I was a kid in Las Vegas in the 1970’s, which is to say, I was a kid in a place where there weren’t supposed to be kids. Because whatever your adult experience of the Strip is, as a child of Vegas, I can attest: two blocks off to either side of that prime bit of real estate, and Vegas is just hot, dirty, dusty, for a kid in that era especially, pretty miserable. Sure, there are parks. But the whatever grass there is is scorched golden brown for a good part of the year. When the 120 degree whether isn’t enough to dissuade outdoor play, there’s the flash floods to contend with (although watching the cars float in the Caesar Palace parking lot was always good for a laugh). And then there’s just the general stench of desperation and faux hyperactivity (caused by various forms of speed) that surround all casino towns.

Not conducive to an idyllic childhood.

Las Vegas did have one thing going for it as a kid, however, and that was movies. First, there were the drive-ins. Temperatures drop quickly in the desert and there were few ways better to take advantage of those cooler hours than at your local drive-in. And if you needed to get out of the heat during the day, well, then escape into an air-conditioned theater was a welcome respite from the summer heat.

Especially in the summer of 1977.

I don’t know if it just started that summer or if my parents just learned of it that summer, but in 1977, one of the local theaters was running a Saturday children’s matinee. For a nominal price–all my parents could afford for their three oldest children at the time–you could drop your unsupervised children (ah, the 70’s, when even children had some freedom) for a few hours and they would be entertained while you went off and did, well, more adult things.

But the matinee wasn’t just a movie. Some clever and obviously nostalgic manager had put together several hours of entertainment for us. There were old-school cartoons, action-adventure serials, the occasional old (but still interesting) newsreel, more cartoons, and of course, children’s features (usually a Disney live-action movie of some kind). It was a great way of spending a Saturday afternoon as a kid and gave our parents what was probably a much needed break.

For me, however, it also provided an opportunity. Because the theater was a small multiplex—still a relatively new concept in those parts. Which meant that, after I got my younger siblings settled into their seats, I was free to sneak out of the children’s matinee and into the other two theaters and the more grown-up films. This was how I caught glimpses of such things as Smokey and the Bandit, The Deep, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and yes, Star Wars: A New Hope. I never ever saw a film in its entirety. After all, my brother and sister were four and five (hey, it was the 70’s, so I took my “parenting” cues from, well, my parents and all the other parents who dropped all the children off there), so I couldn’t leave them alone for more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time.

But in those precious chunks of free cinematic time, I was a free agent, sitting in the back of the theaters and soaking up some real gems.

Of course, this disjointed viewing meant that my impression of certain films was a bit skewed. But for others, it was entirely accurate. I recognized, even at ten and in stolen glimpses, for example, that Smokey and the Bandit was silly, funny fluff and that Cledus was a far better man than Bandit would ever be. And that The Island of Dr. Moreau was beautiful and ugly at the same time but essentially soulless—frankly, I think I only returned to that theater because I had a crush on Michael York from the previous year’s Logan’s Run.

But my garbled impression of Star Wars was certainly not like that of most people. My first moment with the film and its universe did not involve a small ship running to escape the massive Star Destroyer which rumbled into view from above and behind. Instead, it was Luke, standing on a sand outcropping, watching a double sunset forlornly, followed quickly by meeting Ben Kenobi, and once I checked on Josh and Rachael, the Mos Eisely cantina scene. Because I did not have enough extended viewing time to really get into the story as much as I ordinarily might, this meant I focused on what I could understand—which was largely the adventure and swashbuckling nature of the whole thing. After all, you don’t need a backstory to understand the tension in trying to swing yourself and your girl (snerk!) across a bottomless chasm, right? Star Wars, then, viewed (the large majority of it, anyway) across two Saturdays in chunks, resembled nothing so much to me as the serials that the theater included as part of the regular children’s matinee program: an ongoing adventure in which the story was second to the action and all of it was exciting, escapist fun.

It would take years before I was able to see it for the very late 70’s classic genre film it (also) was, but that’s another story.

Anyway, I managed to convince my parents that we really should go see this amazing movie that I was “hearing about from all my friends” thus starting a family relationship with the franchise forever cemented by the naming of my youngest brother, born in August of that summer, as Lucas. I spent the next three years pretending I was amusing my brother Josh by playing with his Star Wars toys (because an eleven/twelve-year-old girl back then couldn’t ask for action figures for herself). And generally lived for anytime Star Wars (or any sci-fi) was on television.

