May the Force be with us

A writer reflects on life with Star Wars

When the first Star Wars movie hit theaters in May 1977, I stood in line with my date for a couple of hours on opening night. He was wildly excited, so I did my best to feign a mutual interest. I wasn’t really a fan of science fiction, but this particular film had gotten so much hype that I was willing to go along for the ride.

Well, maybe I wasn’t completely indifferent to stories involving good guys, bad guys and spaceships. But just because I’d discovered Capt. Kirk in reruns of Star Trek in the mid-1970s, and just because I came to believe he possessed a certain messiah-like charm, there was no reason to think I’d fall under a similar spell with the Jedi hero Luke Skywalker. And I didn’t. As we exited the theater at the end of the movie, I listened to the enthusiastic comments of the crowd, my companion included, and I was stumped. What had they seen that I hadn’t? I realized the technology was probably masterful, but the plot and characters had struck me as incredibly silly. How could a kid who looked like he belonged on a beach in Malibu save the galaxy from a villain suffering from a respiratory condition? Were the yowling Bigfoot character and wisecracking fortune hunter supposed to be entertaining? Why did an actor as distinguished as Alec Guinness accept a role in a production that reminded me of Saturday-morning programming for kids?

Luckily, I didn’t have to fake my way through an awkward discussion about the merits of the film with my date, because when we got back to the parking lot, we discovered that all four tires on my recently purchased Toyota Celica fastback had been deflated. I obviously had infuriated a fellow theatergoer when I angled my hot new set of wheels across two parking spaces to avoid contact with a carelessly opened car door. When I recall that incident, I’m mortified by my arrogance. It’s no wonder I wasn’t receptive to a groundbreaking exploration of good vs. evil; I was still stuck in the primitive state of believing the world revolved around me. Come to think of it, I probably admired Capt. Kirk more for his sexy looks than his integrity.

I deliberately avoided the next two Star Wars installments, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but in 1983, the year Jedi debuted, I finally began to emerge from my self-centered, apolitical coma. I met someone who’d been hired as an air-traffic controller at Sacramento’s Metropolitan Airport (its former name) right before PATCO (the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) voted to strike in 1981. He’d only been working at the facility for a few months, but the veteran controllers made it clear that if he crossed the picket line, he’d wash out of the training program. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place, so he joined their cause, and Ronald Reagan subsequently fired the controllers en mass. It was clearly a bad idea to threaten the president of the United States with the shutdown of a transportation agency that affected the entire nation, but my friend’s description of this life-altering chain of events was my wakeup call to the power of the U.S government. Until then, I’d had my head buried in the sand for so long I might as well have lived on Tatooine, the backwater desert planet where Luke Skywalker was raised.

By the time the first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, premiered in 1999, I was married to the former air-traffic controller, and we had a couple of kids. They were 11 and 8 and enjoyed the premise of Jedi knights zooming around in starfighter aircraft and engaging in duels with light sabers. At that point, I had caught up with Episodes V and VI and was intrigued by George Lucas’ sweeping saga. I was getting to know the complex cast of characters and the convoluted plotlines and starting to find similarities between the power-mad, unconscionable forces of the Dark Side and the history of the real world. When my younger son wanted to rent Episode II of the prequels (we had missed it in theaters) prior to the release of Episode III this May 19, I was all too happy to oblige.

As it happened, a few days before we watched Attack of the Clones, I read an article in Rolling Stone about an extreme right-wing group of Christian fundamentalists, led by one D. James Kennedy, who are trying to take charge of the country. They call themselves “Dominionists,” and some of the items on their agenda include a Christian-based curriculum for all schoolchildren, federal judges who apply Old Testament law, and felony convictions for gay men who have sex and for women who have abortions. When Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed, the Dominionists were front and center leading the protests. You name it, and they want to control it—from the news media to the sporting arena, from our neighborhoods to our libraries, from the courts to the science labs. Talk about an empire wanting to strike back!

The idea that these self-described “vice regents of God” someday could rule the nation would seem farfetched if it weren’t for the fact that they were instrumental in getting George W. Bush re-elected and that Bush himself turns to Dominion officials for policy advice. No wonder, then, that when I sat down with my son to watch Attack of the Clones, I immediately identified the hordes of white-suited clone troopers as an army of single-minded zealots waiting for the guidance of a maniacal dictator. In my mind, the Republic and separatist camps instantly were transformed into the blue states and red states that voted in last year’s presidential election, and the sinister Chancellor Palpatine—who is destined to become the evil mentor to the young Jedi, Anakin Skywalker—was obviously Dick Cheney to Anakin’s George W. Bush. Or was the role of Palpatine better suited to D. James Kennedy, who ultimately controls our clone troopers?

Much has changed since my cynical experience with the first Star Wars movie. As I watched Attack of the Clones, I found analogies to current events in everything I saw, and I’ll undoubtedly do the same when we go see Revenge of the Sith. After it’s over, I’ll want to engage in a detailed discussion, and I’ll make connections between fiction and fact like crazy, but I’ll probably have to do that with my son. The former air-traffic controller in the family thinks watching Star Wars is like watching Saturday-morning programming for kids.