In just four days, audiences can head to theaters to see the re-release of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in 3-D. Regardless of how you feel about the much-maligned prequel, there’s no denying the Star Wars franchise made more than an impression on millions of moviegoers who experienced the magic of the first three films in theaters or on their TV screens. This week, EW‘s writers will be celebrating their complicated relationship with George Lucas’ beloved, yet contested, franchise with a series we call “How Star Wars changed my life.” And for those of you headed to the theaters this Friday… may the Force be with you.
One way or another, every kid has to learn the difference between right and wrong, light and dark, good and evil — and my lesson came from Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Prior to my first viewing of the film, my understanding of what was right and what was wrong was grossly over-reliant on Goofus and Gallant of Highlights magazine, who, despite their best efforts, never managed to teach me more than that I should invite everyone in class to my birthday party. I knew there was polite and impolite, admirable and reprehensible, but I didn’t realize the extent of how bad badness could be.
I first saw Star Wars when I was around six years old, and upon my first viewing (old school, on VHS), I remember immediately being terrified of Darth Vader. He must have stood 20, 30 feet tall in my mind, even though he was just inches on my screen. His presence was overwhelming, alarming even, and everything – from how he talked to the way he moved – fascinated and frightened me. I envied his power, as any kid would, and knew that there was something extraordinary (in the truest sense of the word) about him — and yet I knew that this was not a person (was he even one?) I wanted to be.
I had a hard time paying attention to the movies as a kid. (We can’t all be like this one.) Star Wars’ signature vertical scroll of exposition made no sense to me at the time. I wasn’t sure who was fighting who, or why, or where, or how. But when it came down to it, I knew who to root for. The grand, sweeping, hopeful music told me Luke was our hero, a representation of something moral. The darkness surrounding Darth Vader told me there was something awful and sinister about him. I understood that this movie was telling me a story of good versus evil. I needed Luke to win. Even more so, I needed Darth Vader to lose. Without realizing it, I learned more about “the good guys” and “the bad guys” – and which one I wanted to be – than any storybook or Sunday school lesson could teach.
From then on, playtime took an imaginative turn. My action figures finally had a reason to fight against one each other: the scariest-looking figurines became as unapologetically evil as Darth Vader, while I imbued my squad of heroes with whatever Jedi-like powers they needed to emerge victorious in my living room. Every story I acted out followed the same basic plot of Star Wars: good guy conquers bad guy, blows up Death Star, parties with robots. But in teaching me that there is something fascinating about vanquishing the Dark side, Star Wars didn’t necessarily turn me violent; it turned me aware. It gave my little pretend battles a heart, a story to follow, a reason to play and win. It wasn’t mindless playtime; it was imagination and storytelling in its rawest form. I learned that there was always a conflict. Every person, every group, every character had to face decisions of good versus evil. In some ways, Star Wars taught me that there is always a dueling story to tell, a realization that no doubt has something to do with why I’m a writer today.
Star Wars set the standard not for how I watched movies, but why I watched them. I wanted to look for the thrill of seeing the decent guys come out on top while the evil plans – the Death Stars of the world – were foiled. There was something cathartic about it, and every story hearkened back to that first time I watched Star Wars and saw how good trumped evil. The first film is far from my favorite movie, and I couldn’t quote half the lines if I wanted to (a ghastly confession to some readers, I’m sure). But it will always be my gold standard for how to tell a damn good story.