May 25, 2007

Reflections from a Second-Generation Star Wars Fan

Posted in Movies, Personal at 10:04 pm by Calico Jack

Note: This post is a contribution to Edward Copeland’s Star Wars Blog-a-Thon, in celebration of Star Wars’ 30th anniversary today.

I think that there are three different generations of Star Wars fans: those who saw the original trilogy in theaters, those whose first exposure to the saga were with the prequels, and those in-between — too young to have watched A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi on the big screen, yet too old to view Lucas’s later trilogy with the unrestrained enthusiasm that can only come from experiencing something completely novel.

Unfortunately, I was born several years after Return of the Jedi brought an end to the Star Wars trilogy in 1983, after the furor over Lucas’s pop-culture icons had died down and his one-time comment that he had three trilogies planned brought only a wistful smile to many faces. Yet the earliest recollection of my childhood is from 1989 when I was three years old, sitting in the shopping cart at Price Club (a precursor to Costco). My mom pointed to a pallet of videocassettes and asked, “Daddy really likes these movies. Do you want to get him these for Father’s Day?”

These movies, of course, were the Star Wars trilogy just released on VHS for all of America to enjoy. I had no clue what my mom was talking about, but I enthusiastically nodded agreement and put them in the cart. The next memory I have is several weeks later, after my dad had opened up his Father’s Day gifts. He wanted to watch A New Hope with me, but my mom was unsure; she thought I might be too young for some of the more intense scenes. But my dad promised he would cover my eyes if I got scared; and from the moment Tantive IV roared across the top of the screen with the colossal Star Destroyer Devastator following closely behind, I was hooked. I vividly remember watching the Rebel troopers lining the corridor of Tantive IV, blasters drawn and apprehensive looks on their faces. I didn’t quite understand what was happening, but I knew something exciting was about to occur (immense thanks must go to John Williams for his masterful soundtrack; even at three I could follow the story far better than I normally would due to his tonal cues and character themes). And when Darth Vader himself appeared through the airlock, labored breathing pouring through the speakers and an undeniable sense of dread filling every frame, I could scarcely breathe. Here was a villain (and he had to be a bad guy; he was wearing a face mask, wasn’t he?) whose presence was unlike anything I’d seen before. Although, to be fair I was only three — but it left a huge impression on my young psyche.

The rest of that first Star Wars experience is a blur, but not as a result of boredom. Rather, those beginning scenes completely enthralled me, and I could barely focus on the rest of the film because I was so excited to see this movie. When it was over, I’m pretty sure I was suffering from the effects of a sugarless sugar rush. And there were two more movies to go! We watched The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi the following two Sundays, and when the trilogy was over I knew that this was something I would enjoy over and over again.

My younger brothers followed much the same path; by the time each of us were three or four we had all experienced this sense of wonder that came with a first viewing. The early ’90s weren’t a great time to be a kid at the movies; in fact, there was quite a dearth of films that could stimulate a young boy’s imagination, let alone set it on fire like the Star Wars trilogy could. My brothers and I watched those movies every time we had an opportunity, eventually reciting iconic phrases along with the characters like “She’ll hold together. Hear me baby, hold together” or “You’re wrong, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” Our love for the films never wavered, but there wasn’t always an opportunity to express it like we wanted to — by playing with Star Wars toys. They were pretty much impossible to find in stores: even as another generation was being introduced to these movies, the ability to truly become our favorite Star Wars characters through playacting was almost nonexistent.

Then Hasbro released a brand-new line of action figures and MicroMachines playsets in 1995. Finally, here was an outlet for us to make our own stories in the Star Wars universe. My brothers and I snatched up every action figure we could, and staged epic battles on the back patio between armies with dozens of figures each. All of us had our own favorites, of course; I was partial to the Rebel pilot figures and the bounty hunters, while my brothers preferred the Han Solos, Chewbaccas, and stormtroopers of the line. Over time, we became familiar with our local Target and Toys ‘R Us’s restocking dates, and often showed up at eight in the morning with our allowance money tucked safely away in pockets, waiting for the latest shipment of new figures to be put out on shelves. There was a constant battle between those of us who actually opened up our figures and played with them, and the collectors and scalpers who wanted them only for their potential profit. Often we would arrive at a store thirty seconds after a new box of figures had been opened, and only a few (not-as-cool) ones would be left sitting on the pegs. But after weeks and months of diligent searching, we would finally strike gold: there would be a few Jedi Knight Lukes or Removable Helmet Vaders waiting for us to claim them as our own. Was it all a bit obsessive? Perhaps. But we experienced both the thrill of the hunt and the rewards that followed (i.e., bigger and cooler battles) after stumbling upon that ever-so-elusive figure. It taught both patience and persistence, important life lessons for kids who weren’t even teenagers yet.

