The Mos Eisley cantina, or when Star Wars became Star Wars

I remember the exact moment Star Wars: A New Hope cast its spell on me for good. It was a dark and dusty bar in Mos Eisley, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and it was filled with aliens. 

So many aliens! Despite endless franchising ever since and a big diluting of Star Wars mania for me, I’ll always love that cantina scene. This couple of minutes of film is crammed with babbling extras and inventive aliens and it opened up that Star Wars galaxy wide, to be far more than just that farmboy Luke Skywalker and few chirpy droids. The cantina was everyone and everything. It was a universe, filled with mysterious critters and their stories. 

Literally every single character that gets a second or two of screentime in this sequence has since gotten a name and their own complicated story in the “expanded universe” – sometimes a few versions of it. There’s the fun 1995 paperback Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina which delves into dozens of backstories and sidestories for everyone from Momaw Nadon (Hammerhead) to Muftak (the multi-eyed bear thing). The more recent From A Certain Point Of View collection imagines several more side stories from the cantina and the rest of the 1977 movie, and a listing of the gazillions of other Star Wars retellings over the years is far beyond the scope of one mere blog entry. 

I have trouble imagining a single work that has had quite so much backstory and interpretation for every single mask-wearing extra later added into it. You’d probably have to look at the Bible or Shakespeare for something that’s been examined and reimagined quite so much. 

There were just four cantina alien action figures released by Kenner in their original wave back in the day – “Snaggletooth,” “Hammerhead,” “Walrus Man” and Greedo. Poor doomed Greedo is the only one who actually got a name, and later on the others like Walrus Man got less, um, kinda racist names (he’s actually Ponda Baba, and he’ll kill you just for looking at him funny). 

Back in elementary school, I remember friends and I trading our Star Wars figures and daydreaming about other ones they might make – we all wanted the cantina band, but they didn’t get action figures until the late 1990s. By now pretty much everyone who appeared in that cantina scene has an action figure. There is a part of middle-aged me that craves them all. 

Because there were less of them, these OG Star Wars figures were played with within an inch of their lives. When there were just 20 or so of them, old Walrus Man (sorry, Ponda Baba) got pulled out a lot. And don’t even get me started on the mysteries of Red Snaggletooth and Blue Snaggletooth. (A friend had a Blue Snaggletooth once, and to us Kenner geeks it was like a comics fan pulling out an Action Comics #1 or a Beatles fan pulling out the butcher cover.) 

That was the appeal of old school Star Wars – there was so much hinted at in it that you could fill in the gaps yourself forever. There was a great Marvel comic book and the action figures; no internet, no expanded universe yet. You expanded your own universe.

I still feel the cantina scene is what made Star Wars for me – lifting it from a cool Flash Gordon homage about daring heroes and princesses in peril to a passageway to a galaxy vast, strange … and full of an unimaginable bounty of stories. 

The Mandalorian: The Star Wars scene I’ve wanted for 38 years

If I absolutely had a pick a favourite scene from all the Star Wars movies, it’s a mere 47 seconds in The Empire Strikes Back. We’re introduced to a disreputable mob of bounty hunters hired by Darth Vader to hunt down Han Solo. 

There’s Boba Fett, of course, cult icon for the ages, and another five briefly glimpsed characters – spindly robot IG-88, reptilian Bossk, battered Dengar, Cronenbergian nightmares 4-LOM and Zuckuss. These characters are seen, don’t speak, and with the exception of Boba Fett, they’re never heard from again in the movies. (Although some harried crew member apparently threw the IG-88 model in the cluttered background of a Cloud City scene for extra set dressing, spawning endless fan theories.)

Those 47 seconds launched the imagination of a million dweeby kids and an entire subsidiary industry of books, comics and cartoons looking at just who or what those dirty bounty hunters were. That’s the best of Star Wars, to me – the lived-in sense, the countless possible back stories of background aliens and extras running around with ice cream containers.

I got kind of obsessed with those bounty hunters, even the goofy-but-fun novels exploring them. I can launch a detailed explanation of how 4-LOM and Zuckuss’ names apparently got messed up by Kenner when they made the action figures, so even though they’ve corrected the error, I still always think of Zuckuss as 4-LOM and vice-versa. 

I liked the seamy, lived-in side of Star Wars. The opening hour or so of Star Wars: A New Hope, before it left Tatooine, is rich with worldbuilding for me. The strangeness of moisture farming. The inscrutable Jawas and their building/vehicle stacked with stolen droids. I liked the grimy Sandpeople, and the eternal mystery of what’s under all that wrapping. I liked the menagerie of aliens in Mos Eisley, and coming up with complicated back stories for each of them. My friends and I would imagine action figures for all of them. Most of them have actually been made in the ensuing 40 years of Star Wars fandom. 

Yet at the same time, I don’t want everything explained in Star Wars. I didn’t want to know about the midichlorians, I’m still pretty sure I didn’t need to see Darth Vader as an 8-year-old boy, and I didn’t care that much about how Han Solo met Chewbacca, even. Everyone wanted just a little more Boba Fett, but nobody really wanted baby Boba Fett holding his father’s decapitated head, did they? I hate to admit it, but I even find the Jedi Knights kinda boring. To me, Star Wars eternally has to keep that balance between fan service and overdoing it, and lately, it usually does the latter. 

But then along comes The Mandalorian, and in my complicated relationship with Star Wars I’m hooked again by mysterious characters, aliens in the desert and those bloody Jawas. Two episodes in, it’s a pleasure, Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in outer space and a streamlined, pulpy blast. To be honest, this playground is the one I wish they’d explored in all these years of Star Wars-sploitation, the grungy underbelly of Jabba’s palace and the Mos Eisley cantina. 

