CONFESSIONS OF A STAR WARS AGNOSTIC
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.
12/18/2015 08:14:26 am
Well said, Rich. I am in agreement with you about not understanding all the hype.
12/18/2015 09:08:52 am
Wonderful, Rich. I don't get it either. I have always preferred Star Trek. When I first saw the original Star Wars, the best part for me was that it was one of the very few times my dad went to the movies with us.
12/19/2015 02:30:09 pm
Thanks, Julie. I still remember going to see STAR WARS with you and Joe at the old State Theater in Charleston about a year after it came out. I also remember the film breaking during the cantina scene, a 5 minute wait while they fixed the film, and then the movie starting up but the rest of the cantina scene was gone.
12/18/2015 01:39:46 pm
First off, thanks for the read. I enjoy hearing what people have to say about films, even though I disagree.
12/19/2015 02:19:20 pm
HI Scott. Thank you very much for reading and thank you for your thoughts. I can totally understand how a movie we see at a certain age can grab us and change our lives. I have several of those films as well (some of which I mentioned in the article). What makes a movie great for a person is always a combination of a film's subject matter melding with the types of things that viewer enjoys while also giving them something revolutionary that they have not see before. I am glad STAR WARS is one of those films for you.
12/18/2015 02:42:32 pm
Haha. Richard. I think the big thing about the Star Wars films is that Lucas was creating some pretty cool new filmmaking tech while embarking on all his Star Wars journeys (resulting in the creation of ILM). It's very likely people were just seeing things in films visually they had never seen before and therefore a legacy was created. That legacy has simply evolved into an epic fandom that cannot be stopped. I am much more of a Trek fan personally than Wars but I grew up on both. So for me since I think Abrams did such a brilliant job with the Trek films I'm very excited to see what he and his team have done with The Force. I have a strong feeling that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be a pertinent title ineed. I have no doubt Abrams will be able to please both established and new audiences and reinvigorate the series. Lucas and Disney were on the money when they picked Abrams to do this and I simply can't wait to see it!
12/19/2015 02:21:07 pm
Thanks for sharing, Alexis. I look forward to hearing what you thought of the film.
12/18/2015 09:17:34 pm
I don't remember watching the movies for the first time. My older brothers loved and watched them so I did. It was something we all had in common. We would play with the toys, watch the movies, and pretend to be apart of that universe.
12/19/2015 02:25:08 pm
I agree with you, Jacob. A big part of STAR WARS success in pop culture is that it was the first movie where the toys were readily available soon after the first release so that children could play and recreate that adventure for themselves and create new stories as well. I remember PLANET OF THE APES having some toys but nothing at the level of STAR WARS. I think part of the hyping is definitely economic. They know the toys and games will move off the shelves. I am not so sure about the makeup…….
12/19/2015 04:30:24 pm
There are several things that came together for the original Star Wars. A filmmaker with a vision that couldn't get backing from the studios, so he had to figure out how to fund it on his own. Ideas that didn't have the technical tools to be fulfilled, so he had to create the tools (ILM was a big part of the Disney decision to purchase the franchise). A blending of the classic western with fantasy and science fiction. An up an coming actor with a great sense of delivery. An intriguing story complete with magic and wizards, good and evil, and the little engine that could (the Millennium Falcon). To the viewing public, it all came out of no where and grabbed their imaginations.
12/21/2015 07:05:40 pm
Agreed, Steve. I believe a lot of the attraction is that Lucas modernized dramatic elements we loved in westerns (horses & wide open spaces) and tales of knights in shining armor (light sabers & space) so that 20th century children could connect with the stories.
12/19/2015 08:20:34 pm
I enjoyed your thoughts Rich. I agree with u, I done know what the big deal is but I may not b a good one to comment because I have not seen any of the Star Wars movies! I have no desire to see them. I do like movies. Just not these.
12/21/2015 07:07:10 pm
Thanks, Bill. I am still going to see it and give it a try.
12/21/2015 01:42:13 am
I must admit to really loving the first film "A New Hope". I loved how Lucas utilized the teachings of Joseph Campbell and his book on classic mythology, "The Hero With a Thousand Faces", in crafting his story. (He also borrowed liberally from Akira Kurasawa's classic "The Hidden Fortress". If you're going to borrow, borrow from the best.)
12/21/2015 07:11:48 pm
Good thoughts, Terry. I agree it is all in the timing though I find it interesting that children of the 90s, 00s, and on are just as entranced by the series.
12/22/2015 11:08:05 pm
I know. I can't explain why the children of the 90s and 00s are just as entranced as well, especially after episodes 1, 2, & 3.
12/22/2015 04:01:16 pm
Rich, hate to say it, but Kathy and Penny took me to it and I fell asleep, not once but twice!! But that's just me!
12/23/2015 10:01:45 am
Don't feel bad, Joe. I fell asleep twice during "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and still don't feel like I missed anything.
12/2/2016 12:41:24 pm
I'm later than usual commenting, but since you're observations pretty much mirror mine, I thought I'd throw in a couple of my own.
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