As fans of the Star Wars franchise the world over prepare to celebrate this year’s May the 4th, I found myself giving serious consideration to writing something for Geeks of Doom in order to commemorate the occasion. After racking my brain for several constantly interrupted hours, I drew nothing but blanks.
It’s difficult for me to get excited about anything Star Wars-related this days; I’ve written news stories about the continuing developments behind the upcoming Episode VII even though I have little interest in them, but that’s part of the reason why I’m on the writing staff of this website. The stories have to be reported even though I may not care much about them because one or more of our readers certainly will. But the staggering drop in allure regarding the dauntless heroes and dastardly villains who inhabit the expansive universe that sprang forth from George Lucas‘ euphoric imagination more than four decades ago in my view wasn’t something that happened overnight. It took many unpleasant, heartbreaking years.
However, I came not to talk about how much Star Wars has disappointed me over time. May 4th is meant to be a day of remembrance and celebration. With that in mind I will instead document in brief to the best of my abilities the role Lucas’ creation has played in inspiring me to embrace my own evolving sense of wonder and take control of my intellectual maturation.
I wasn’t born until nearly two years after the theatrical release of the original Star Wars (now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope). Even as a child I didn’t get out to the movies much, but thankfully I was never without friends in my neighborhood with access to pay-TV channels providing all of the amazing features my own family couldn’t afford to take me to see. Video cassette recorders were available at the time but were so expensive not even my friends’ families could afford them, and they were quite large to boot. In my home our television viewing options were limited to the Big Three of the day – ABC, CBS, and NBC – and whatever local stations our cheaply-manufactured set could pick up. That’s how we lower class folk got our entertainment.
CBS broadcast A New Hope for the first time on network television on Sunday, February 26, 1984 in a three-hour time slot where the movie would be preceded by an introduction hosted by original trilogy star Mark Hamill and a behind-the-scenes documentary. I was only a few weeks away from turning five years old and to this day I have precious few memories of those early years of my life. But that fateful February night I finally had the chance to feast my youthful eyes on the excitement and adventure that up until then had only existed as what was relayed to me verbally by more fortunate pals.
That was a very special evening as my parents allowed me to stay up until 11 p.m. when the movie ended. To a child that age, staying awake past your bedtime is the closest you come to taking a walk on the wild side. I vaguely remember being exhausted when my head hit the pillow and visions of battling spaceships, clashing lightsabers, and comical robots danced me off into the land of dreams. From that moment on Star Wars was a huge part of my life.
The next year I was handed on a platter made of Vibranium the opportunity to see the final film in the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi, on the big screen during its theatrical re-release (a common practice in the days before pay cable and VCRs were reduced to affordable prices and still applied often). I went with my uncle Eddie and cousin Andy to see it here in my hometown of Richmond, VA at a theater that may or may not be still in existence. I would know for sure if only I could recall its name. This was the first time I was able to see a Star Wars movie the way it was meant to be seen and the only time to date I caught one of the original trilogy in a theater. Later that day my uncle and cousin talked and joked with me about the film. It remains my earliest movie-going memory.
I have a weird history with movie trilogies. I’ve seen all three Back to the Future and Lord of the Rings films in their original release order (and I saw the first installment of both trilogies on video and the second and third on the big screen – strange, eh?), but with the Evil Dead trilogy it was the exact opposite. The last movie in the original Star Wars trilogy that I had yet to watch was The Empire Strikes Back, possibly the greatest of all the franchise. Unfortunately I cannot recall the age at which I first saw it in full, but I do have memories of catching the last half-hour of Empire one summer evening in 1991 or 1992 on my local NBC affiliate. I know it occurred during the summer because I had just arrived home from “Vacation Bible School” at my neighborhood baptist church.