Along with the toys came a resurgence of interest in the Star Wars films, especially after the announcement that Lucas would finally be making the long-awaited prequel trilogy. That confirmation sent shock waves through the entire Star Wars community, and barely anyone could stop talking about what might happen. For my brothers and me, this was what we had been waiting for: the chance to experience brand-new Star Wars movies for ourselves. No longer would we be latecomers to the party. We would be witnessing the fall of Anakin Skywalker, and for the first time in our lives not know what was going to happen next, not have the minutiae of these films endlessly discussed and debated until nary an original thought could be found.

Apart from collecting action figures, the biggest Star Wars thrill that we could receive in the years leading up to the prequels was the arrival of the latest issue of the Star Wars Insider in the mail. That magazine was always full of Episode 1 updates, from conversations with producer Rick McCallum about characters and storylines to exclusive set photos and prop displays. Even a picture of background Jawas could send us into a frenzy, scrutinizing extras dressed in funny costumes and wondering what these characters added to the story. For several years, Episode 1 was a puzzle to unravel; and the biggest pieces came from the Insider.

The Special Editions arrived in early 1997 (in fact, A New Hope premiered on my birthday), and we eagerly trekked traveled to the theaters to see what changes Lucas had made to our beloved films. For the most part we were extremely happy, although I’ll always be sad to see the “Yub-Yub” song go from Return of the Jedi. And while it was awesome to finally see our favorite films on the big screen, it wasn’t the same experience for us as it was for those who were sitting in the theaters on May 25, 1977 — not knowing what they were about to witness. Our best bet lay in the upcoming movies.

When the trailer for Episode I premiered in late 1998 (the official title hadn’t been announced yet), we were ready. TV stations all over the country jumped at the chance to show the trailer during their news segments, and we managed to videotape it for permanent viewing. Here was a piece of brand-new Star Wars footage, and it had so much to analyze and dissect. What were those funny-looking creatures coming out of the fog? Did the queen live on that Italian-looking planet? Yoda! And — stunned silence — a painted Sith with horns and a double-bladed lightsaber? Whoa!

After what felt like decades of waiting but was only years, May 1999 arrived with the thunderous boom of universal hype. We were determined to be a large part of that experience; and together with our friends we planned a Star Wars night to remember — first waiting seven hours in line to purchase tickets a week before the premiere, then camping outside of the theater for its midnight showing of The Phantom Menace (something we repeated for both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith). We brought Star Wars Trivial Pursuit to play with our friends; by that time we were so intimately familiar with the films that the Trivial Pursuit game became a one-turn win for us. Whoever scored the highest number on the electronic R2-D2 went first, and ten or fifteen minutes later collected all of the pie pieces necessary to win without giving anyone else the chance to take a turn. But it was always fun for us to spring the game on some unsuspecting adults; after all, who would suspect that a nine- or eleven- or thirteen-year-old could correctly answer every single question on the cards? Even if one did consider himself a fan, it was doubtful he could name every single alien in the Cantina scene from A New Hope, list a Star Destroyer’s complement of weapons, or be able to recreate the entire Endor battle scene from memory — with dialogue and accurate ship movements. We were big Star Wars freaks, but that carried a lot of clout in certain circles.

Once The Phantom Menace finished playing, I remember having a distinct sense of disappointment that the total was less than the sum of its parts. We had eagerly gobbled down every single tidbit we could find on the making of this film, yet the story, once shown, seemed so bland — even banal. Trade disputes? A queen’s wooden acting? The coolest-looking villain in ages getting killed off before the end of the film? And we won’t even mention Jar-Jar. Sure, there were some cool scenes, like the Podrace or the Duel of the Fates; but on the whole, Episode I was a huge letdown from all of the excitement that had preceded its arrival. The next day I watched the videotaped trailer for The Phantom Menace (now starting to wear through constant replaying), and could hardly believe that the movie I had seen in the theaters not twelve hours earlier was the same film depicted on my television screen. Perhaps I overreacted a bit too harshly, since it was impossible to recapture that sense of mystery and awe that came before watching the film and having every question answered in two hours. Yet no matter how I tried to look at it, the original trilogy was far better in every aspect.

But we quickly put the discouraging taste of The Phantom Menace behind us: Episode II was just around the corner. And once again we scoured each latest issue of the Insider (and websites like TheForce.Net) for clues to the next movie. One of the biggest teasers was the statement that Boba Fett would appear in the movie, if only as a young boy. And we quickly learned that Mace Windu would get a chance to show off his Jedi fighting skills with a purple lightsaber. Anakin grew older and was replaced by a different actor, and we finally got to see the precursors to stormtroopers: clone troopers, with much the same body armor and helmets. Tidbits like these held us over for the next three years until one momentous weekend in April 2002 shook up everything: Star Wars Celebration II, held at the Indianapolis Convention Center.

