Star Wars came out in 1977, and I was 12 years old, which means it hit me the way a T-16 can bull’s-eye womp rats (at least with the right pilot). I remember Nixon resigning, and I remember when I first heard about 9/11, and I remember when that Imperial Cruiser came rolling over the top of the screen and kept coming and coming, and I stopped breathing. I can’t think of another cultural artifact that has had such a massive, direct impact on my life. I saw the film 14 times – and this, younglings, is far before the days of VHS or DVDs, so that means I saw it 14 times in the theater. My friends and I devoured Starlog magazines and relied heavily on our pre-internet googling abilities (i.e., making stuff up) to try to peer into every nook and cranny of that long-gone, far, far away galaxy.
So, when “Episode I” came out in 1999, I had every right to geek out. And, like just about every 30-something, I was hugely disappointed. I don’t know what George Lucas would have had to have done to do justice to the impossibly high-degree of awe and respect we had for the Star Wars universe, but Jar-Jar wasn’t it, not even close, and we felt betrayed. To make matters worse, George started messing with the original films – our films! – to make them connect more smoothly with these latter-day prequels. It’s like he felt he owned those movies! – which he didn’t, or not entirely anyway, as they had been interwoven with millions of other lives – like mine.
But time and age bring perspective, or at least larger blood levels of dontgiveashit. So this week, as “Episode VII” was released, I felt I could take a wiser perspective of the franchise. I realize now that no one, not even God, or George Lucas, could make a movie that does for thirty- or forty- or fifty-year olds what a movie can do for a 12-year old. And I realize that making the set of Star Wars films has been devilishly more complex, as an enterprise, than, say, the Harry Potter movies, or the Peter Tolkien LoTR/Hobbit movies, since these later endeavors were conceived in their entirety from the get-go. Lucas made Star Wars and suddenly the dim vision of an epic saga of which it was a part needed to be fleshed out in two more sequels, followed twenty years later by three prequels, with all kinds of other elements also rattling around the Star Wars “extended universe” in the intervening years. No wonder the plot had all the unity of a Jawa yard-sale. (And furthermore, remember that George Lucas is the American Graffiti guy, not J. K. Rowling or J. R. R. Jackson. There’s a lot of American Graffiti in the Millennium Falcon, when you look for it.)
So the family and I settled in to watch all six episodes over the last few days in preparation for The Force Awakens. We watched them in episodic order (1, 2, …) – as opposed to the order of release (4, 5, 6, 1….), or the “machete” order, or the order of the Mynocks, or what have you. We kept scientific measurements of our overall ratings. From these data, we observed that, with the exception of the utterly abysmal Attack of the Clones, our enjoyment generally correlated positively with the overall cost of each movie. Indeed, of the six, The Phantom Menace – Episode I – emerged as my favorite by a long shot – and this is absolute heresy among Star Wars fans. The Empire Strikes Back was far better than I thought, back in 1980, though Return of the Jedi was still, in my opinion, awful – stinking awful, breath-of-Jabba-the-Hutt awful.
(What made Episode I so good (in my lonely view)? Easy. Liam Neeson – the greatest Jedi in the history of the galaxy. And Darth Maul steeply ramped up the lightsaber fights. And Jar Jar really is kind of funny – if you allow yourself to temporarily regain your twelve-year-old mind.)
What can one say of the original, Episode IV, A New Hope? Well, it was pathbreaking, no doubt. It was imaginative, fun, silly, and exciting – in 1977. In 2015 it is – how to say it? – kinda lame. Look, I know: it’s lame only because of the accelerated evolution of the sci-fi film genre that developed in its wake. It’s lame in the way Edison’s first lightbulb is lame, by today’s standards. Still – for all that – that fact is that it’s painful to watch now, even as I remember with perfect clarity exactly how each scene caused my 12-year-old self to cheer and laugh.
Watching the films together reveals some surprising unifying themes in the Lucasverse. There are always strange, funny aliens who are often partial to music that would be rediscovered eons later in mid-20th century America. Every world presents a complex economic ecosystem, with various species exploiting every opportunity for making a living. Engineers across the galaxy are given free reign to invent vehicles appealing to every sensibility. And there are enough funny droids running about to afford Keystone Studios endless plot opportunities.
The Force Awakens proudly carries forward these traditions, and breaks new ground with a filmmaking mastery that is entirely new to the series. These are real actors, real scriptwriters, and a real director. The very possibility of assembling these talents together into making a fantastic sci-fi film would not have been possible prior to 1977. (Indeed, nowadays it is evidently impossible to make any film in Hollywood that doesn’t involve aliens and explosions; though it’s also true that, as tiresome as these hyper-barbaric blast-fests can become, you can count on them showing a uniformly high level of technical expertise. We tend to take this for granted.) And, like A New Hope, the film has a lot of heart – which, come to think of it, is another central feature of the Star Wars galaxy – and it is relentless in its demand: get into that 12-year-old self and strap yourself in; we are going to have some fun. It knows some of those old Jedi mind tricks that can make 38 years disappear in an instant.