(This article first appeared in our digital magazine 'Banter M')
I was seven-years-old when Star Wars was released. I remember seeing something about it on TV in the lead-up to it hitting theaters and, one Saturday afternoon when my grandmother asked if I wanted to see a movie, literally falling off the couch with excitement at the prospect of seeing what was supposedly groundbreaking new science fiction. I was a space nerd, who up to that point had been weaned on Star Trek, so there was no way I was going to miss the next step in the evolution of pop culture sci-fi. The movie was showing at a tiny place nearby in Fort Lauderdale, at a location that eventually became a porn theater. My grandmother drove us there in her 1970-something Monte Carlo and I sat down, sat back and let
the movie completely wash over me. It’s said that most movie geeks have that one moment where their love of film is cemented, where the sheer magic of movies knocks them back against the wall and they’re never the same again. My moment was toward the end of Star Wars, when Darth Vader has Luke Skywalker in his sights, the TIE fighter next to him suddenly explodes, he shouts a surprised, “What?!” — and then the Millennium Falcon screams down from out of the sky with sun behind it. I can’t even imagine what my little kid face looked like during that moment, but I know that it was the first time I ever had chills run over my body top to bottom and tears of absolute joy begin to pool in my eyes. It was just so damn wondrous. And it changed me forever.
Well, maybe not forever.
I went on to see Star Wars another dozen or so times in the theater. Through some miracle, my dad managed to get a
hold of an excellent bootleg VHS copy of the movie long before it debuted on video, which meant that I was able to watch it over and over and over again in the comfort of my home. And I did. Over and over and over and over. I got to where I could answer literally any trivia question you could come up with and could quote the film almost in its entirety. I bought every bit of Star Wars merch I could get my hands on, from action figures to toys to clothes to trading cards to bedsheets to Burger King commemorative glasses. My whole life as a kid was consumed by George Lucas’s creation. I of course ate up the sequels, taking time off of school to see each of them on the morning of opening day, because I was just that serious about Star Wars and anything it spawned. I didn’t even consider myself to be a Star Wars fan, per se. What I was engaging in wasn’t fandom. Star Wars was simply my life. When I was a kid there was no sense asking me what my favorite movie was because there was a good chance I had it plastered all over my body somewhere. I was totally immersed in the Star Wars universe — and that immersion lasted right up until the time where I discovered punk rock and realized that I’d like to get laid at some point.
But if I’m honest, turning my back on Star Wars was really a matter of growing up and becoming cynical. Sure, I took a look around me and saw how male teenagers who still proclaimed their undying love for Star Wars did in terms of finding girlfriends who didn’t live in Canada. But more than anything else, I just got older. I still admired Lucas’s creation for how brilliant it was at its height and how much it meant to my childhood, but by my early teens I was more into skateboards, the Stooges and masturbation. By my mid-to-late teens, it was alt and hip-hop, drinking beer and trying to avoid having to do nothing but masturbate all the time. My appreciation for Star Wars had been pushed aside in favor of a worship of movies like Alien, Apocalypse Now, The Lost Boys and Angel Heart. My soul had obviously blackened quite a bit since I was a kid, but I was good with that.
Then of course came the Star Wars prequels, which admittedly generated some excitement from me if for no other reason than that I’m a sucker for nostalgia. With those three movies, it looked like George Lucas had effectively ruined his own legacy and even destroyed my memories of how good the original trilogy was when I was a kid. And that’s what got me, then a 30-something man with a career, a history of drug use and one divorce under his belt, thinking: Were the original Star Wars films really that good or was I just a kid who could be easily impressed? The original Star Wars was objectively a great movie — and so was The Empire Strikes Back — but let’s face it, Return of the Jedi was nothing more than a neutered Han Solo working with a bunch of teddy bears. So, really, I looked back on it, only one-third of the Star Wars movies were any good. The rest kind of sucked.
