Six Damn Fine Degrees #59: Watching Star Wars with my 10 year-old niece

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Do you remember when you first saw the original Star Wars trilogy? Did you possibly even see it when it first came out or, if not, at least upon the movies’ return to the cinema in their ‘improved’ version in the late 1990s? I was among the many who had gotten used to bad video tape quality since the late ’80s and was stunned when eventually seeing them on the big screen, just before the disappointment of Episode I (The Phantom Mess) hit. Even trying to think really hard, however, I can’t remember my first reaction to the big plot twists: did I suspect Darth Vader was Luke’s father? Or Leia his twin sister? Did I believe Vader would redeem himself at the end? And did I mind (as Matt so poignantly asked in last week’s post)?

By a lucky twist of fate, I was given the chance to find out – with my 10 year-old niece. Alice and I have been watching the Star Wars series in chronological order over the past year and were set to watch Episode VI this past Sunday. So far, before each episode, Alice had studied her Star Wars Encyclopedia thoroughly, and the big plot points were all known to her: These days, the abundance of available Star Wars content everywhere is not the only danger of spoilers. Midway through the movie, she turned to me and said “If only Manuel” – her friend at school – “hadn’t told me this already!” What she found curious, on the other hand, was how everyone in the movie immediately said they knew Luke and Leia were related. Alice found this to be a very convenient intuition everyone seemed to be sporting.

She was also not fooled by other supposed surprises: she knew immediately the bounty hunter in Jabba the Hutt’s palace was Princess Leia and that Yoda was about to die. There were other things that impressed her, however: She found Return of the Jedi to be overly disgusting (Jabba’s Rancor monster, his ratty pet, the Sarlac hole he deposits his enemies in) and the haircuts, particularly Luke’s, rather odd. (“Is that the same guy? His hair’s so strange!”) The first Ewok that appears on Endor reminded her of her cheeky little brother and the early demise of Bobba Fett confused her (she has just seen trailers of his new spin-off): “Is he really dead?”

She grew increasingly quiet and in suspense once the film goes into its multi-layered finale: The battle of Endor, the quest to destroy the new Death Star and the duel between Luke and his father under the eyes of the Emperor, she thought, were all mesmerizing (“That would make for such a cool computer game!”). Again, she knew, of course, that Vader would turn good in the end but she grew nervous as to how long he would wait to do so. Again, she was angry at her friends for having told her in advance. Yet she was especially intrigued at seeing Luke rage against his father (“He has so much more strength because he’s angry!”). I followed this with an intervention on tempering one’s violent instincts, of course (good uncle!).

Did Vader’s death move her? It’s hard to tell with a soberingly rational kid like her, but she was glued to the screen to see who would be under the mask. Upon seeing him, she asked: “Strange, his eyebrows are burnt but he still has eyelashes!” I then asked her whether Vader had deserved to die after all the suffering he had caused. She seemed decisively on his side: “No, he should have lived. He was good after all” (there you go, Matt).

When the film came to its close, with Luke burning Vader’s body on a Jedi funeral pyre and everyone celebrating victory with the Ewoks, Alice cheered at the sight of Naboo, Coruscant and the City in the Clouds (whose added CGI effects in the new versions always make me cringe) and she was endlessly fascinated when I told her there was a version where it wasn’t the young but the old Anakin Skywalker returning to the holograms of Obi-Wan and Yoda (she wants to see the old versions now – yes! mission accomplished!).

A child’s mind is a wonderful thing, I realised, when she watched Darth Vader burn in the fire. She turned to me and commented: “I wonder if they kept the body in the suit for this.”

At the end, she was lost in calculations: “So if you were three when this came out, why were you 19 at Episode I and 35 at Episode VII?”

So Star Wars might be perfect to test children’s cultural awareness, their perceptions and reactions, but definitely not their math skills!

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