And there’s one scene that literally had me bursting with pent-up fan glee, as an IG droid (IG-11, not IG-88) goes into action against a bunch of mercenaries. FINALLY! I thought. After all these years, Star Wars is actually showing me one of those mysterious bounty hunters from Empire doing something, leaping into action. 

IG-88 in the original film was entirely static, giving fanboys leave to imagine anything. But to see IG-11 spinning, talking, firing blasters, moving with a weirdly Frankensteinian zombie-like walk that is exactly how I imagined such an awkward droid might move…. well, some of us have weird dreams in life and are easily pleased. I dreamed of seeing IG-88 hunting down quarry, or of Bossk wrestling a wookie or 4-LOM/Zuckuss doing evil stuff. Instead I got midichlorians, too many Death Stars and someone who’s not Harrison Ford pretending to be Han Solo. 

After 38 years, Star Wars finally gave one thing I really wanted from all its sequels, prequels and sidequels. And what a bounty it was. 

Wrestling with being a “Star Wars” fan at age 47

vsQSZluI’m a fan of a lot of things. But “Star Wars” is complicated for me. 

Like pretty much everyone born in the 1970s, I grew up with “Star Wars,” surrounded by Kenner action figures and C-3PO Underoos and painstakingly assembling the entire 107-issue run of Marvel comics. I never thought I’d still be seeing new “Star Wars” movies 40 years later.

But these days, the more toxic elements of “Star Wars” fandom have seeped into my appreciation of the Jedi mythos, already diluted by middling prequels and a never-ending tsunami of content-expanding product – some good, some unnecessary. They’re a tiny keyboard warrior minority, but seeing the misogynists and trolls outraged at gerrrrrls and non-white characters brought into their little biosphere in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” had a contaminating effect for me. I’ll always love “Star Wars,” but I’m uneasy lumping myself into the fandom scene.

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Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best of 1999’s “The Phantom Menace” have faced years of harassment and bullying for simply appearing in a movie. It’s hard for me to square up my own childhood Jedi fandom with an invisible online world of real-life Sith lords throwing bombs from their keyboards. If fandom is hounding an Asian-American actress off the internet for being in a “Star Wars” movie, I don’t want any part of it. 

So it’s complicated watching “Star Wars” movies in your late 40s, with a lifetime of your own memory baggage tossed into a cultural Tower of Babel of hot takes and trolling that never ends

qWglzM0I watched “The Last Jedi” again recently, and it’s the rare post-1983 “Star Wars” movie that actually gets better on each viewing. It goes in hard, unexpected places and objectively speaking is the most beautiful movie of the entire series to date, with director Rian Johnson composing painterly, stunning vistas that remind me of why I fell in love with the alien skies of Tatooine and Bespin in the first place. The cast is great (sorry, keyboard warriors) and it’s honestly the most surprising “Star Wars” movie since “Empire Strikes Back.” While I dug “The Force Awakens,” it’s hard not to see its plot as a ramped-up remake of “Star Wars”. “The Last Jedi” goes against what fans expected, and it suffered a backlash in some quarters as a result. 

And yet, “The Last Jedi” is also a cruel movie, where betrayal and despair is everywhere. Watching the last remnants of the Rebellion slowly being picked off and almost every character suffering incredible losses is a downer, much like the ending of “Empire Strikes Back” was in 1981. 

It’s likely that December’s Episode IX will live up to the title “The Rise of Skywalker” and deliver some kind of feel-good catharsis, but I don’t know. These are bleaker times than 1983. Cheesy as it may seem, the original trilogy had the standard-issue happy ending, with Ewoks singing wub-wub and everybody smiling at the force ghosts.

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Perhaps it’s a more brutal world now or a less blinkered one, but “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” are here to tell us there are no happy endings. (MAJOR SPOILERS ahead if you have yet to see either of these movies.) Han Solo has an apparently failed marriage to Leia and dies alone on a bridge, killed by his own son. Luke Skywalker sees his every ambition fail and spends his final years bitter and alone on a rocky island. General Leia Organa’s entire life is filled with failure and loss, the Rebellion crumbling around her, and whatever her final fate in “The Rise of Skywalker” is likely to be, it’s coming at the end of a hard life. I’m only hoping Lando has had some happiness in his final years. 

In the brief interregnum from 1984-1997 or so when “Star Wars” fandom went underground, where there were tons of comic book sequels and novels and the like, an entirely new ending was imagined for Han, Luke and Leia, one filled with ups and downs but definitely less fatalistic than the bleak realities of Episodes VII and VIII. I feel sad to see the characters I followed so obsessively as a kid not getting their happy endings. Then again, you can call back to Ben Kenobi’s lonely Tatooine exile or the brutal deaths of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru and say that “Star Wars” has always had harsh endings. 

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Yet I can’t fault its reality – war rarely ends cleanly or easily in real life, and it was always a stretch to imagine a bunch of Ewoks in a forest singlehandedly brought down a galactic empire. But I liked the fantasy. I liked the happy ending in 1983, and not having to read hot takes on it all the next day online. One of the biggest problems with the 42-year history of “Star Wars” now is that everyone has their own expectations of how things will go, and their own disappointment when it doesn’t measure up. Like most things, “Star Wars” is an imperfect creation, and part of being a fan of it all after decades is coming to grips with it.  

In the end nothing will be as pure a love as the kind you had when you were a starry-eyed kid. I’ll always be a “Star Wars” fan, despite my misgivings. But it’s complicated.