Our Star Wars: My Very Own Empire of Dreams

I was born in 1974, making me a Gen-Xer with no dog in the current Boomer v Millennial Wars waged in the online trenches as we speak, so my Star Wars memories really only start in 1980 when The Empire Strikes Back was released, and anything prior to that is fuzzy at best. But as a lifelong fan of sci-fi movies from all eras, I can distinctly see the cinematic line drawn in the sand: Before the release of what has been retroactively titled Episode IV: A New Hope, the only science-fiction movies that really stand out visually to me are Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas’ own THX-1138. And both were really really boring — at least for someone who saw them as a preteen in the 1970s.

I love movies like The War Of The Worlds and Logan’s Run, but the special effects in most of these movies leave so much to be desired. Suspension of disbelief was at its peak during those years. In fact, part of the fun of watching old sci-fi flicks is measuring the quality of the attempt to visualize the impossible. Keep in mind: Logan’s Run was released in 1975, two years before Star Wars, and it won an Oscar for its visual effects, the likes of which would probably send my 10-year-old son into hysterics if he were to sit down and watch it today.

So part of the appeal of the Star Wars phenomenon was that it didn’t look like anything else that had come before. Nothing comes even close. The aforementioned 2001 is the nearest competitor, but it comes off as more of a NASA-funded documentary than an actual movie. I argue that if you were to screen some IMAX or NatGeo-produced space exploration movie in a theater, then splice in scenes from 2001 randomly during the screening, the casual viewer would not really be able to spot the difference. I may have even thought that 2001 was a documentary when I was young.

Star Wars was different because the universe Lucas created looked as though it were lived in, like it has always been and always will be. It is neither an idealistic futuristic vision nor a bleak dystopian nightmare; it existed before you were even born (“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …”) and will continue on after you die. It has all the stylistic elements of a dream, which may explain the ease through which it entered the public consciousness. Much has been made of Lucas’ attempt to incorporate Joseph Campbell’s ideas on mythology into the fabric of the trilogies, but fewer heads take note of the collective dream experience heartily exemplified by these movies. There’s a Jungian bent to these films that subliminally captures our attention even as they entertain us.

Having just recently rewatched Inception (another visually stunning movie that looks like nothing before it, save The Matrix), I was struck by a line of dialogue spoken by Leonardo DiCaprio where he asks his fellow dreamers if they can trace how they entered the dream. The idea is that we enter dreams in the middle of them and cannot remember how they began. The fact that Star Wars starts with Episode IV (and even if Lucas had not retrofitted that title, the first movie starts in the midst of a battle) may help explain this dreamlike lucidity that the trilogies possess. Oddly enough, it forces us (no pun intended) to accept the reality laid out before us, as alien and far-removed as it may be.

It’s with this in mind that I choose not to write about one particular film in the series but rather my impressions of seeing the movies at various stages in my life. Those stream-of-consciousness memories hold up more vividly than anything I can remember from the actual movies, and frankly I don’t want to have to watch any one movie again just to write an essay when the fact is that my raw emotions regarding the Star Wars series stem from how they made me feel as opposed to what they ended up meaning to me after I awoke from their spell.

So here we go…

I first saw Star Wars at the Van Nuys Drive-in with my parents and older brother. Normally I watch the other screens, but I don’t recall doing this as I was transfixed by what was on the scree. In 1977, I was only 3, so what remains are flashes of imagery. Chewbacca at the end getting his medal is the takeaway for me. Light speed left an impression, as did the “Sand People” and “Creature Cantina.” In its aftermath, I remember my parents having masks of Darth Vader and C-3PO that were later stolen when our house in L.A. was burglarized. Apparently the movie made an impression on the thieves, too …

Three years is a long time to wait for a sequel, and in the void between Star Wars and Empire, a lot of events accumulated. The cult began to grow, with parodies appearing on cable TV like Hardware Wars and Closet Cases Of The Third Kind. The Muppets showcased Luke. But strangely, Han Solo, whose legend was looming larger and larger with each passing moment, was absent. I even watched American Graffiti because I heard Harrison Ford was in it. We played out the soundtrack album, and my older brother began to collect the Kenner figures so I also followed suit. I heard that George Lucas had nine movies already planned, something I never really ever believed. More likely he was planning to make nine total, something that has born itself out over time…

Empire opens, and by now all my friends were into it with me and we unanimously felt it was the greatest thing that ever happened in the history of everything. The downbeat ending, the odds against the Alliance as the Empire gains the upper hand, the sheer coolness of Boba Fett, Solo telling Leia that he knows she loves him … and VADER IS LUKE’S FATHER!! This is the end of childhood, the end of the innocence, the beginning of spoiler alerts and fanatical fandom and obsessive commentary, the introduction of darkness to our pre-adolescent souls, even if it’s couched in robots and spaceships and lightsabers. And in a few years, Raiders Of The Lost Ark cements Ford as our totem, the ideal we all strive to attain…

Return of the Jedi may as well have been titled Return of Star Wars or Return of the Good Times because it seemed so worth the wait and delivered handsomely for a 9 year-old kid who waited in that long line to see it in the theater like he did the previous movie. I actually went to see it twice that year and remember a kid in line watching it for his seventh or eighth time giving away the plot out loud as we waited to enter the theater. I wanted to pop that punk-ass kid in the mouth for spoiling it all until I realized not one person in line was offended. Like me, they’d already seen it. All of them. They were back to see Jabba in his slimy glory, Leia looking sexy as all hell in her slave costume, Lando’s redemption for betraying Han, and the long-anticipated reveal of Anakin, damaged and beyond salvation. The only thing that let me down was Boba Fett’s dumb demise, but speeder bikes through the forest can erase all that bad will in 12 parsecs…

