Not surprisingly, I wrote a (spoiler-free) review of The Force Awakens. However, I’ve preceded it with a more personal piece: a 20-year retrospective on my experiences with the Star Wars movies.
It’s a bit long, so if you want, you can absolutely skip straight to the review. But this is definitely a chance to see a man(child) who reacts to everything with a sarcastic wisecrack open up about a subject that’s very dear to his tiny, little heart and it contains no spoilers.
A long time ago, I was 8 years old – the prime age for this sort of thing – sitting on the couch at home. We’d just gotten cable, so I had been obsessed with that new development for the past month. In my desire to inundate myself with as much hot premium content as possible, I rapidly flipped through channels. Eventually, after something on Nickelodeon involving slime, I stumbled across an advertisement.
“If you’ve only seen it this way, you haven’t seen it at all!” it claimed. I didn’t know what the hell they were going on about. Whatever it was, though, they were right. I hadn’t seen it at all. But what was it?
Then they showed it to me: a spaceship came flying out of the screen, followed by a rich cavalcade of bright lights, colors and action sequences with explosions and aliens and more spaceships and robots and god-knows-what attacking each other and flying around and did I mention there were explosions? Then the logo came up in big, shiny blue-silver letters: “Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition”.
Most people purport to have had their minds completely blown upon their first exposure to Star Wars, but my response was surprisingly more measured. After sitting quietly for about 30 seconds, I simply shrugged my shoulders and said aloud, to no one in particular: “Hm. That looks interesting.” Three words and a grunt of curiosity. That was about it. I was, and still am, a weird kid.
I got up, waddled my pre-tween butt into the kitchen and tugged on the blouse of an immigrant woman who really couldn’t give a crap about the struggle of a Rebellion in a galaxy, far, far away. “Mummy, there’s movie called Star Wars coming out. It looks cool. Can I see it?”
I’m sure she’s regretted her response ever since.
Have you ever seen a movie that changed your life? I’ve seen three in rapid succession. It’s generally frowned upon to hitch your entire self-actualization to a movie (especially from the sci-fi/fantasy genres), but you know what? I’d be lying if I said otherwise.
Of course, being an 8 year old child, the Star Wars Trilogy was appealing for its action. Its adventure. Its excitement. A kid craves all these things. And it gave it to me in spades.
Then I watched them again, and again, and again so many damned times that I went through about three or four sets of VHS copies. The repeated viewings allowed me to appreciate more and more things about the films. The structure of the story, the characterization of the principal cast, the internal philosophy, (not to mention John Williams’ incomparable music score) and exactly how all of these various things gelled together into a well-oiled fiction machine.
Ultimately, the story of Star Wars is a simple one, and therein lies its effectiveness. It’s essentially a standard adventure story with wizards and knights and pirates and magic. And at the core, there was a philosophy of hope and struggle and love wrapped in an archetypal hero’s journey that’s as old the concept of storytelling. It’s something that speaks to all of us, regardless of race, creed, gender.
It was simple. It was beautiful. And, in the end, whether you are a die hard fanboy or a casual moviegoer, it was about what Star Wars made you feel.
Pure. Unadulterated. Joy.
It was a story that showed you a fairy tale world full of hopeful optimism that you desperately wanted to live in. Then it invited you inside and allowed you to share in it.
But that was before the dark times. Before the Prequels.
I wasn’t first in line to see Episode I in 1999, but I certainly wanted to be. The trailers for that were, and, frankly, still are, amazing. It was a whole new world of Star Wars expanding upon everything we’d seen before. It was going to be great!
Then I watched the film.
And, y’know what? I loved it.
It was great. There was a bunch of explosions and more aliens. And a high-octane racing sequence. And Darth Maul? How could you not like Darth Maul? He was a devil-man with a double-bladed lightsaber. What the hell was that? It was just loaded with awesome moments and concepts.
Then, like with the others, I watched it again, and again, and again. But this time, my VHS copy didn’t fall apart. Because something was off. And it wasn’t just Jar Jar Binks.
It was that there was no soul to these movies.
The original three movies had a strong story that built up and sometimes destroyed characters. Characters you cared about. Good vs. Evil. Love vs. Hate. Something you could easily pick up and identify with no prior knowledge.
