It seems like the entire world is going to pause today so it can run out for the movie event millions of people have waited most of the year, if not most of their lives for: the release of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Advanced word has been good, unabashed fans have had their tickets for months, and many of them can be found on Facebook and other social media platforms counting down the days, hours, and minutes until they can finally sit in a darkened theater and see it. Most of them haven’t been this excited since their days of waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney.
Which is why I am going to a bit of an Ebenezer Scrooge here today as I come clean with a statement that has haunted me for most of my life. Are you ready?
I don’t get what the big deal is about STAR WARS.
There, I said it! I have been thinking it for most of my adult life. I just haven’t had the nerve to say it until now. What is it about this movie series that has made it the biggest thing across all entertainment platforms for the last forty years?
I have watched this entertaining but wildly uneven franchise come to dominate pop culture. I have watched my students (otherwise responsible adults) talk about the opening of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS with the same awed reverence on their faces usually reserved for people who have seen Jesus.
So what gives? Why is STAR WARS such a big deal???? Because I really don’t understand it.
It’s not like I dislike science fiction. Growing up, I read dozens of sci-fi novels. I loved Jules Verne. I was a dedicated follower of LOST IN SPACE. I enjoyed watching any kind of sci-fi TV program no matter how cheesy whether it be LAND OF THE GIANTS or VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA or THE FANTASTIC JOURNEY (anybody remember that one?).
I watched every iteration of STAR TREK from the original series (1966-1969) to the cartoon series on Saturday morning (1973-1975) to the movies (STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN is still the best) to STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE. I admit I jumped off the bandwagon at VOYAGER. But I still watch GALAXY QUEST (1999) every time it is on.
I loved every installment of PLANET OF THE APES whether it be the five movies, the TV show, the Saturday morning cartoon, or the many book tie-ins.
SILENT RUNNING, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and APOLLO 13 are still among my favorite films. You set a movie in space and I will watch it.
In the 1960s and 1970s, I was obsessed with the USA’s space program and watched every available hour of every mission from Gemini through Apollo and Skylab right up to the early Space Shuttle launches. I still dream of going into space.
It’s also not like I think George Lucas is/was a bad filmmaker. Without a doubt he is one of the most brilliant and influential filmmakers in movie history. AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), his other 1970s blockbuster, is one of my Top 25 favorite films of all time.
And it is not that I dislike the STAR WARS movies at all. The original STAR WARS (1977) – sorry, but I refuse to call it by its new franchise name STAR WARS EP. IV: A NEW HOPE – is an exhilarating ride and one of the most entertaining movies ever made. I first saw it at the Capitol Theater in Charleston, West Virginia at age fifteen when it came out in the summer of 1977. It was fun and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But there was nothing about it that made me want to see it again. Certainly nothing on the order of TIME AFTER TIME (1979) which I managed to see four times in one week at the old Clarkston Cinema in Clarkston, Michigan. But then again I had a massive crush on Mary Steenburgen at the time. And, yes, I did fancy myself as the H.G. Wells type (brilliantly played by Malcolm McDowell). “To be quite candid”, I still use many of Wells’ lines from that movie in my everyday speech – the true sign of a movie that has changed your life.
In 1980, eighteen year old me saw THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) on a date at the Showcase Cinemas in Pontiac, Michigan. My date and I did not really hit it off that night but the movie was lots of fun. It was good seeing the characters back. In fact, watching a sequel those days was a rather novel experience because most movies then, no matter how big a hit they were, did not automatically generate a sequel. And the ones that did were usually decidedly worse than the original. Think SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II (1980), JAWS 2 (1978), or MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1979). So it was refreshing to see a sequel that was almost as good as the original. But, again, no desire to see it again. In contrast, I saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) five times in theaters when it came out the following summer.
By the time RETURN OF THE JEDI came out in 1983, I was seeing it more out of obligation than anything because they were finally wrapping up the story and I was at least mildly interested in how it would end. But, for 21 year old me whatever magic or novelty the series had had evaporated by then. And I was more than happy to watch Luke and his friends defeat the Empire and close the book with a happy ending. And I had absolutely no desire to see the story picked up again and continued.
None of the original movies were my choice for best film of their years. For 1977, I chose Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. In 1980, it was David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN followed closely by Richard Rush’s THE STUNT MAN. The runaway winner for me in 1983 was TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (saw it about five times in the theater) followed closely by Bill Forsyth’s hilariously dry comedy LOCAL HERO.
When George Lucas made his prequel trilogy at the turn of the new century, I didn’t even bother seeing them in theaters. I was married and a working father by then and my much diminished spare time seem better spent elsewhere. I eventually ended up watching THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002), and REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005) on pay cable. And like most viewers, I was rather underwhelmed by what I saw. I would rather watch THE LORD OF THE RINGS director’s editions for the zillionth time than sit through those three movies again.
So when I see all the different editions and the toys and the books and the costumes and the games and the endless merchandising tie-ins for THE FORCE AWAKENS, I seriously don’t get it. To quote the late Alfred Hitchcock, “It’s just a movie.”
So my question for you today is this: What is it about STAR WARS that makes it one of the greatest movies ever made for you? What makes this film the pinnacle of your movie universe? What is it that makes George Lucas’s space fantasy the “be all, end all” of movie watching experiences? What is it about this movie that changed your life?
What is it that I am missing? I seriously want to know.
So, please, enlighten me.
And may the force be with you.