Monday, November 5, 2012

Star Wars: My Life Far, Far Away

Last Wednesday I learned about Disney's deal to buy LucasFilm from George Lucas for $4 billion and their announcement of a new trilogy to begin production soon, sending a new Star Wars movie into theaters in 2015. It was huge news for anyone (like me) who has loved the Star Wars galaxy for years. First, I want to share a bit about how Star Wars has fit into my life, ever since before I can even remember. These stories are probably similar to those of many others my age. In Part II I'll try to sort out and make sense of my reactions to the Disney news.

Like many boys (and girls too) born into middle class America in the 70's or early 80's, I grew up a huge Star Wars fan. I would love to have experienced the shock of learning that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father, but I simply can't remember a time in my life when I didn't know that fact. I slept with my Luke and Han Solo action figures, til the paint had largely worn from their faces. I had the TIE Fighter where you could press a weapon and make its wings pop off. I had the tauntaun with the open stomach you could put Luke's frozen body into, I had an awesome red Boba Fett iron on t-shirt that I would probably trade one of my suits to have back today. I read books that told new adventures in the lives of Luke, Leia, Han, and the gang. On and on I could go.

It wasn't just the stuff though, Star Wars became the prism through which I imagined the bigger world. I'm not crediting Star Wars with "making me the man I am today" or anything, but I would be different without its influence. To this day, if you put me in a desert or on a rocky ledge, I'm taken to Tatoonine, where Luke grew up and later struggled to save his friends from Jabba the Hutt. If I'm walking through the woods, I'm on Endor, and the shield generator must be nearby. Two years ago Chicago was hit by a massive snowstorm. I woke up the next morning and made my way around the neighborhood, surveying the damage, and you'd better believe I kept my eye out for any wampa in the area. I'm not sure what it says that my mind still goes there as an adult, but... well, there you have it.

Are there more mature sources of inspiration for one's imagination? Sure. And Star Wars isn't my only source, but it was my springboard. Star Wars made me want to visit far off places and meet strange creatures. When I realized I couldn't go off and do those things (yet), I turned to books, where I could at least read about them and then imagine myself any place I wanted.

Back then kids didn't always own their favorite movies, home video existed but was not yet what it would become. When I was 11 years old or so The Return of the Jedi was on network TV one night, only the set at my mom's apartment wasn't working very well and the picture wouldn't come in right. My mom, top notch woman that she was (and is!), went out and rented it, so that I could watch it anyway. I watched it again the next day too, then a third time for good measure. I realized that if I had my own copies, I could watch them whenever I wanted, and so I saved $60 and bought whatever boxed set existed on VHS in those days. I don't know how many times I've seen each of the originals, over one hundred times apiece, I'm sure.

Like most Star Wars fan not yet old enough to be wary, I was overjoyed when it was announced that there would be a trilogy of prequels, that would tell the tale of how Anakin became Vader, Luke and Leia were separated, and... who knew what else?!

On the night the trailer for The Phantom Menace was released (not the actual movie, the TRAILER), I stood in line to get tickets to... whatever movie they were showing the trailer on. For some reason, that movie was "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer." After a couple other previews had played, the Fox and Lucasfilm logos came up, and some guy in the front screamed, "Everyone shut the fuck up!" Everyone did. I remember the first shot, a strange creature walking through the mist, I remember the music kicking in, and I remember a crazy looking guy with a double-lightsaber. Ten people got up and left when the trailer ended, having seen what they had come for, they wanted nothing more (if only I had been so lucky, the feature that followed was merely two hours of my life I would never get back). Like most Star Wars fans not yet old enough to be honest about it, when The Phantom Menace was finally released, I convinced myself that it was well done.

Attack of the Clones was released on the weekend I graduated from the University of Iowa, so my dad had driven over from our home outside Chicago and my mom and sister were in from California. Basking in the glow of my new diploma and the strange, but pleasant sensation of sitting in a movie theater with my sister and both of our parents for the first time in at least fourteen years, I watched Yoda turn back-flips and wield a tiny lightsaber. This was not the Yoda my mom had fallen in love with on Dagobah the year I was born.

