I still remember seeing the first movie for the first time, at the movie theater in the University Mall in Provo Utah, while visiting one of my older siblings at BYU. When I got back to Vegas, I immediately told all my friends that it was the greatest thing that ever happened, and we all needed to go see it together. In those pre-multiplex days, it was only playing on one screen in town, at the Maryland Parkway Theater on Maryland Parkway and Flamingo, on the largest of its three screens.
After that, it became the mission of our lives to go see that movie as often as we could over the course of that summer. This was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away, before the existence of VHS, let alone DVD or Netflix. If you loved a movie and wanted to see it more than once, you needed to see it while it was still in theaters. Otherwise, the assumption was you might never see it again unless you happened to be free the night it was shown, a few years later, on network TV, once. "It'll be out on pristine blu ray video in a few months and you can watch it in surround sound on your wide screen at home?" No, not our world.
Nevertheless, none of our parents understood the concept of wanting to go back and see a movie again. "You already know what happens and how it ends." They didn't get it. This wasn't about how it ends. It was the ride! You don't only get on a rollercoaster once because you already know how it ends. This was a movie that was just fun to experience. Also, the Maryland Parkway was considered to be "way across town" and not an easy place to convince our moms they should drive us to. So we had to be sneaky. If any other movie was playing at the Maryland Parkway theater's other two screens, which any of us might have the slightest credible interest in going to see (a Charlie Brown movie maybe? Um, sure.), we'd get one of our parents to take us, and then we'd all go see Star Wars instead. And if our own parent didn't realize what we'd done yesterday afternoon, and thought we'd been at someone else's house swimming, so we could pull that same stunt again a few days later with a different mom, so much the better. (We were a diverse group affiliated primarily by neighborhood proximity, whereas our parents had their own friends from outside the neighborhood, and didn't talk to each other much). Also, if a relative hadn't seen it yet, that was good for another viewing. Grandma wants to do something with me for my birthday? I know just the thing. Yes, I even got Ella Carruth, probably approaching 80 at the time, to go see Star Wars, which just might be one of my proudest achievements. She even brought a friend. I think I managed to see it more than 12 times that Summer.
And then there was the ancillary merchandise. We all had the Star Wars double LP (records weren't vintage yet so we didn't know we were supposed to call it vinyl), with the great photos from the movies inside the foldout, and we all became John Williams fans, even before we knew he had done the music to Jaws, let alone that he would be the Meister of soundtracks for every pop culture EVENT movie to be released over the course of the rest of our lives, from Superman through Indy and all the way to Harry Potter.
We all read the paperback novel, listing George Lucas as the author, but ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, with its mysterious byline ("from the adventures of Luke Skywalker") which suggested more to come, and then, a year or so after that, the sequel novel "Splinter of the Minds Eye." There was some kind of read-along story one of us bought because it had photographs of a deleted scene, with Biggs on Tatooine. And the sketch-book, which included Tie Fighter designs not seen in the movie. Then there was the Marvel Comic Book version of the film, which we used as a script to create our own audioplay with a cassette recorder. It was a great summer.
And then? Empire Strikes Back. Even cooler, in many ways, than the first movie (the opening scrawl, with its "Episode V" title, taught us to start calling the movies episodes, and hinted intriguingly at prequels and sequels galore). So yes, I'll be going to see Star Wars Episode VII, and hoping for the best.
But my enthusiasm will be tempered. My hope for a great evening at the movies more cautious than convinced. A lot has happened since Empire Strikes Back hit the Silver Screen, and much of it has dampened my enthusiasm for the series. Maybe if Lucas had died, like Robert Jordan, so somebody else had to finish his oeuvre, things would have worked out better. But alas, he lived to make more movies. And as he did so, over the years, this, that, or the other, has weakened my love for the series. These quibbles include the following, in no particular order:
Seven Problems with Star Wars after the Empire Strikes Back.
