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Star Wars and the meaning of life

Look beyond the uneven writing and stumbling sequels, and George Lucas's infamous sci-fi series tells a love story quite unlike any other, Cathal Kelly writes. But coming to that understanding was fraught with plenty of inner turmoil, sparked by a drive-by encounter with a van from hell

20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett collection

The sequel to Star Wars came out early in the summer of 1980. I was seven years old and a weird, solitary, bookish child. Like everyone else, I was obsessed with Star Wars. If you were a kid in the late seventies, Star Wars was Jonestown with a merchandising arm.

We'd heard schoolyard rumours there would be a sequel. We didn't call it a "sequel," because the word meant nothing to us. There would just be another one.

How the rumours got to the schoolyard, I have no idea. It was a blissful time of life and in that world when you had forewarning of nothing. Things happened and you heard about them afterward.

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But like news of war, this was big enough to leak through the lines.

I fled school that day like a wild dog on the scent. One knew true joy when an adult confirmed that, yes, there would be more Star Wars and, yes, I suppose we could go see it. I'm not sure if this was weeks or months before release. Time began to accordion.

Everything pulls back into focus on a Bloor Street sidewalk outside the Runnymede Theatre waiting to be let in to an afternoon showing of The Empire Strikes Back.

The first part of this memory is muddy. I recall the sense of pants-wetting anticipation. I remember seeing the poster pinned up alongside the doorway – the first tangible evidence that this was really happening. Mostly, I was disoriented by expectation. I felt sure this experience was going to change my life for the better. I was going to get some answers to important questions.

Then the van appeared. I remember the van quite specifically.

It was brown, an old American beater, windowless with a sliding panel on the right side. It was moving very slowly down the lineup, eastward along Bloor.

The panel was open and someone – a man, maybe a teenager – was leaning out the door dangerously. He was yelling something at everyone.

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The line stretched along the street for hundreds of feet. We were standing up near the front and were last to hear it.

As the van finally crept within shouting distance, the guy leaning out the door screamed, "Darth Vader is Luke's father! Darth Vader is Luke's father!"

Then the van peeled off on its way back to hell.

For a thoughtful moment, no one said anything. Most of the people in line were grown-ups. They were quietly weighing the evidence for and against.

Then a whole bunch of people groaned at once. Not normal groaning – the bad, painful sort. Soon, people were hopping up and down in rage on the sidewalk. Like, actually hopping. Punching the air. People were freaking out.

In what may have been the most cinematic moment of my life, I asked my mother, "Is it true? Is Darth Vader Luke's father?"

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An argument can be made for Star Wars great appeal being its presentation of an alternative, irresistible idea of family. Each of the main characters – the good ones, at least – begin the series in terrifyingly isolation; they are adrift in the universe until they find each other – and then anything is possible.

An argument can be made for Star Wars great appeal being its presentation of an alternative, irresistible idea of family. Each of the main characters – the good ones, at least – begin the series in terrifying isolation; they are adrift in the universe until they find each other – and then anything is possible.


My mother was at Star Wars on sufferance. She shrugged. I began to suspect that she had no idea who Darth Vader was. Everything was darkening.

A few minutes later, sitting in the theatre, this movie should have been changing everything for me, frame by frame. I had not seen any of these people – people I felt as if I knew – for years.

But I couldn't appreciate it in the moment. Not even the Tauntauns. I sat there waiting to find out if Van Man was telling us the truth.

We got to the climax. Darth Vader is knocking the crap out of Luke in the bowels of Cloud City. He gets him out onto a parapet – "You are beaten. It is useless to resist." He chops off Luke's hand.

In this moment, I thought, "Good. He lied."

And then Darth Vader says, "No, I am your father."

The author Colin Wilson describes real pleasure as the experience of existing in two states simultaneously. While you're being warmed in your chair by the fire, a part of you is standing in the snowstorm outside. It's the combination that gives you true satisfaction.

I wouldn't read Wilson for years, but when I did, I recognized the theory. I've lived it many times in reverse.

While unable to enjoy what should have been the most world-altering news of my life, I could still picture how incredible it would have felt had I not known it was coming. In the moment, there was an unbearable sense of having been cheated.

By the time you reach middle age, you can already preview most of the short film that's meant to run through your mind as you die.

These are all life's key moments, and almost all of them are firsts – the first pivotal meetings, the first small triumphs, the first taste of real failure.

You may not remember many of them very well. Most are stored impressionistically. But they define you in ways you're only now coming to terms with.

Now you're past most firsts. You're living to an established pattern. You have the terrible freedom to look back and see all the switchbacks in the road – where it could've gone this way, but no, it went the other.

My life, the way I thought about it and quite possibly the way I chose to live it, turned slightly after the van passed by.

Through no real fault of its own, Star Wars had turned me into a cynic at seven years old.

