First Published in the Polk Street Review 2021
By Leah Leach
When I was three-months-old, my father wanted to go see this new sci-fi movie that was playing in the theaters. Unable to find a babysitter my parents took me to a crowded theater and just blindly hoped for the best.
My mother tells the tale that she was worried I would cry and she’d miss the movie because she’d have to take me out of the theater. Every time she recalls this story she says, in complete shock, “you sat on my lap the whole time and didn’t make a peep.”
I don’t know if was the lights, the music, or the sounds but in the summer of 1977 Star Wars was the first film I ever saw in a theater. Since that day a dark movie theater has been my oasis, my quiet place. An inner-most cave where I can be in the center of myself at the same time connected with all the world. Seeing movies in a theater has been a tradition that I have shared with my parents, my husband, and now with my kids.
For me, seeing a movie is not just throw-away entertainment. The experience of the cinema builds empathy. Movies have been monumental in my growth as a human being. I learn something from every movie I watch whether that is how to live a human life or what to avoid. But when it comes to the Star Wars films, there has always been something deeper, something much more personal. Each new adventure I ask myself, what big lesson am I to take away this time. I continue to be shocked by the answer.
The tradition of seeing the newest Star Wars movie opening weekend started with my parents (I mean, having the keys to the car helped). The first three movies from 1977-1983 were a constant in my childhood. My brother and saw Return of the Jedi so many times that to this day we watch it and it’s as if there is an echo in our heads as we hear the line in our brain a split second before it’s said on screen.
In those movies I learned about the importance of friendship, standing up for what was right, not judging people for their size, and trusting your own feelings. I also learned about death and not to fear it. Because I saw Obi Wan vanish into the air, I didn’t have a hard time when my beloved uncle died in a car crash. My mother did have a hard time with it and she was hospitalized for a breakdown.
When my favorite squad of fictional rebels was on Hoth I joked that it was a documentary about how to keep your friends alive in the frozen tundra of Western Michigan. I swear I still hear the tautaun noises when I see the white rolling hills where I grew up.
I ached for my own merry band of rebels. It wouldn’t be until my adult years that I would really find them, and lose them, and find new ones that were just as weird as me.
I spent a lot of time in isolation with Star Wars as my guide in my youth. In my waking hours, I was neglected and abandoned, abused, and isolated.
I wanted Obi Wan to visit me and give me an adventure but he only came in movies and so kept the transmission lines open hoping one day I would be worthy enough.
But my lightsaber didn’t come. The generational knowledge I was given was being processed as “what no to do” so I made up my own quest and I moved to California to learn how to make the movies that would one day change the lives of others.
Where Hoth was my childhood, Mos Eisley Space Port was Los Angles – “You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
In that hive, I did find my Han Solo. Scruffy, sarcastic and he doesn’t want you to catch him doing the right thing but when the chips are down, he’s is who you count on but he doesn’t want you to. He also happened to have the same birthday week as two-thirds of the Star Wars opening weekend release. Which is a weird coincidence.
And I did find a patch of resistance forces that shared my same ideals and were, like me, developing their own traditions and healing from their own trauma in their own way.
We saw movies together, we passionately discussed fan theories together, and when the re-release of the Star Wars movies came out we were even in a Star Wars commercial together.
(Seriously my future-husband is featured in a Star Wars commercial that ran during the Superbowl to promote the 1997 re-release of the Star Wars. I’m standing behind him like a rebel in a leather jacket and black beret.)
When the saga returned in 1999 with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace I saw the film opening weekend with my then-husband and our friends. I adapted the tradition across the miles by having long phone conversations with my dad and my brother.
Then 2001 flipped my life a bit. After the attacks on 9/11, my husband pulled a full Luke Skywalker and signed up for the military to do his duty and help.
With the release of the next two Star Wars movies, I needed them more than ever before to give me guidance. Attack of the Clones came out when I was pregnant with my first child. Revenge of the Sith was released around the time my husband was about to be sent for a second tour of Iraq.
It was clear that earlier films were about the kids and these would be about the parents. I saw the movies about the kids when I was a kid and now I was seeing the movies about the parents as a new parent myself.
I would learn how corruption, absolute power, neglect, and anger could turn you to the dark side. The biggest lesson I learned was that evil was a matter of point of view. Even an inherently greedy person who works from a selfish point of view believes he or she is doing the right thing. Sometimes that evil pushes the goodness of the world to shine brighter and balance out the world.
Fast forward to 2015. I have two pre-teen daughters and The Force Awakens is set to release and new heroes are emerging. Heroes hopefully my daughters can relate to. We watch all the previous movies together in preparation. I don’t get in deep with explaining the mythology or the messages. I answer every question they have to the best of my ability. I brace myself if they just want a “popcorn movie” that you enjoy on the surface level. I just want to share the experience with them.
It’s opening night of Force Awakens and my daughters are new to the idea of getting to a movie theater hours before the showtime. They are a bit confused by this. They slowly see the theater fill up. They start to feel the nervous tension and anticipation. Then the lights go down. People start shushing each other during the trailers to set the tone that opening night is not for talking.
The 50-screen screen illuminates a blue sentence in a font that hasn’t changed in 38 years “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
The entire theater erupts in joyous screams and applause. My daughters turn to me. They get it now. They feel the massive surge of energy. It’s as if they want me to pass the baton and induct them into the tribe.
They scream too.
For the next few hours, we are connected with something beyond fandom, something beyond ourselves.
We become a shared universal experience.
What started with me as an infant has transitioned to a full tradition of re-watching every Star Wars movie before the new release with my children. They are now at an age where we dig deep, we talk about the life lessons, the Easter eggs, the trivia, but mostly about the emotion it stirs in each of us.
“The Force will be with you, always” General Leia Organa.