So what to make of J.J. Abrams upcoming sequel to Star Wars, the continuation of the story that occurs in the years following the end of Return of the Jedi? Star Wars: The Force Awakens promised from the very beginning to be a competent film — and while that might sound like an insult, “competent” in this case isn’t interchangeable with “mediocre.” The fact is that George Lucas screwed his own movies with the prequels. He did it by violating one of the first rules, well, everything: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Lucas, who had already tinkered with the original films to the point where die-hard fans considered him a mad scientist rather than a benevolent genius, was so impressed with how far special effects had come in thirty years that he believed he could bring every insane thought in his head to life. This is somewhat admirable, except for the fact that the human mind subconsciously reacts to images it knows aren’t real — and Lucas created an entire movie of unreal images. The actors had nothing to genuinely react to because in real life nothing was there when they were shooting their scenes — everything in the prequels was fake, and it felt that way to the audience. Compounding that was Lucas’s lack of talent for writing dialogue, so what you had was a bunch of wooden characters in a nonexistent, fully animated environment, and that doomed the movies. Lucas had turned his reputation from that of a brilliant independent-minded filmmaker to a dime-store hack.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm and acquired the rights to the Star Wars universe, a lot of people were terrified of what was to come. I wasn’t one of them. My very first thought was that Disney’s desire to make money and its history of turning art into an overall brand was, maybe counterintuitively, exactly what Star Wars needed. Disney would be determined to make a good movie out of Star Wars, if for no other reason than the fact that it knows how to read the tea leaves, hire the right people, and create quality entertainment. And that’s what Star Wars needed — it needed to be entertaining again. Bringing J.J. Abrams aboard to direct the first toe-in-the-water of what would be an expanded universe said everything you needed to know about Disney’s plans for the franchise. Abrams is not only someone who grew up on Lucas and Spielberg and would be honored to do a Star Wars film to the point where he’d be rightfully concerned about further screwing up the legacy of the original movies, he’s an intensely populist filmmaker who had already successfully relaunched Star Trek as a rousing piece of pop entertainment. Abrams was perfect for a new Star Wars movie. And he proved it right off the bat by promising the loyal that he would be eschewing the all-CGI approach that had dominated and destroyed Lucas’s prequels in favor of a return to practical, in-camera effects wherever possible.
Disney also did something that would seem insulting had Lucas’s stock not already plummeted by his own hand: The studio assured fans that Lucas would have nothing to do with the new movie other than in a tangential advisory role. In other words, George Lucas wants to suggest that Jar Jar’s grandson show up in the new film or that a new Greedo shoots a new Han Solo first? Fine, he can do that — but nobody has to listen to him. Make no mistake: Excising George Lucas was the smartest thing Disney could do with The Force Awakens. It’s going to make it a better movie. And if the new trailers are any indication, it looks like Abrams has made the movie everyone expected him to make — a thrilling, faithful throwback to the original Star Wars films that lit up so many childhoods like mine.
Sure, trailers can be deceiving since they can make any movie look good, but for the first time in decades — the first time since I was a little kid — I’m really looking forward to a new Star Wars movie. I definitely wanted to see The Phantom Menace when it dropped in 1999, but there’s something about this movie that’s different even from that. Maybe it’s the place I am in my own life, with the usual midlife crisis of the mid-40s making nostalgia just that much more valuable, but I think it’s so much more. To see the characters I grew up on handing off the storyline to a new group of young space adventurers is thrilling and immensely satisfying. The line in the new trailer about the “old stories,” with Harrison Ford’s Han Solo confirming that, “It’s true, all of it. The dark side. The Jedi. They’re real,” is so wonderfully potent because, despite the continued Star Wars fandom over the years, it feels like the absolute joy that came with the initial films has been lost — and now it’s finally being rediscovered. I’ve always been curious whether Star Wars could one day capture that magic it did back in 1977 and transport me to that first moment of being blown through the back of the theater — whether it could make me feel like a kid again.
Will The Force Awakens? I honestly don’t know — but I’ve got my tickets for opening day, which in and of itself is a shocking, hyper-excited leap of faith on my part. Even with the knowledge that only a third of the Star Wars movies are really worthwhile, they’re so worthwhile and they universe they imagined is so powerful that it’s hard to forget the impact they first had on me. Those old stories of the dark side and the Jedi are true — all of it. And I’m ready for the new stories for a new generation.
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