And then the years passed, and my voice deepened and I grew facial hair and acne, and I went to school and watched the trilogy on TV, video, cable and laserdisc, and I graduated and lived on my own, learning and developing like Luke in Dagobah as his friends dodged Imperial Stormtroopers in asteroid belts, and eventually there was talk of the Special Editions to be released theatrically. And in all this time, my acquaintance with all things Star Wars was confined to television, and the moments were ingrained in my mind from repeated viewings, and we wondered if there could be any improvement on the originals. And for us, in 1997, the Special Edition was better than even the prequels turned out to be. We went to the Bruin in Westwood with our girlfriends. At the time we thought the new additions were fine, but little did we know that the real Rebellion was beginning, the Han Shot Firsters thirsty for Lucasblood, the hokey digital Jabba making a mockery of the six puppeteers who brought the beast to the surface in Jedi, and yet we were caught in the thrall, blind to the storm that was brewing in the not-too-distant future not too far, far away. By the time the Specials for Empire and Jedi had been released (which we saw at the Cinerama Dome and IMAX theaters, respectively) we were numb to the Muppetization, the cutesy Ewok-ening of the series. We were just happy to be there, in the theater, reliving our childhoods, wondering if our future kids would ever have anything like this for themselves…

The Specials were the prologue to the prequels, released right before the end of the world aka Y2K aka Prince’s doomsday scenario. I worked for Clear Channel, itself an Imperial Empire in the galaxy of radio, and they rented the theater across the street at the world-famous Sherman Oaks Galleria for all of us worker bees and comedy ants to see the latest movie one day early. And it matters who you watch these movies with because the cynics and the writers and the radio personalities and former standups did not appreciate Jar Jar Binks one bit. I did not mind too much, personally, but you would have thought that Lucas personally took a shit in the theater right before they rolled the first reel judging from the reaction our crowd gave it. Overall the consensus was that it was like space C-SPAN, and none of us had any new hope that the next one would be an improvement…

The Phantom Menace bled into Attack of the Clones, which seemed like a clone of the last one. It is the one movie in the series that I have seen the least. In fact, I don’t remember which theater I saw it at and I don’t recall having rewatched it ever. I feel like I went through the motions, but I did it gladly because even though the movie leaves no lasting impression on me, I do know that at the time I was entertained, and it was good enough for me, and I didn’t think it was as bad as other people said. This is the part of the dream where things become weird, where suddenly I appear in someone else’s body, or I inexplicably end up in the Sahara with Charles Nelson Reilly in a Jawa robe asking me questions about which radio stations I listen to…

Revenge Of The Sith delivered. I was dating a girl that I dated in high school. We rekindled our romance and went to see this together, and we laughed at it and enjoyed ourselves but were also disturbed by the scene where Anakin murders the kids. There’s no other way around it. He murdered those kids. Shortly afterward, our relationship fizzled, and although I don’t blame the movie for severing our ties, it feels like it at least played a part, no? Thanks a lot, Lucas. Now I finally had a reason to be mad at the man…

But I moved on and met another girl and we got married and she bore me a son, and he grew up and we moved to the Midwest and I had a job where I sold used DVDs, CDs, books, comics, records and tapes, and there were a lot of Star Wars fans working there, including the guy who lets me write these movie essays every now and then, and I even had a two-hour drag-out argument in the back room with a co-worker over whether Lucas was full of shit or not (I was the defender of the Imperial Lucasfilm Empire), and then eventually the time came when another movie was ready to arrive, and I was intent on watching this with my son but I knew he would want to go to the bathroom in the middle of it. So I WATCHED IT BY  MYSELF AT THE REGAL VILLAGE PARK STADIUM 17 in Westfield and then took him the next day to the AMC Castleton where my little boy, all of 6 years old, whispered to me that he had to use the bathroom TWO MINUTES INTO THE MOVIE. Needless to say, I was right to watch it alone before I took him with me…

The Force Awakens is the last official movie in the series that I watched in the theater. I don’t count Rogue One because it isn’t really part of the saga. I just didn’t get around to watching The Last Jedi on the big screen, and the bootleg DVD came out so fast that it was easier to just take it home and watch it. At this point, I have no real investment in these movies. As for my son, he likes the LEGO sets better than the movies themselves. His favorite part of any of the films is the Hoth ice battle in Empire. He even has an AT-AT walker fully built in his room atop the dresser. But for me, the excitement for these movies has been replaced by a willingness to admit their flaws and, at the same time, acknowledge that they changed and raised me, and that I am excited when The Mandalorian appears or Solo: A Star Wars Story comes out or we get nearer to The Rise of Skywalker. I guess you can say that after the next one is released, maybe then I’ll finally awaken from this dream, and maybe then I can actually sit back and think about what the dream means and what was on my mind as I slept. And hopefully (there is always hope), more dreams will flock to our bedsides as we slumber, and they will be populated by creatures and artificial intelligences and vehicles and spectacular images that remind us what it’s like to be children with imaginations that flow wildly into our adult lives through the virtue of cinema and all that entails. And maybe there is the realization that the Force actually exists, and that the Force is these movies.

And on that note … May The Force Be With Us. Always.



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