbacca, of course…). The credits began to roll, and Joshua reached for his toy lightsabers. After dueling with his father, mother and myself (!), it was time for Joshua to go to bed, and we called it a night. We had such a great time that I told them we’d love to have them over for “The Empire Strikes Back” sometime as well…
May the er, 1st, be with you!
Since the annual Star Wars ‘holiday’ now known as “May the 4th” would fall on a Tuesday this year, we decided that we’d cheat the holiday by a few days and have our garage theater screening of “The Empire Strikes Back” on Saturday, May the 1st, instead. Worked out better for all of us. Best part of all? We’d all be vaccinated by then, too. According to the revised CDC cornavirus guidelines for fully vaccinated persons, we wouldn’t have to wear masks indoors this time!
Note: “May the 4th”… get it? May the 4th be with you? Hehe…
The afternoon of May the 1st, my wife and I drove our two cars out and parked them along the sidewalk, and I went to work. After lugging the lawn furniture into the now spacious garage (heavy stuff; thick metal frames), I went to work setting up the projector—calibrating the image and the Bluetooth speaker to make sure little Joshua and his parents would get the maximum Star Wars experience possible in our little garage theater. The image would be supplied via a portable Blu-Ray player connected by HDMI cable to the projector. My small but effective JBL speaker would be set behind the projector at roughly ear-level with our seated positions (ear-level is optimal when you have small speakers). After fine-tuning everything, I shut it all down; our little theater was good to go for the evening’s entertainment. Kathy, Adam and Joshua came over around 5 pm, and we took Joshua to the park for awhile (just as old drive-in theaters used to have playgrounds under the screens for the kids). We then fired up some popcorn, and started the show…
******41 YEAR OLD SPOILERS!******
Once again, the familiar blast of brass heralded the opening of “The Empire Strikes Back.” I’d seen the film once before with our digital projector, but never in our garage theater, where it more closely approximated a theatrical experience. The last time I’d seen “Empire…” theatrically was in February of 1997 with the release of the Special Editions, but this was even better, as we were surrounded by friends. There were no strangers squeezing into the seat next to me, we had unlimited restroom breaks whenever needed, and best of all? No cellphones were going off unexpectedly during the movie (yes, cellphones were just starting to become a theatrical annoyance back in 1997, too). Our little garage theater offered a decent approximation of the theatrical experience, but without any of the headaches of seeing movies in a multiplex (particularly those random audience members who always seem determined to ruin the experience for as many people as possible).
I would periodically glance over to see how Joshua was enjoying the movie, and he was really into it. Other than laughing at appropriate moments (Chewbacca’s whining roars, C3PO’s complaints, R2-D2’s squawks), he was very quiet—thoroughly absorbed in the unique magic of George Lucas’ space epic. Sometimes he would laugh at something that I’d become a bit too used to, and it reminded me that despite its ‘heavy’ reputation, “The Empire Strikes Back” has a wonderful balance of humor as well as the usual strum und drang of an operatic middle act.
On a 7 ft. screen in a darkened room, the giant AT-AT walkers’ assault in the snow and the asteroid field chase aboard the Millennium Falcon were particularly thrilling. The stop-motion work on the AT-AT walkers had a slightly stroboscopic, perfectly mechanical feel that even modern CGI would be hard-pressed to replicate. I would see Joshua’s eyes widen a bit as Han Solo (Harrison Ford) would pilot the Falcon through narrow trenches of a rocky planetoid to escape pursuing TIE fighters. Despite being over 40 years old, the visual effects of both sequences still hold up surprisingly well on a large screen. Once again, seeing the film again with our friends and their Star Wars-fan son was like seeing it for the first time again. Sounds cliche perhaps, but it’s not wrong. Children are the best way to experience things anew.
The action of the film then cuts to the swamp planet of Dagobah, and Joshua would giggle at Yoda (Frank Oz) pretending to be an impish nuisance to Luke (Mark Hamill) before revealing himself to be a wizened Jedi master. Joshua also got a few honest giggles at the on-again/off-again romance between Han and Princess Leia (the late Carrie Fisher). I realized that the characters’ romantic banter is not lost on little kids—Han and Leia’s “Lady and the Tramp” relationship is broadly appealing, even to children. So many kids dream of being the roguish pilot or the powerful princess. These archetypes are universal, as is the fairytale-style opening text of “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
The final act of the movie is where the real ‘darkness’ of its reputation sinks in. Han, Leia and Chewbacca (the late Peter Mayhew) are betrayed by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) at Cloud City. Luke breaks from his training with Yoda to help them, only to be trapped in a confrontation with Darth Vader (the late Dave Prowse), who drops the biggest bombshell of the movie—the revelation that he, the Emperor’s right hand enforcer, is also Luke’s father—a fallen Jedi knight turned Sith Lord. Once again, I glanced over at Joshua and a grin slowly formed on his face in anticipation of this moment. This too, reminded me of seeing the film for the first time as well. As I said earlier, I’d read the novelization before seeing the movie, so I knew the movie’s ‘big secret.’ That said, my jaw still involuntarily dropped a bit when Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) says to a disbelieving Luke, “No…I am your father!” Even today, 41 years later, the moment still works.
Of course, the movie ends on a cliffhanger. Luke has lost his hand to Vader. Leia and Han are separated, with Han’s frozen body taken to gangster Jabba the Hutt. Remorseful new ally Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) takes off with Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon to rescue Han. The final shot sees Luke gain a bionic hand, which he places comfortingly around the princess as they watch the Falcon take off for the Outer Rim…
Spontaneous applause broke out in our darkened little garage as the end credits rolled. Even after 41 years and countless viewings between us, the movie felt fresh all over again. Our little group experienced a wave of satisfaction afterward—the same feeling one gets after a delicious dinner. I think (hope?) we gave Joshua some approximation of seeing the film as it was meant to be seen—projected in the dark on as large as a screen as possible. And yes, there were a few toy lightsaber duels afterward! Before our friends left, we made plans to see “Return of the Jedi” as well.
The force was strong in our little garage that night…
This May the 4th is, of course, also the debut of Disney+ ‘s new Star Wars cartoon series, “Bad Batch,” which chronicles the adventures of a willful group of badass, mutated Imperial clone troopers (“Clone Force 99”) who set off on new adventures following the Clone Wars, in the tradition of war films like “The Dirty Dozen.”
I leave you with the trailer, and I promise a review of the first episode of “Bad Batch” on this site as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Joshua won’t be seeing this one with us, but he and his family do have Disney+, so I hope he’ll see it sometime as well.
Until then? “May the 4th” be you!
The Star Wars movies and “Bad Batch” (debuting May the 4th) can all be viewed on Disney+. The movies can also be purchased in physical media (Blu-Ray or DVD) contact-free from Amazon.com as well, or in-person (with masks) at Target or Best Buy. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are just over 574,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have become widespread, which is gradually slowing the US mortality rate (though numbers in Brazil and India are spiking dramatically). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy (around 8 percent in the US), it may take longer for for eventual herd immunity. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is not fully safe. Many questions remain regarding the coronavirus variants, or if vaccines fully prevent unwitting transmission from an asymptomatic carrier. If you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible (I myself have been fully vaccinated now for nearly a month), and let us all vaccinate our way out of the COVID pandemic.
May the Force truly be with us through this deadly pandemic.