Compared to that, Episode I (and the other Prequels) were a clumsy and random complement to the elegant structure of the originals. Episode I in particular was a mishmash of concepts and off-kilter dialogue hung on the dubious premise of a story that I’m still not entirely sure I understand. Taxation of Trade Routes? Is that what we’re fighting? In Star Wars, we were fighting guys who could destroy an entire planet, and now you want us to ratchet the stakes down to taxes? And all of this presented in a world of computer generated technical wizardry which, while impressive and relatively easy to produce, lacked the caring human touch of the practical effects from the originals.
All those things aside, the most damning criticism I can levy against the prequel movies is that they didn’t make me feel joyous. They didn’t make me feel anything.
I want to say I hated Episode II when it came out as well, but I didn’t. I loved that too. Sue me, I was 12. But ultimately, it fell victim to the very same problems Episode I did, but with the added bonus of even worse acting.
By the time Episode III rolled around, I was too tired to put up a fight. I was older and more jaded. I figured, even if it was bad, it wouldn’t be as bad as the others. At least there’ll be some cool fight scenes. And to its credit, Episode III delivered on those supremely lowered expectations. And it was going to be the last Star Wars movie ever. So I enjoyed it for what it was. But there was no doubt that much of what I had believed in was gone.
The next few years saw me slipping out of Star Wars. I still enjoyed it, but there wasn’t much to hold my attention. I even passed on The Clone Wars animated series (which, seeing it now, is actually worth a watch), because I didn’t see the point. Star Wars was pretty much over and it was time to move on.
Everyone has to move on sometime. Right?
In October of 2012, Disney announced that they’d bought Lucasfilm. And that they were making a new Star Wars movie. I met this news with a raised eyebrow. Another Star Wars movie? I’d been burned three times before. So I was cautious. Interested, but cautious.
Slowly, news and other bits began to trickle out about the movie, but I held fast and did my best to avoid almost all of them. I knew they were going to get the original cast back, but that was it.
Then last year, they released the first trailer. Everything looked interesting. There was a new droid with a neat design, a sweaty John Boyega Stormtrooper, and a guy with a lightsaber claymore. Great. That’s cool looking. Kind of a Darth Maul style reveal. I guess it’ll be okay, at least.
Then the music swelled and the Millennium Falcon burst out of the screen with a few maneuvers. And seeing that old piece of junk absolutely killed me. Because, for the first time in a long while, I felt something.
Pure. Unadulterated. (pun intended) Joy.
A presence I hadn’t felt since… since I was a kid.
Now you don’t have to tell me twice that the quality of a movie’s trailers is not necessarily representative of the final product. I know that more than most people. And from a certain point of view, you could even make the argument that this new trilogy is a carefully and brilliantly engineered marketing ploy to pander to the coveted 18-34 demographic. Because Darth Vader had it wrong. The Death Star isn’t the ultimate power in the universe. Neither is the Force. No, that crown belongs to nostalgia. And if you can tap into that, the world will be your oyster.
So, yes. Maybe it’s just another soulless attempt to cash in on the Star Wars name, like the Prequel trilogy. And maybe it is. Maybe it absolutely is.
But this is what I know:
When you’re a kid, everything is bright and shiny and new and amazing. You’re yet not burdened with any of the garbage that comes later. And, if you’re lucky, you get to grow up with a bunch of friends who you’re close to, who you love and who also think everything you like is bright and shiny and new and amazing. And everything is So. Much. Fun.
Then time passes. You get older and the weariness starts to set in. Your friends feel it, too. And then, some of them leave. They move away, or you get different jobs and responsibilities and you just don’t see them anymore. You might’ve even had a terrible fight. Things happen. Real life happens. And real life isn’t so much fun. You get worn out and maybe even a bit depressed.
Maybe sometimes you take a look back at your old pictures of friends long gone and reminisce about the ‘good old days’. But it’s not the same. It’s never the same. And so it goes.
Everyone has to move on sometime. Right?
Weeeeelllll… if you’re really, really lucky, your friends come back. And it’s like they never left. Everything just sort of falls back into place. All your world-weariness is gone for a while and, even if just for a moment, everything is bright and shiny and new and amazing again, like a fairy tale. It may not last forever – nothing does – but that shouldn’t keep you from enjoying it.
So what’s wrong with a little nostalgia? Even if it is part of a a huge multi-billion dollar cash-machine/marketing ploy, it doesn’t diminish the reality of the happiness you take from it. Just let it in.
Because a long time ago, some of my best friends went far, far away. But now they’re home. And we’re going to have So. Much. Fun.