1. The Ewoks. I mostly loved Return of the Jedi, when it first came out, and the chemistry between Luke and Leia and Han was as great as ever. But then, for the first time in three movies, there were parts of this movie that I really, really didn't like. Among those parts: the Ewoks. What a stupid move. George Lucas's biggest fans were 8 to 12 years old when the first Star Wars movie came out. We were 14 to 18 now. This was going to be the last installment for, what, . . . decades? So there was no need to recruit new young fans. The established fans were teenagers now and we didn't want Teddy Bears in our most beloved sci-fi franchise. And why such fake looking Teddy Bears? They weren't wearing any loinclothes, yet they didn't seem to need any. Gee, either these creatures have no ability to digest their food, and they reproduce asexually, or they are really just little kids in dumb-looking costumes. And how do they see when they so clearly have fake taxidermist glass eyes? The only thing worse was the styro-foamy elephant at the beginning of the movie in Jabba the Hutt's palace. But only barely.
2. Darth Vader's cheap redemption. I can't remember where I first came across the following analogy, but I'm fairly certain it was in something written by Orson Scott Card: Hitler is about to kill Himmler's son. To stop him, Himmler kills Hitler. Now, despite participating in mass genocide, Himmler gets to go to heaven? For saving his son's life? Wouldn't pretty much anyone save their own son's life, such that doing so doesn't really make you particularly special? What is this, warmed-over Calvinism? Some people are just better than others and will be saved in the end no matter what? If Darth Vader is to be redeemed, surely it could have been done with some plotting that made more logical sense than, just, . . . this. Giving his life to help the rebels destroy the empire maybe? I dunno. I mean, it's nice that he saves his son's life and all, but, really? In interviews Lucas gave when he was prepping the Prequels, he went back on his earlier promise to create 9 Star Wars, and said that there would only be 6, and that, ultimately, these weren't really movies about Luke and Leia et al. This was Darth Vader's story, the tale of his fall and redemption. Well, then, that makes it even worse: These six movies have all been about Darth Vader's fall and redemption, AND THIS HIMMLER SAVES HIS SON FROM HITLER moment is the ending and ultimate climax of THAT overarching story? Really? Wow. That just makes the entire series so much . . . less than it could have been. And learning in Episode III that Anakin was a child-killer didn't help. Pretty sure you don't get a free pass to heaven for saving your own child's life, if you have previously murdered other people's innocent children in cold blood.
3. George Lucas's Anti-Americanism. As if the Ewoks weren't bad enough, on their own and in and of themselves, I had the misfortune to come across a documentary about the making of the original trilogy in which Lucas explained that the Ewoks' use of primitive technology, via guerilla attacks, to overcome the greater military capability of the Empire, was meant as an analogy for the Vietcong's defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam. Lucas admired the Northern Vietnamese, and wanted to highlight that admiration in the third film. So, there's that. Basically, Episode 6 wasn't a movie for people like me. It was a movie for people like Jane Fonda. Sigh.
4. The CGI heavy reissues. Full kudos to George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic for introducing CGI to film and remaining a pioneer in special effects technology decades after the first movie came out. Compared to say, the Last Starfighter, the CGI in the special editions of the original trilogy was really impressive at the time they were made. But it was still an emerging technology, and it wouldn't really be put to amazingly effective use until we were introduced to Peter Jackson's Gollum. So, now, ironically, the parts of the original trilogy which have aged the worst are the new CGI scenes. And it's pretty clear why some of the reinserted scenes were cut the first time around. Han Solo was allowed to leave by Jabba? Well that doesn't build much tension. Even when the CGI looked good and not dated, the only film that really benefited was Empire Strikes Back (and the final scene in Return, which reduced the amount of Ewoks). Yet Lucas won't bring back the originals, and apparently Disney is sticking to that position. Maybe when George is dead . . . .
