If you've been online, then you're aware that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, one of the two greatest sequels ever, was released in theaters 40 years ago today. I don't remember if I saw it on Opening Night or not but I definitely saw it within the first couple of days when it was a madhouse to get in and every seat was taken on a weeknight. My late stepfather took me to a showing at the old Charles Cinema on Cambridge Street a couple of blocks from MGH. This was the first 'event' movie I ever attended even if nobody called it that back then.
Three years before, STAR WARS came along and re-wrote the interplanetary rules when it came to filmmaking (caught that one in Everett). Simply, it changed the game forever. So after three long years of waiting and countless VHS viewings, it's hardly a stretch to say that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was the most-anticipated movie ever up until that point. These were the halcyon days of SW fandom, when a "toxic fanbase" wasn't a thing yet and the only anger was with the Dark Side. People were waiting with bated tauntaun breath.
Holy shit, did the creators pull it off. EMPIRE delivered on every level. It expanded on the first movie and gave the characters more depth. There were crazy new worlds like a winter planet and bad guys that would become fan faves. It had incredible, iconic action scenes. Shit that permanently stuck with you. The first time you see the AT-AT ("is that a giant robot dog?"). The asteroid field. Cliff Clavin. And Luke vs. Vader in the most climactic lightsaber battle of them all because of how it ends [SPOILER ALERT].
What I remember most about that night was not believing a goddamn word that Vader said. How the fuck you gonna believe this guy?!? All he's done is choke people, blow shit up, and freeze-dry the baddest man in the galaxy and 8-year-old me is supposed to believe him when he does a reverse Jerry Springer? Nah, not buying it. I continued to not buy it for the next three years every time I re-watched at home, while an eager-but-not-yet-psychotic fan base waited for
REVENGE RETURN OF THE JEDI to finish this story once and for all!
Four years prior, I learned going to the movies could scare the shit out of oneself when King Kong forever seared himself into my cinematic memory...
But EMPIRE showed me that movies could hit you on an emotional level as well. I had never dealt with a jaw-dropper quite like that before while watching a movie, where I left the theater mouthing "Holy shit!". This wasn't some boring-ass old Disney animation I was getting dragged to because it was a "kids movie" (here's a little secret: non-Disney "kids movies" in the '70s and early '80s were just PG-rated movies).
In a flick about fake space characters, this was major movie drama that was affecting young hoppers as much as the adults in the crowd. That collective experience in a theater, kids and adults on the same page, is a rare thing so you remember it when it happens. And even though "The Simpsons" famously joked about it, I don't remember one dickhead blowing it for anybody else.
Three years later, RETURN OF THE JEDI was released. I saw it at the old Assembly Square theaters with a bunch of pals right after it came out. Of course, it was blast. I know JEDI gets shit for the Ewoks but when you're 11, that was right in your wheelhouse. Besides, JEDI has plenty of cool scenes and can hardly be seen as a weak link (those will come later). But it just didn't hit you the same way as EMPIRE.
There are a handful of movie theater trips I wish I could bottle and experience all over again. Because age makes memories fuzzy, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is probably at the top of the list. And who knows? Maybe George Lucas is whipping up a Special Nostalgia Edition in which you get to experience those first feelings all over again while watching.
(I know he sold it. Settle down, nerd.)