By the time Revenge of the Sith was released, I'd confessed to myself that the first two hadn't been very good, but I was still really excited. After all, this was the end, it would connect the remaining dots, complete the story line, and maybe even give me a glimpse of a young Luke and Leia. I was with two of my closest friends, on a road trip from Portland to Las Vegas. We''d spent some quality time in California's National Parks, and could have spent more, but instead we stopped in Barstow, California on the film's opening day. I almost got thrown out of the theater before the movie started, for having smuggled in some Red Vines, but like Han Solo, I talked myself out of it (I didn't even have to shoot first). It was better than the previous two installments, but even in its best moments, it was a hollow shell of the originals.

As an elementary school teacher, I consider myself highly qualified to say that the Star Wars galaxy remains wildly popular with kids. Every day there are kids wearing t-shirts, carry lunch boxes and backpacks. On Halloween Star Wars themed costumes were probably second to only The Avengers. Many of the most popular items at my school's recent book fair were Star Wars related, far more popular than Harry Potter at this point. The originals are popular, but so too are the prequels, and the Clone Wars cartoon too. Because of their popularity among kids, I know there's no chance I'll make it the rest of my life without seeing the prequels again. Someday I'll have children, and while I like to imagine I can somehow keep them a secret, their dopey friends and the world at large will make that impossible. I'll tell them the new ones aren't good and maybe buy myself a little extra time, but realistically, at some point I'm going to be sitting on the couch while Jar Jar Binks pontificates on the meaning of life to my kids.

I understand that a massive part of the original trilogy's appeal to me is nostalgia. I grew up with them, and it's hard for anything to mean as much to an adult as our favorite things mean to us as children. If Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi didn't exist, but then they came out in the next few years, they wouldn't lead me to put toys up in my apartment or salivate over goofy looking shoes and jackets.

At the same time, objectively, I think the originals are great films (especially the first two, both of which were nominated for Best Picture). They tell a great story and tell it with great heart. The characters you're supposed to cheer for are authentically likable, the characters you're meant to fear are scary, the characters you're supposed to learn from are wise, and Boba Fett is stone cold cool.

I'm in my thirties now, but the franchise still has a hold on me. The Star Wars poster I've had since I was a teen still hangs on my wall. There is a Slave I (Boba Fett's ship, obviously) made of Legos on the bookshelf in my room, along with a bunch of figures I got at Burger King when the last movie came out (I ate a LOT of Rodeo Cheeseburgers that summer). I don't have much of an interest in shoes or clothing, but if I was rich, I can guarantee you I'd own a whole bunch of the items from Adidas' Star Wars line (like the awesome limited edition Han Solo Carbonite sneakers, too bad their $250). Man, if I had those shoes, I would be so cool.

Anyway, the Disney announcement means that whatever small chance there was Star Wars would gradually fade from the American pop-consciousness is gone now. There will be continue to be more and more of it (and more and more) for years to come... for better or for worse.


  1. Can't remember if I told you about this back in July, but my favorite Star Wars memory is actually of you. One Thanksgiving when you were probably no more than 3 years old, I was having a lot of problems with my asthma. (I think it might have been one of the years when I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia.)

    I was by myself in the TV room at my parents' house and you apparently felt bad about me being alone, because you came back there to keep me company. You were aghast to find out that I had never seen The Empire Strikes Back, so you told me the story of the movie -- complete with re-enactments of key scenes.

    I was amazed that such a small kid could tell a story as coherently as you did and your joy and enthusiasm were palpable. You really did make me forget my physical pain and emotional distress for awhile and every time I remember it, I want to scoop up that little boy, give him a peck on the cheek and thank him.

    I'm glad to know that Star Wars is still so important to you, as you are so inextricably linked with the series in my mind.

    1. I cannot remember that, but I can certainly picture myself giving an extended recap. You were a good sport to humor me!