This was the mecca for Star Wars fans: a full weekend of non-stop seminars, exhibits, shopping areas, exclusives, previews, art shows, autograph signings, and games — with 25,000 other people along for the ride. Celebration II was an amazing experience for everyone; but the highlight was a sneak preview of Yoda and Dooku’s fight scene, disguised as a Spider-Man trailer. When producer Rick McCallum asked the packed audience if they wanted to see a new Spidey trailer on a digital screen, most of us were somewhat lukewarm. Words started scrolling across the screen, and I remember thinking that this was a rather boring trailer.

Then Yoda appeared out of nowhere and ignited his lightsaber…and the audience went wild. I’ve never heard that much cheering in an enclosed space before. Everyone was on their feet when the trailer ended, and suddenly I couldn’t remember anything about Episode I. That Attack of the Clones trailer had wiped away any lingering doubts about Star Wars’ return to awesomeness, and once again I was pumped for the next film.

Unfortunately, while Attack of the Clones wasn’t nearly as disappointing as The Phantom Menace, it still didn’t give me that sense of wonder and pure exhilaration that I received all those years ago watching the original trilogy for the first time. I wanted that same experience, and I wasn’t getting it, leaving me rather disgruntled with the way these prequels were turning out. But then I noticed something that made me think: some of my friends’ younger brothers and sisters were seeing the prequels for the first time without any knowledge of the original films — and they were falling in love just as I had when I was their age. They embraced Lucas’s recent creations wholeheartedly, and in some cases preferred them even after seeing the original trilogy. This third generation of Star Wars kids were stretching their imaginations and accepting the newer films on their own terms: as movies that sought to entertain, no matter what one’s age.

Another three years passed, and Revenge of the Sith hit theaters with just as much fanfare as the preceding two. This time, however, I was finally able to appreciate the film as pure entertainment and let all preconceptions go (especially comparisons to the original trilogy). It didn’t hurt that Revenge of the Sith was, by far, the best of the prequels. I found it much easier to forgive interminable plotting and stilted acting than I had previously, and simply enjoy the experience of seeing a new Star Wars film for the last time. I laughed, I cheered, I cried…and when the film ended and we spilled out onto a darkened parking lot, I felt complete. Here was my Star Wars experience at last.

Today I’m still as much of a fan as ever. I read all of the novels and occasionally pick up an action figure that catches my eye. And I eagerly await the animated Clone Wars and the live-action prequel TV shows to come. Yet even if those projects never come to fruition, I’ll still have all six movies to savor and enjoy for the rest of my life. And I will eventually pass on that same experience I had to my children, sitting them down in front of the TV and saying “Here are movies that Daddy grew up watching and still cherishes. Let me show you why I love them so much.”

Happy 30th anniversary, Star Wars.

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3 Comments »

  1. kardanok said,

    Simply brilliant post. I love hearing the stories of fellow Star Wars fanatics. Hearing the way in which this fantastic series of films has effected others same as me.

  2. Rosie Powell said,

    I have a different story to tell. I first saw A NEW HOPE back in 1977 when I was barely twelve years old. I disliked it intensely. I think my mind found it too different for me to accept. It wasn’t until I saw THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI in the theaters that I actually grew to like STAR WARS. By the mid-to-late 1980s, I especially became a die-hard fan of ESB. But I had also learned to love ANH, as well.

    When Lucas announced his intentions to do a second trilogy . . . I didn’t react very much. I really did not know what to expect from these new set of movies. Then THE PHANTOM MENACE was released in the theaters in 1999. I was in my early thirties at the time. And my reaction? To my surprise, I enjoyed THE PHANTOM MENACE very much. I also saw that Lucas had upset the expectation of many die-hard STAR WARS fans and I could not help but admire him for it. I still viewed ESB as my favorite movie at time, but I also looked forward to the second movie.

    Then ATTACK OF THE CLONES was released and it blew my mind. It was one of the most complex science-fiction movies I had ever seen. And for the first time, I truly appreciated the ambiguous style that Lucas seemed to be infusing in the PT. To be honest, I almost became obssessed with AOTC . . . and that was not healthy for a woman in her late thirties.

    2005 saw my fortieth birthday and REVENGE OF THE SITH. The PT had reached both epic and tragic proportions. And again, I was blown away. My obssession with STAR WARS was now complete. With the addition of SITH, Lucas had created a family/political/spiritual saga that was unpreceedent in Hollywood.

    For me, STAR WARS had become a six-movie saga . . . not a comparison between THE ORIGINAL and PREQUEL trilogies. I hope that one day, future SW fans will learn to appreciate the saga as a whole and not decide on whether which trilogy is the best.

  3. Rosie Powell said,

    I find it ironic that many STAR WARS fans have accused the PREQUEL TRILOGY, especially THE PHANTOM MENACE and ATTACK OF THE CLONES of stilted dialogue and questionable writing. Yet, the ORIGINAL TRILOGY movies have been accused of the same thing.

    I guess there are some things that Lucas has not changed with both trilogies.


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