5. The problem with Prequels. I don't actually hate the prequels, and actually enjoyed them all when I first saw them. Although they are not nearly as rewatchable as the original films. And Jar Jar? Well, Lucas was a risk-taker. People might have hated Chewbacca, but he turned out fine. And Yoda the muppet Jedi Master, on paper, had to have sounded like an incredibly misguided idea, which might have gone very, very, badly, instead of becoming perhaps the coolest movie character of all time. Lucas was bound to get it wrong eventually. So cut him a break. The main issue I have with the prequels is the same issue that affects all prequels generally. When you are reading a well-done fantasy or science fiction novel, and the author helps you understand that you are being told a story which exists within the context of a much larger universe, including lots of places on the map you never actually get to see, and a backstory you only hear about second hand, the effect is intriguing and powerful and mysterious. But when you actually go into the backstory, and see it first hand, you can lose the magic, like learning about Santa Claus. It just can't be as cool as you had hoped it would be. I think that's one of the reasons Back to the Future worked so well. All of us, at one time or another, have wanted to know what our parents were like at our age, and, when they are at the right age, children love to hear the story of how their parents met: it's the ultimate backstory, how I came to exist. And Back to the Story helped us understand why maybe it's for the best that we never actually get to learn more about that. I loved the scene in the first prequel when Obi Wan tells Anakin he'll be training him as a Jedi. But it was still cooler in my imagination. Ditto the final fiery battle between the same two characters at the end of Episode 3. A good prequel, that works well, will be set in the same universe, but involve ancillary characters, keeping the original story's own back story steeped in mystery and intrigue.
6. The Problem with Lucas's Prequels. Lucas's prequels made this inherent and intrinsic problem even worse. One of the many things that J.K. Rowling got right in the Harry Potter novels was creating a lengthy story that was almost seamlessly integrated. As you read later books in the series, the earlier books made more sense, and what happened in those earlier books added to the enjoyment of the later volumes, as when the full meaning of Tom Riddle's diary in book 2 is revealed in book 6, and its destruction becomes a key plot point in book 7. Lucas tried to create a similar sense of his story's integration, but it was so forced and awkward that it not only didn't work, it undercut the whole narrative. Plot points that were meant to be big reveals of what we had never realized before just demonstrated that Lucas hadn't really thought his story through before. One example will suffice: Anyone who ever saw the original Star Wars (except George Lucas apparently) knows that a person living in "an environment such as" Tatooine would have "no use of a protocol droid." Why, then, does a young Tatooine slave boy create one? Why would any young boy create a "protocol droid" when they could create a robot that does something cool? No possible reason whatsoever except a lame attempt to try to shoehorn some artificial relationship between the two movie that we are apparently supposed to find cool. "Ooooh, Vader created C-3PO. Wow." This makes the original Star Wars worse. Now, instead of finding it clever when C-3P0 says "Thank the maker" because Robots would thank their manufacturer in the way humans thank their divine creator, we are reminded that C-3P0's maker was supposedly someone who had no reason whatsoever to make him. Lame.
7. The worst movie line of all time. No one expects a Star Wars movie to have deep, clever, or meaningful dialogue. Still, does it have to include lines of dialogue so awful they ought to be in Guinness? Here it is:
Anakin: "If you are not with me, you're my enemy."
Obi-wan: "Only a Sith speaks in absolutes."
For my money, absolutely the stupidest lines of dialogue in the history of cinema. Probably in the history of English. What makes this snippet of dialogue so horrendously awful? How much time do you have? First of all, it was intended as a political rebuke against a contemporary politician. But making contemporary political points is not the purpose of Star Wars. These stories are supposed to be timeless fables. And contemporary political points jar you away from all that, whether you agree or disagree with them. As Tolkien once said, a good story will be full of applicability, which the reader can choose, not analogy, which forces the reader into a specific meaning. Give us applicability, not analogy, let us choose our applications as we will, don't force them upon us, like a Sith. Secondly, the statement "if you are not with me you are against me" was first spoken by Christ, not a modern politician. Matthew 12:30. So Obi-wan's criticism of Anakin's statement is not ultimately a criticism of George Bush, as was intended, but is a criticism of Christ, characterizing Christ as a Sith. And that's just evil. Third: "Only a Sith speaks in absolutes" is of course in and of itself an absolute statement, meaning that Obi-wan makes himself a Sith for saying it, and that Lucas flunks basic kindergarten logic for writing it. Finally, the critique Obi-wan is making is just incredibly stupid in context. It's like criticizing Hitler because he lacked nuance. Anakin is not engaged in some righteous crusade, which he has taken too far by being overly zealous towards anyone who disagrees with his means or his methods. The proper response to Anakin's statement isn't to instruct him that he needs to be a little more inclusive in his thinking, and be more open to ambiguity and other points of view. The proper response is to say: "Of course I'm you're enemy. Any decent person in the universe should be your enemy. You are evil."
