1984: The Greatest Year II – THE NEVERENDING STORY

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Welcome to 1984: The Greatest Year Part II – Electric Boogaloo, the Geek League of America’s 30th anniversary tribute to the iconic geek culture films of 1984. This series of in-depth, analytical, fun, and nostalgic essays on the year that brought us instant classics like Ghostbusters, The Terminator, Gremlins, and others serves as a sequel to our 1982: The Greatest Year articles. Like 1982, 1984 was a game-changing year for genre cinema, loaded with popcorn blockbusters, cult hits, and genre-defining masterpieces. Join Jeff and other members of the Geek League of America for a fond, and sometimes funny, look back at this monumental year in nerd culture history.

I am proud to report that I am the first GLA contributer in this series to have not even existed when any of these 1984 movies came out. I was born the following year. Although I missed the opportunity to see it in theaters, I’ve always felt that The NeverEnding Storyis a movie that belongs to my generation, the dreaded Millennials. Having watched it more recently, I think it belongs to all generations.

Let’s start with a brief summary. The movie revolves around Bastian, a young boy who runs into a bookstore to escape from a group of bullies. In the bookstore, he comes across a beautiful leather-bound book with a silver and gold “Auryn symbol” on it, titled The NeverEnding Story. The book revolves around Fantasia, a once proud land that is slowly being devoured by an apocalyptic force called the “Nothing.” Fantasia’s empress sends the warrior Atreyu on a long journey to stop the Nothing. As Bastian reads the book, he slowly realizes that not only does he respond to the book, the book responds to him.

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I can think of no movie that better broadly captures the geek experience. We have a shy protagonist, Bastian, who has a father who doesn’t understand his interests, teachers who stifle his creativity, and a gang of bullies terrorizing him on his way to and from school. Like so many of us, he uses fiction as a refuge from the hardships of life.

But life has recently dealt Bastian a rather tough blow: his mother’s dead. And while it would be healthy for him to talk it over with someone, his father’s hesitant, thinking Bastian should move on rather than dwell on the past.

Growing up on a Disney-heavy diet of films, I’m used to my main characters having a dead mother. Look at Belle, Ariel, or any of the other Disney princesses. However, these dead mothers are of very little consequence to the actual story. Not so much in The NeverEnding Story, which delves deeply into Bastian’s grief.

Come to think of it, a lot of heavy stuff goes down in this family movie. I’m still traumatized by the death of Atreyu’s horse, Artax:

What disturbed me the most as a child is the fact that Artax seems completely resigned to his fate. “Why bother?” he seems to be telling Atreyu. Back then I was far too young to recognize a metaphor for crippling depression, but I did have what I thought was a very rational fear of quicksand. During recess I couldn’t look at the sandbox without seeing Artax sinking into it.

I’m sure some people would rather shelter their kids from themes of grief, mortality, and depression, but these are things a kid must eventually face. Rather than talk down to its audience, The NeverEnding Story allows its viewers to confront the hardships of life. Of course, setting the story in a beautiful magical fantasy does make its themes easier to swallow.

It’s wonderful that this movie was made in 1984 and not thirty years later. If this movie were made today, the characters could have been easily whipped up through CGI. Instead, everything was hand made through make up and puppetry, for a very gritty, yet still fantastical look. No effort was spared, even on minor characters who appeared only once as extras in the Ivory Tower.

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Also, a modern version of this movie would have inevitably featured an overblown epic battle. An apocalyptic “nothing” swallowing everything? Too vague an enemy for modern movie makers. There would have been an army of soldiers dressed in black facing off an army led by the young hero, Atreyu. Who would bother making the gentle giant Rock Biter today unless they could send him on a violent rampage? But for me, the fight between Atreyu and the Nothing’s messenger, G’Mork, is refreshingly brief. It only lasts a couple of seconds.

The payoff of having such a short fight scene is not only that my butt doesn’t get too sore from sitting, but also more time can be spent developing a very lovable cast of characters, like Morla the giant turtle, Night Hob the bat rider, or my personal favorite, Falkor the lovable dog-like luck dragon.

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But perhaps worst of all, if The NeverEnding Story had been made today, the world would have been deprived of Limahl’s musical masterpiecce of the same name:

(Fun fact: this is the song I listen to when playing Robot Unicorn Attack 2 on the iPad.)

After taking us on a harrowing journey, the movie reaches a very Deus Ex Machina conclusion. Fantasia’s own childlike empress is very aware that she and her land exist in a book, and for everyone to be saved, its reader, Bastian, must give her a new name. We can feel Atreyu’s frustration when he protests, “My horse died, I nearly drowned, I just barely got away from the Nothing. For what? To find out what you already know?”

But, as the empress explains to Atreyu, for the magic of the book to work, Bastian had to suffer along with its protagonist. How else could they have gotten Bastian to immerse himself in the story so he could save Fantasia?

Just as the book addresses its reader directly, the movie acknowledges its audience, too:

“He doesn’t realize he’s already a part of the NeverEnding Story… Just as he is sharing all your adventures, others are sharing his. They were with him when he hid from the boys in the bookstore. They were with him when he took the book with the Auryn symbol on the cover, in which he’s reading his own story right now.”

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Never have I seen a more empowering breaking of the fourth wall. Just as the denizens of Fantasia needed Bastian to read the book, Bastian needed us the audience to watch the movie. But it gets even more complex. Not only is Atreyu’s journey a story within a story, it’s a story within a story within our own story. And if it’s indeed a “NeverEnding Story,” then perhaps there’s another audience viewing our story through some medium. Perhaps in another dimension there’s a movie, book, graphic novel, or perhaps a radio play about us!

It also raises a very important point: without an audience, fiction is dead. This is what I meant when I said the movie broadly captures the geek experience. While artists play the most important role in media, we the movie-goers, readers, and comic book fans are what ultimately sustain a story’s life once it is completed. And just like the land of Fantasia in The NeverEnding Story responded to Bastian’s imagination, so too does our perception of any real world medium respond to our own imagination.

But does having one’s head in the clouds have any real world application? Consider the final words of the movie:

“Bastian made many other wishes and had many other amazing adventures before he finally returned to the ordinary world. But that’s another story.”

Yes, fiction does help us escape reality for a little while, but ultimately it empowers us to face it once again, realizing that we’re the heroes of our own stories.

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About Author

Paul de Vries

Paul de Vries was raised by a pack of wild Dutch immigrants in pastoral Western Massachusetts. Having trouble connecting with the other kids in his neighborhood, he sought refuge in Greek Mythology. As he matured, superheroes started replacing gods and now he observes each new comic book day religiously. He currently lives in New York City where he performs stand up comedy.