A scene from The Empire Strikes Back.

A scene from The Empire Strikes Back.

Film Reference Libary, Toronto

Rise of the pipsqueak auteurs

I assume everyone of a certain age has their own reasons and their own way of being consumed by Star Wars.

What gave it real potency was that the entire exercise was, by necessity, imaginative. This wasn't a book or a piece of music that could be pored over again and again. As art, Star Wars was more of a happening – you went to the theatre, saw it once and then did not see it again. Nobody in my family was going to get dragged back to watch the same movie twice. I mean, come on.

There were written materials as reference points, but none that I had access to. I bought comic books down the block at Mike's Convenience. Mike made very little effort to stay on the cutting edge of popular culture. If it wasn't at Mike's, it didn't exist for me.

And so Star Wars quickly bled away as a coherent narrative. It became the suggestion of one.

You could put together the building blocks of how it went – unhappy teenager; evil Empire; old hermit; magic; spaceships; Rebel Alliance; crushed in a trash compactor; escape the trash compactor!; sword fight; things look bad; one last chance; unhappy teenager blows up ersatz planet through inexplicable design flaw; everyone gets a medal, except the ape.

But the details were fuzzy.

A tremendous amount of mental energy was devoted to keeping those details intact and in order. Remember when Ben scared off the Sand People? What did the Sand People look like exactly? Unless you had the action figure, you weren't sure.

This made it imperative to get that action figure.

Before the wretched prequels started rolling out in the late nineties, George Lucas had already made billions for himself licensing Star Wars toys. That's because, for most children, the only way to see the movie again was to restage it in your home. Lucas's greatest achievement is that he forced an entire generation to become pipsqueak auteurs.

Re-enactments required a critical mass of figures, which, given logistical and financial impediments particular to childhood, was impossible to achieve.

My mother couldn't understand why one Stormtrooper action figure wasn't enough. But you needed multiple Stormtroopers to do the thing properly. I begged for them. Begged. No dice. So I dragooned in other figures to act as undercover/traitorous/triple-agent Stormtroopers. It was a first effort at postmodernism. It didn't hang together very well.

A scene from Return of the Jedi.

A scene from Return of the Jedi.

The idea of family

Eventually, you gave up trying to recreate Lucas's vision. Instead, you built your own.

A great deal has been written about why Star Wars is so effective (most of which I've taken pains to avoid). Its point of access is Shakespearean – the film appeals everywhere to everyone.

In creating the movies, Lucas researched the structure of various world mythologies. He used the commonalities as a road map when writing Star Wars. That's one explanation.

I think there's another, as well – that Star Wars presented an alternative, irresistible idea of family.

At the outset, every one of the main characters is terrifyingly isolated. Princess Leia is captured and her planet destroyed. We never see any of her people again. Luke's family is murdered. The droids – only one of whom can speak – are forgotten trash. Obi-Wan Kenobi lives by himself in a cave. Fleeing assassins, all Han Solo has is a talking pet.

Every major new character – the good guys, at least – lives this way. Lando is miserably trying to convince himself he's not wasting his life on a floating gas mine. Yoda has a whole planet to spread out on, and he lives in a mud igloo the size of a horizontal hall closet.

None of these people have friends, or any that we're shown. They are adrift in the universe until they find each other.

Underneath the Western tropes, every major scene in the films emphasizes this bond between misfits. All of Lucas's best dialogue – and there isn't much of it – revolves around the gentle (or ungentle) teasing we can only inflict on people we love.

Once they find each other, everything is possible. They can even blow up metal Pluto through an airshaft.

Lightsabers and hyperspace are not Star Wars' most affecting fantasy. This is. That no matter how out-of-place or set-upon you feel in the world, there is somewhere you belong and people you belong with.

Star Wars isn't really sci-fi or action or a hybrid of the two. It's a love story.

You don't think of it this way as a child, but the message is powerful enough to seep through.

Eventually, I constructed a Star Wars that revolved entirely around me. I was the main character. Obi-Wan was my teacher. Han Solo was my older brother. I had a vivid running daydream of learning to speak like a Wookiee.

I didn't care for Luke because he was breathing my air. I didn't want to be him. Luke was the feckless, needy child – just like me. I wanted to eliminate him and take his place. I never owned a Luke Skywalker action figure.

A scene from The Empire Strikes Back.

A scene from The Empire Strikes Back.

Film Reference Library, Toronto

Vader's allure

My actual life at the time was a bit precarious. I spent a great deal of it alone in my head, or just alone. These fantasies bulwarked a vital sense that everything would turn out okay. They convinced me that "right now" didn't matter.

How many years had Obi-Wan spent in the cave, or Han Solo on the run? When you're 7 or 9 or 11, what's a year? It's forever. At that age, time has no meaning. Star Wars gave me hope that at some indeterminate future point, it would all turn out fine. I would eventually find that strange family that understood me.