It had to have been a year later when I remember watching the film from the opening seconds of the 20th Century Fox fanfare and the Lucasfilm card to the exhilarating conclusion of John Williams‘ end credits theme. At the time I had just been released from the hospital after having corrective jaw surgery. The beginning of my eighth grade school year was approaching but I wasn’t going to be well enough to start until October. Plus I was in absolute misery; my jaw had to be sealed completely shut with small elastic bands until it healed and every meal I ate had to be liquified in a blender and given to me via a plastic syringe. The family of one of my sister’s friends owned an extensive collection of movies recorded onto blank VHS tapes from cable broadcasts and kept an organized catalog of the titles they carried. Several times during my recovery I was permitted to borrow as many of them as I could carry back home at no charge. Naturally when I saw Empire listed in their catalog I couldn’t resist choosing it as one of my first selections.
By now I was a full-blown Star Wars fanatic. As a regular at the public library I was constantly checking out videos they carried for free. When the original trilogy was released in a snazzy VHS box set in the early 1990’s I begged my mom to buy it for me as a Christmas present. I didn’t ask for much and she knew it, thus it came as no surprise when I found the trilogy set waiting for me under the tree the morning of December 24, 1994. Along with my siblings I was permitted to open up one present the day before Christmas. Countless times I had seen the Star Wars box set sitting on the shelves of my favorite video and record stores and held it in my prepubescent hands, familiarizing myself with its shape and weight. I had its exact dimensions committed to memory (Why yes, I had few friends at the time – how did you know?), so I knew which of the Christmas presents bearing my name contained the complete trilogy VHS collection while resisting the temptation to tamper with the wrapping.
The summer of 1997 was the most unusual and chaotic of my life up to that time: I had just turned 18, graduated from high school, and embarked to Illinois on an adventure that would turn out to be a total bust. Arriving home with no clear idea as to what to do, I took some time off and decided to enjoy living. One warm, sunny day I took a trek to the video store down the street and saw that the Star Wars: Special Edition trilogy was available for sale on VHS. Since I had missed out on seeing the remastered, CGI-enhanced films during their highly-promoted theatrical run I was determined to own them on home video, and in widescreen no less. I still owned the unaltered versions of the original trilogy so it wasn’t like I was out of viewing options should the Special Editions not pass muster in my opinion. Though I took issue with some of the more obvious changes, overall I had a lot of fun with them. It was the first time I had watched them in widescreen too and that was of great importance to a young aspect ratio purist.
1997 was a major year for Star Wars fans. Episode I, the first installment of the long-rumored prequel trilogy, had gone into production shortly following the theatrical release of the Special Edition versions of the original trilogy. The film that would ultimately receive the title The Phantom Menace would not reach the silver screen for another two years, and of course I made sure to be there to see it during its first week of release. The massive disappointment I felt at my initial viewing of Menace compelled me to seek solace in a marathon viewing of Episodes IV-VI. It was then that the significance that the Star Wars universe once held for me began to fade, compounded in the years that followed by the realization that the franchise had surrendered without much of a struggle to outright commercialization and exploitation. I felt as if I was bearing witness to the Rebellion’s bloody and brutal defeat at the hands of the Empire.
It was heartbreaking to watch as a cultural staple of my early life mutated into a brazen, cynical cash cow, but as the years went on what occurred to me finally was that is what Star Wars was this whole time – a mint that operated around the clock and showed no signs of fatigue (other than in the creative sense). But though I couldn’t consider myself as great of a fan of the series as I was growing up my love for then original trilogy – digitally altered and not – would never die. I had also developed an appreciation for the prequels; they were poorly acted, overlong, and stuffed with atrocious dialogue, but the technical craftsmanship on display shamed most major studio blockbusters and the John Williams music for each film was as astounding as ever. Plus, they were fun. I’d rather watch The Phantom Menace than Star Trek Into Darkness any day.
Last night, overwhelmed by the fond memories that came flooding forth as I wrote this, I went and bought Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-ray using over $100 in store credit I had amassed at my local Moviestop. The movies are always going to be a part of my life and I’m perfectly fine with that. There is no film series quite like Star Wars. It can be imitated, it can be parodied, but it can never be surpassed. Accept no substitutes. The Force will be with me until the day I die.