Which is a very long journey to The Empire Strikes Back. By that time, I was just about to turn 13, and even though I had a bit of pocket money earned from babysitting neighbor kids, and could have contrived to see it with friends on a sleepover or something, it was, as I said, a bit of a family affair by then. So my parents scraped together the money and we saw it together in the theater—which, with five kids and no cash—was a real rarity. I paid for my own admission, just to feel a little more ownership in the whole thing.

This, then, was my first true Star Wars experience, sitting in the dark, feeling that anticipation building, reading the scroll to my youngest sister Elizabeth, who was still too young to do it for herself. By the time the camera dropped down to the Star Destroyer releasing the probes to seek out the Rebel Alliance, I was practically shaking with excitement. It was my first movie “event” really, and very much like the first high of an addict: that unbelievably euphoric experience you spend the rest of your life chasing. I am sure it played no small part in why I now write about film. And I know it’s responsible for me cosplaying at a more than one premiere.

But even at the time, I was very aware that I had an investment in this movie. It wasn’t just that I wanted to enjoy it. After three years of watching the original film, of rereading Splinter of the Mind’s Eye until my copy was completely shredded, of playing with my much younger brother’s action figures in the mud, and always sneaking off at the university attended by my parents to find the two Han Solo novels in the very small children’s section at the school’s library, I needed this film to be good. The Holiday Special had already left me gutted. I couldn’t go through that again.

But what struck me almost immediately about The Empire Strikes Back, after watching Star Wars so many, many times since my first stolen encounter with it was how unlike the first film it had been. At thirteen, I was able to see things, and I realized that Star Wars had been, my own odd impressions aside, very much a hero’s story (I didn’t know Joseph Campbell at the point, but I was a voracious reader and understood the archetype that characters like Arthur, Robin Hood, and even Meg Murray shared). Star Wars had really been Luke’s story—everyone else existed to give him reason to grow. The Empire Strikes Back was more than that. Leia was a hero in her own right (and as a young woman, I needed that). Han had a backstory that had nothing to do with Luke or his narrative needs (at least that we could see at that moment).

It went beyond that though. Our locations were further-flung and more exotic. And the structure was more episodic. There were literally entire chunks of the film that could have been apportioned off and shown as self-contained bits: Luke and then the rebels escape from an icy death on Hoth, Yoda training Luke on Dagobah, Lando’s betrayal of Han at Cloud City, etc. Each of these is a story unto itself. And each left us hanging enough to want more.

In other words, while I had read, due to my odd initial experience with it, Star Wars as much like the serials I had seen at the matinees (and yes, I realize that is what Lucas had been trying to capture), it was Empire that truly succeeded in that goal. Because while both had similar swashbuckling elements to them (though Star Wars simply lifted some of them from the original serials—like the swing across the chasm—rather than develop more up-to-date and thus appropriate ones), Star Wars had not as effectively aped the structure of the serial (this may be the result of Lawrence Kasdan—hot off writing the very serial-like Raiders of the Lost Ark—as the final writer on the Empire screenplay).  

Let me take a quick film critic moment to note that this does not make Empire a better movie necessarily. There is an excellent argument to be made for why Star Wars is the superior film while Empire is the more enjoyable one. 

And yet, despite this forming realization, I did not see the writing on the wall, until quite literally, there was a music fanfare and the words “Directed by Irvin Kershner” appeared on screen. Nor was I alone, as a loud pained sound as agonizing as I imagine the death cry of Alderaan went up around me in the theater. We had all lost track of time. We had expected an ending as neatly tied up as Star Wars. We recognized that we had been watching something that had been designed for a quick follow-up at next week’s matinee (or more contemporarily, on next week’s episode).

But we knew we had to wait three years for our next installment. It was, and remains, one of the best film set-ups of all time. M. Night Shyamalan can only dream of messing with an audience as thoroughly as Empire messed with us. Except we still thank Lucas, Kasdan, and Kershner for doing screwing with us like that.

Still, at the time, it was almost physically painful. It made us ache. And that only made it better. Because while Star Wars had revolutionized movies and movie-making in many ways, Empire reminded us why that mattered, why films mattered.

There are excellent films out there. There always have been. But there’s great film, there’s accessible film, and there’s film that makes us feel. There are a lot of films that check off one or maybe even two of those categories. It’s rare that a film covers all three and provides a nearly universal experience for its viewers. The Empire Strikes Back, and in fact, the whole trilogy (minus the Ewoks—those great dividers) do that. And Empire still does that based on the serial formula that was thought to be nostalgic by our theater manager in 1977.

It’s no small feat.


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