None of this would have worked if I'd had full access to the films or the supporting canon. Had I been able to refer back to exactly how it had gone down or, worse yet, read books that went beyond the universe of the films, my fantasy would have collapsed under the imposition of order. I needed it fluid, organic and responsive to what was happening in my life. As I changed, Star Wars changed to suit me.

I suspect that like a lot of kids born in the sixties and seventies, I used the half-forgotten memory of those films – the first two in particular – as a blunt, therapeutic tool.

After the disappointment of Empire, Darth Vader worked his way to the front of my bedroom re-creations. In Star Wars, he is a cartoon. In Empire, he's a tragic hero.

He's also a murderous sociopath, but Vader was the one character who showed you how much he cared. Obi-Wan was too stiff; Han too glib; Leia too haughty. Presumably like their creator, all of Lucas's projections were afraid of their feelings.

Vader was all feeling (which Lucas and his proxies priggishly presented as a flaw). He'd lost his son, and wanted him back. He wanted that so badly, he'd eventually allow himself to be killed to make it happen.

If every son spends his life wanting to be seen – really seen – by his father, and vice versa, Vader was the exemplar of that urge.

Is there any line more plaintive or searching in the trilogy than Vader's desperate "If you only knew the power of the Dark Side" – and especially the way James Earl Jones draws out the crucial word? That moment was the closest Star Wars got to a cathedral ceiling.

I began to focus exclusively on that scene, which I'd hated on first viewing.

In the months after Empire was released, it was everywhere. "I am your father" became a catchphrase and then a joke. It was the one part of the movies you could watch again. There was something unspeakably powerful about that outstretched hand, and the way Vader balled his fist as he said, "Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son."

Of course, Luke – the mope – declines.

In my dreams, I always said: "Yes."

I'd play out all the ways we'd take over the galaxy – who would get it first, what we'd wear and how he'd make it up to me for cutting off my hand (which, magnanimously, I wouldn't make a big deal about).

I didn't fear evil, because I had no idea what that looked like. But I was afraid of being alone and unwanted. Vader was the cure for that. We had many long, important conversations in my head.

This is the most important fictional character in my life, since I have known Vader better than some real people who should have been him for me.

A scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

A scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.


Ewoks and Schopenhauer

Eventually, working in tandem, Lucas and I would ruin all of this.

Lucas pooched it in Return of the Jedi. The allegory of family was now being presented in maudlin, indiscriminate fashion. They'd let anyone in, including the goddamned Ewoks.

Vader dies. Luke has his cake and eats it, too, winning the war and reuniting with the old man. The core failure of Jedi is that there is no sacrifice by the victors. This was the world reduced to gauzy holograms and an absence of complications. Star Wars no longer seemed anything like messy, real life.

I ruined it for myself by getting older and buying the movies on VHS cassette.

Freed to watch them whenever I wanted, I saw them compulsively. They became a comforting talisman or an emotional crutch, depending on how you want to look at it.

Have a bad day? Go down to the basement and watch Star Wars. Watch all three in a row. Memorize the dialogue. Get totally lost in it, but without any sort of rigour or inventiveness. Become a receptacle instead of whatever fills it.

I lost hold of my version of the Star Wars world and replaced it with Lucas's. I no longer remember most of the games I used to play or the alternative storylines I'd made up. I'd stopped being the creator.

Schopenhauer has an essay about reading that gets at this point. He criticized the act as potentially pointless, even poisonous.

"When we read, another person thinks for us; we merely repeat his mental process. … [T]he person who reads a great deal … gradually loses the ability to think for himself, just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk."

In Schopenhauer's formulation, I "read myself stupid" on Star Wars.

A scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

A scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.


Star Wars as myth

Years later, Lucas released the first of the prequels. On Day One, I was back in line again, up at the front.

Star Wars made me cynical, but apparently not enough. Even Lucas's need to fiddle with the epic world he'd made through tedious expansion can't spoil Star Wars. For those of us lucky enough to have been young at the beginning, it's already threaded through our imaginations.

What Greek myths were to generations, Star Wars is to one. Resenting what it's become is like raging at the religion you were raised in – you may disagree fundamentally, but it's another thing to leave the shelter of that framework. On some basic storytelling level – the stories you tell yourself – it's not possible.

In line, I retold the story of the van to the people I was with. I've dined out on it for ages. It's lost all of its sad, thwarted edge. It's just funny now.

One of the inevitable processes of growing older is that all of your disappointments are compounded geologically, compressed one on top of another into an indiscriminate layer cake of experience.

They hurt less individually, and mean less as a whole. Eventually, you realize this isn't a good or bad thing. It just is. Star Wars taught me that, too.

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