August 1999. I found myself in the lineup of an epic pod race on my home planet of Tatooine. With the force flowing through my veins, I eagerly awaited the green light. Engines roared. The distant buzz of arcing plasma warmed my ears as I crouched down and adjusted my goggles for the start of the race. I looked to my left, and then to my right. Both opponents acted as if I wasn’t there. As if I wasn’t a threat. I would soon show them how foolish they were to have underestimated me. The engines at the starting gate redlined, and we finally heard the sound we had all been waiting for. The sound of a chuba’s decapitated head hitting the starting gong. We were off. Well… They were off, at least. Something seemed to be wrong with my pod. It wouldn’t move.
Alright, so I wasn’t on Tatooine. Perhaps I may have exaggerated about the pod racer too. It was more like a bright yellow Huffy bike from Wal-Mart with carefully crafted cardboard “engines” duct taped to the handlebars. Also, now that I think about it, the engines roaring and the arcing plasma noises were more than likely just coming from mine and my friends’ mouths. I still don’t know where the gong noise came from but I remember hearing it. We all heard it. Then they sped away and raced off into the night, leaving me to deal with my faulty pod on my own. Which really just meant that I had to go back inside because my mom had yelled through the window that it was time for dinner.
Star Wars has been a big part of my life since early childhood. My dad has been a fan since the original release in 1977, so naturally, he instilled in me a love for the films and the characters within them. I remember watching episodes 4 through 6 with him many times and asking countless questions along the way to try and figure out what was going on in the story. The great thing about true Star Wars fans is that they know everything about the films and they’re always ready to talk about their details and subtleties. That means that people who are new to the Star Wars universe need not worry about feeling lost or overwhelmed. We have you covered.
Star Wars was the best thing I could imagine as a young boy. The story of good triumphing over evil. Distant lands filled with alien creatures and technologies were the landscapes of my imagination for years. There was no real world adventure too big or small for me to translate into the universe in which I so desperately wished I lived at the time. Star Wars was more than just a movie to me. More than a story. More than a metaphor that adults inevitably assigned to it to help them understand what their imaginations used to be able to grasp without half the effort. It was an escape.
When things got tough in my life, I would think about the Star Wars characters I had grown to love and the trials they were somehow able to overcome in the face of overwhelming adversity. I tried to think of how they would handle the situations I was facing or what advice they might offer to help me get through them. This process often helped me put some distance between myself and whatever issues I was having at the time, allowing me to view them from another perspective. In that way, Star Wars was one of the most useful mental escapes I could have asked for as a child suffering from a (then undiagnosed) anxiety disorder.
Not only did Star Wars help me escape the real world from time to time, it also helped me to navigate through it more effortlessly. It was so unfathomably huge that you couldn’t go anywhere without running into a fan. It transcended barriers like cliques and social hierarchies and brought the entire world together (for two and a half to three hours at a time), regardless of their differences, in the battle against the powers of the Dark Side. This taught me two things early on. First, that most people are truly good, or at least that’s how they see themselves. It also taught me that I had something in common with a lot of people around the world. That meant everything to me as a kid who didn’t always have the easiest time making friends.
Turns out I was right. It was much easier to make friends because of Star Wars. In fact, almost every kid in most schools I attended was a fan on some level or another. By eight years old, I had accumulated a few close friends that also enjoyed and used the Star Wars universe in similar ways to myself. It was with these friends, in May of 1999, that I watched the first Star Wars movie to have been released in theaters since our young eyes first met the light of the world. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
We were instantly infatuated with pod racing. We wanted to fly just above the surface of Tatooine and weave through rock formations at unimaginable speeds, and we would. We modified our bikes and helmets to look like pods and racing gear. We attached Pokemon cards to our back wheels to make them sound more like pod racers. We fought over who got to be Anakin (and eventually decided it was whoever won). Finally, we raced.
The gong rang out like a siren and they were off, flying just above the desert floor at breakneck speed. My mom called out for me to come eat dinner as I watched them approach the first turn. I pleaded with her to let me finish the race. I explained that it was only three laps around the block and, more importantly, it was for my freedom. It was a request she couldn’t refuse, and with one smile and nod in the direction of my friends and fellow racers, my engine fired up and I was on my way to securing my place in history as the first human to successfully finish a pod race. And I would win.
As you and your loved ones head to your local movie theater to watch The Last Jedi, and you sit down with your popcorn and your drinks in the perfect spot to catch all the action, pay close attention. After the previews end and the dim theater is lit up by the scrolling story and filled with the thunderous, iconic John Williams score, the first scene will begin. Right then, in that moment, in that room and in rooms just like it all over the world, countless children will experience a Star Wars movie for the very first time. An experience that, at least in my case, was life changing in an overwhelmingly positive way. For so many people out there, it’s much more than just a movie. It’s an escape. It’s a conversation starter. It’s something you can share with the people you love. It’s Star Wars, and it’s not going anywhere.
By Bill L. Wallis.