If I had to pick one movie – just one – that has shaped my life the most, I’d have to say “Return of the Jedi,” hands down. Sure, there are other movies, better movies out there that influenced my cinemania in one way or another, but when you get right down to it, everything I am as a movie lover is because of “Jedi.” Here’s why.
For starters, all my early movie memories tie into “Star Wars.” The 1977 blockbuster was the first movie I can remember ever seeing – at the local drive-in, in the back of the family station wagon, where I managed to fall asleep somewhere around the Mos Eisley stuff. Too young to remain awake for the whole picture, I knew that I liked what I saw. The fact that this whole “movie” thing came with toys and candy and other goodies, well, that can’t be bad, right?
I was six when “The Empire Strikes Back” opened. We went to see it at one of those new “multiplexes” that were popping up around town. (Seven screens under one roof? What a great invention!) I had seen movies in between, but “Empire” was something else for me entirely. One of the strongest memories of my childhood finds my pop culture brain already beginning to form; when Yoda appeared, I sat there in the theater, straining to figure out who he sounded like. Kermit? Nah. Fozzie? Not quite. A ha! It’s Grover! Yoda has Grover’s voice!! The guy that does the Grover puppet must also be the guy who does the Yoda puppet!! It was a revelation for the ages. Yes, I see – movies are made by people who work again and again in other movies and stuff. Gotcha. I should find out more about this little factoid.
By 1983, I was a film nut in training. I knew enough about movies to know that I constantly wanted to know more. I was already an avid follower of those chaps on TV calling themselves Siskel and Ebert. I was always reading whatever I could find on the topic. But I needed more. And “Jedi” would feed that hunger. But more than that, it would teach me everything.
So let’s go back to that summer of ’83. The neighborhood kids had already seen “Jedi,” carrying their knowledge of the movie and its top secret events like a badge of honor, like membership into some private club. Somehow – and I don’t remember if it was their choice not to tell or my choice not to be told – it was decided that I was not to know. I had to see it for myself. I had to remain, to use the terminology of today, spoiler-free.
There were times I hated the choice. I recall one day breaking down and demanding to be told everything that happens, because I couldn’t take the pressure of not knowing. Memory is fuzzy here; I think they started to talk about Jabba the Hutt when I regained my nerve and cut them off. Perhaps they didn’t get that far, perhaps they got farther. All I remember is that they stopped, and I stopped them.
“Return of the Jedi” taught me the importance of not knowing. “Return of the Jedi” taught me the value of a spoiler.
So I finally did get to see the movie – four times that summer, in fact. And who should take whiny little me to see it for the first of those times? Grandma Estelle. Looking back, I can imagine that sweet, loving Grandma Estelle had no desire to see some movie about spaceships and laser guns and walking teddy bears. I’m sure she could list fifty things she’d rather have been doing. But she took me, officially because the theater was very close to where she lived, and it was easier on the family that way. Unofficially? She took me because she loved me.
I’ve been to the movies with grandparents, aunts, uncles, mom, dad. And in my youth, most of those trips were to see movies made for kids – the grown-ups were merely there to buy the tickets. Still, one could argue that yes, Grandma Sue may have, in fact, enjoyed “Annie,” or that Uncle Carl also got a kick out of “Superman.” But Grandma Estelle and that spaceship movie? I’m convinced that she had no clue what was going on. That’s not her kind of show. But she went, sat for two hours with me, because she knew that this is what I wanted to see.
Family is cool like this. We do things for those we love because we know it makes them happy. And if sitting through “Ice Princess” will get my daughter to smile, then I’m passing along a fine tradition.
“Return of the Jedi” taught me that grandparents kick ass. “Return of the Jedi” taught me that the job of a grown-up is to suck it up and sit through some kiddie flick. “Return of the Jedi” taught me, if you want to go on a grand scale here, that family is about sacrifice.
So. I’ve seen “Jedi” now. What next? Toys? Sure, of course, toys. But that’s not enough. Obviously, I needed to learn more about the movie itself. And I had plenty of chances, as the American pop culture machine ensured that “Jedi” was on the minds of everyone for months. (Those Siskel and Ebert chaps even devoted an entire episode to the film. Boy, that must be one important movie! Side lesson: sometimes movies can be more than movies – they become events.) To keep the money train a-rollin’, publishers were pumping out books and magazines, all devoted to my favorite movie.
