In honor of the release of The Force Awakens, I thought I’d re-share this post about my Return of the Jedi opening-night experience. My friends and I were 12 years old then. Now, more than 32 years later, I will be reuniting with one of those friends to see the new film in IMAX at the Franklin Institute in Philly…
A long time ago, in a movie theater somewhat far away . . .
The wait had seemed interminable. Three years to find out the fate of Han Solo, to learn if Darth Vader had been telling the truth about Luke’s father. Three years is forever to a child who had only been nine years old when The Empire Strikes Back ended with a major cliffhanger. But the day finally arrived: May 25th, 1983, opening day for Return of the Jedi.
I was heading to the theater in Deptford, NJ with my two best friends, Bruce and Kim. Kim’s dad drove us up to the theater early in the day so we could buy tickets ahead of time and walk around the mall until the movie started. This proved to be a brilliant move because by the time we returned to the theater the line outside was longer than anything I had ever seen in my life. We got in line and it continued to grow behind us, stretching back farther than we could see.
After a while, a theater employee started walking down the line and informing people that the shows were sold out for the entire night. If they didn’t already have tickets, they weren’t getting in. It was still early at this point, so a lot of people went home disappointed that day. I don’t recall how long we waited before finally getting into the theater, but we stood outside for a long time. You don’t really see lines like that anymore (except maybe in major cities) because movies now open in so many theaters. Back then, we didn’t have 20-plus-theater multiplexes. I think our theater had six screens, and only a couple of those were showing Jedi. Personally, I have never seen a theater line in the 30 years since that even came close to the one that day.
Watching the movie was surreal. The audience erupted in thunderous applause every time something good happened. I have gone to other movies where the audience cheered, but nothing like this. After waiting three years for a resolution to the most stunning cliffhanger in movie history, the audience was just ready to let loose. It was a communal experience.
Jedi frequently gets a bad rap, is thought of as the weak stepchild of the original trilogy. I think much of this is due to revisionist history, particularly where the Ewoks are concerned. Everyone my age liked the Ewoks when we were kids–if you claim differently now you are not being honest with yourself. But putting the Ewoks aside, the movie had spectacular sequences and set pieces: the rancor, the battle over the sarlacc pit where we got to see Luke kicking ass as a Jedi for the first time, the speeder bike chase, the battle over the second Death Star with more fast flying ships, lasers, and explosions than had ever been seen onscreen at one time. And the scenes between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor were some of the best of the entire saga (at least until Lucas retroactively ruined the climax by having Vader scream “No!” but that’s a story for another article.).
It may not have been quite to the level of its predecessors, but Return of the Jedi was still a thrilling and satisfying conclusion to the greatest movie trilogy of all time, and I will never forget that opening day. My friends and I still talk about it.