* * * * * * * *
So there you have it. How I learned to stop loving Star Wars as much as I once did, in the years after the Empire struck back. But wait, there's more. What about the new movie? The latest international trailer really did get me excited, and awaken my inner nerdy child. But nevertheless, there's a few things that keep me from being as excited to go see this as I once was to go see Episode 1 (probably a good thing, considering how that turned out). Here they are, in no particular order:
Three Reasons to Temper the Hype over the New Movie:
8. It's basically fan fiction. Ironically, one of the driving forces behind fan enthusiasm for the upcoming movie is that it's not a George Lucas film. I get that, really I do. See points 1 through 7 above. Still, for good or ill, Star Wars is George Lucas's baby, and a Star Wars movie not based on his ideas or story or outline, is a little bit like those James Bond novels that were written after Ian Fleming had died, or someone other than J.K. Rowling penning a new Harry Potter book. That's not to say that it won't be great. Most of the recent Marvel movies have been excellent, even though the original creators of those characters and story-lines had nothing to do with them. But still, we are in new territory now. The Star Wars of George Lucas, who created it, is over now. Other than a possible Stan Lee-esque cameo or two, he has nothing to do with it. Hopefully it gets back on course and stays there. But even if it does, it's not really canon.
9. J.J. Abrams Wrote and Directed It. This means that it will almost certainly include the set-up for some deep and intriguing mystery, or mysteries, which we will learn, in Episode 9, no one knew how to resolve beforehand. "OH, the stormtroopers of Alderaan were all in Limbo!!! Well, that's just stupid." The Mystery Writers Guild of America really needs to take JJ Abrams to the woodshed and explain some things to him about the basic rules of storytelling. Before you write a mystery, you determine the truth. Then you arbitrarily withhold the truth while dropping hints of it all along the way, amidst various red herrings. Then you reward your reader's patient impatience by finally giving him the truth at the end, causing him to see everything that came before in a new light. This moment of resolution is deeply satisfying, like the turn that comes in the last two lines of every good sonnet. If it doesn't happen, someone has been robbed. If you are just pretending to be withholding the truth, when in fact there is no truth and you have no idea where you are going with anything in your story, but you are just really good at the set up and the spooky music, you are committing a fraud. If this happens in the new Star Wars trilogy, they could be even worse than the prequels.
10. "Chewie, we're home." I have a bad feeling about this line, from one of the first teaser trailers, spoken by Han, apparently when he revisits the interior of the Millenium Falcon after some period of vacancy. It's not the kind of thing that human beings say in real life. It's not the kind of thing that characters in good movies say in good movies. It's the kind of thing someone from the marketing department wants someone to say in a movie, so it can be put in the trailer for the movie, even when it's completely out of character for the person saying it (Han Sole, sentimental nostalgic?) The first new Star Wars movie hasn't even opened yet, but Disney is already working on the new Star Wars portion of Disneyland, so marketing matters. That's all fine and good if it doesn't affect the product being marketed. But if it does affect the product, then it will infect it as well. There was no valid artistic reason to stretch the Hobbit movies into three overly bloated movies, where two tightly plotted movies with narrative thrust and dispatch would have been just the thing. But I'm sure it made sense to the Warner Brothers Marketing Department.
Nevertheless, I'll see you on opening night, holding my popcorn and hoping for the best. And despite all of the above, I'll be as excited as it's possible for a middle aged person trying to recapture their childhood to be. That's the power of the original trilogy, and especially the first two movies, pure and perfect entertainment that they were.