There were poster magazines and sticker magazines, yes, but more importantly, there was a guide – I do not recall the title of this book, although I believe “Official” was in there somewhere, making it seem all the more important to this impressionable youth – that described in great detail how the film was made. All the tricks of pre-production, production, and post-production. You want to know how special effects are made? Read this. (A similar guide was printed the next year to showcase the making of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” which I also ate up like a crazed pit bull. But really, the “Jedi” one was the first, the most important.)
On top of this, I had also stumbled across a magazine further detailing the behind-the-scenes magic, and then another, this one offering a massive trivia quiz. Everything I didn’t know I needed to know, from the fake title used to ward off potentially interested locals (“Blue Harvest”) to the name of the droid in Jabba’s dungeon (EV-9D9, of course), I could find out here.
Let’s not forget “The Jedi Master’s Quizbook,” written by a preteen named Rusty Miller. (The fact that a kid, of all people, could not only write a quiz book about “Star Wars,” but get it published, too, made me both awestruck and slightly jealous.) Although it only dealt with the first two films, it did so in such great detail – even going so far as to list differences in the movies, books, and radio adaptations – that it became holy scripture, second only to that “Official” making-of guide. I’m not sure how many times I read “Quizbook” in my youth, challenging myself to get even the impossible questions correct. Perhaps that was time I should’ve been doing school work.
As if this were not enough, well, sir, may I interest you in “From Star Wars To Jedi: The Making of a Saga?” The TV special presented itself as a behind-the-scenes look at all three films, but, seeing as how it was also designed to promote “Jedi,” it spent most of its time explaining the special effects and showcasing the backstage shenanigans of this final chapter. It was like my handy guidebooks, only in TV form!
You would’ve thought my brain would explode. I was on information overload here, drowning in how’d-they-do-that explanations… and loving every minute.
“Return of the Jedi” taught me that it’s cool to know more about a movie that just what you see on screen. “Return of the Jedi” taught me the satisfaction of trivia. “Return of the Jedi” taught me that even when you learn how the magician does his tricks, the trick itself can still be cool enough to enjoy over and over again – in fact, the trick becomes even more appreciated with the knowledge of just how much work was put into it.
I suppose you might even say that “Return of the Jedi” also taught me how to dive head-first into the world of minutiae. Did I really need to know the name of every single Ewok? Did it matter if I could remember the differences between all the different spacecraft? Did I really need to know who played what in order to enjoy the movie? Not really. But I wanted to, and it felt great. And now, when I hear my wife rattle on about how long it took to put on the fake hobbit feet for “Fellowship,” or when I listen to my friend detail the hidden subtleties of “The Matrix,” or when I see some website devoted to the many changes made to the set of the Enterprise bridge, I can smile and think, this is me, trying to remember the name of the guy who played Bib Fortuna. (That’d be Michael Carter, by the way.)
So many other lessons spring to mind. The title change – from “Revenge” to “Return” – taught me the impact of words, and how important word choice can be. The trailer taught me how powerful an ad campaign can be, and how the previews can be just as marvelous as the main attraction. The film’s re-release taught me that movies never go away, that you can always see them again (this, of course, was right before the one-two punch of the video boom and the cable TV boom). Its appearance on TV taught me that while movies were most magical in a theater, you could always capture a fraction of that magic in your own home. And the fact that I could record it, thanks to the brand new family VCR, taught me that there’s no such thing as watching a movie too many times. (Heck, how else could my pal and I notice that black blob on the emperor’s head, the result of a sloppy ink-and-paint touch-up job? More minutiae for ya.) Oh, and I’m sure Leia’s slave outfit might have jumpstarted my puberty somehow. Thank you, Carrie Fisher!
The moral of the story is simple: without “Return of the Jedi” and all that came with it, there’s a good chance I would not be the movie geek I am today. It taught me to not only enjoy movies and the moviegoing experience, but to revel in it. Share the fun. Go nuts. Of all the titles that I list as major influences on me as a film buff and as a person in general, “Jedi” tops the charts. You can argue all you want about how it doesn’t stack up against the first two, how the Ewoks ruin the thing, whatever. Me, I’ll always love it. It’s the movie that made me, well, me.
(Note: This article was originally published at eFilmCritic on May 17, 2005. I’ve reprinted it here in honor of Star Wars Day.)