On Thursday, December 17th, I’ll be one of the millions around the world descending on multiplexes to see something I’d (quite naively) never thought I’d see — a new Star Wars movie that continues the story of the Skywalker line beyond Return Of The Jedi. It’s the end of a three-year journey that began in October, 2012 with the shocking announcement that a beleaguered George Lucas had sold his legacy to the Disney corporation for $4 billion and walked away from the record-setting, world-changing entity that had both bathed him in accolades and drowned him in vitriol. It’s also just the beginning; the inception of an even bigger, smoother-running pop-culture machine that will churn out sequels and spin-off films every year until either people or movie theaters go extinct.
Soon enough, it will be difficult to even remember a world in which we didn’t know what Han Solo was up to when he was 19, or one that was without acres and acres of state-of-the-art Star Wars theme park attractions. We will never again experience this special feeling of anticipation and wonder before the release of a Star Wars film, so on the eve of The Force Awakens—when anything still seems possible—I’d like to reflect on my feelings before the big night and address something amusingly specific that came about as a result of my undying love for the Star Wars saga.
See, recently a couple of good friends posed me two very simple but very loaded questions – “Can you compare the hope and excitement of 1999 to now?” and “Are you going to be okay if the movie isn’t perfect?” Well, the second question is much easier to answer, but only because of the complicated and deeply personal nature of how I’m going to tackle the first, which is why I’m going to start there.
Now, the short answer to that first question is, I can’t really compare the way I felt during the pre-release hype for The Phantom Menace to this current The Force Awakens mania because, well, everything is different now; I’m different. Where this all gets tricky and emotional for me—and in order to understand the person I was in 1999—we have to go even further back to 1993. That year was memorable not only because it was when I found out George Lucas was moving ahead on the Prequel trilogy due to the CGI advancements in Jurassic Park, but it was when my social circle essentially crumbled around me and vanished. By the time we were halfway through 1993, all but one of my five closest friends were long gone out of my life — either away at college or, well, just long gone. That left me with my college radio host buddy and the guy who shared pretty much all of the same geek passions I did — comics, sci-fi, MST3K, Monty Python, and of course, Star Wars. Then, in 1994, he was off to art school hundreds of miles away. Aside from holidays and occasional visits, I was on my own.
It’s a familair but sad refrain, rather than face my fears, travel more often to see my friends, go out and meet new people, or try something industrious or ambitious, I retreated inward. To counter my newfound monotony and to fill the void, I dove head first down the Star Wars rabbit hole. I bought every action figure, poster, calendar, video game, magazine, and collectible I could get my hands on. I joined the Star Wars fan club and kept the laminated card in my wallet. I wrote a terrible fan-fic Star Wars novella where a Jawa sandcrawler crashed into an Imperial AT-AT (yes, really). I spent hours on early online providers like Prodigy and Compuserve interacting with fellow Star wars fans and posting on message boards. I interviewed Timothy Zahn and wrote articles for an early Star Wars E-Mag called “Echo Station.” I read every Star Wars “Expanded Universe” novel and comic book series — even the ones with sentient Jedi Jell-O molds and the three-eyed offspring of Emperor Palpatine. I sent away for every exclusive ghost action figure offered on the labels of Frito-Lay and Pepsi products. I slavishly snapped up almost every piece of Shadows Of The Empire, the multi-media “event” Lucasfilm cooked in 1996 up to tide people over until the Star Wars Special Editions were ready, including the buzz-cut cyber Chewie action figure (ugh).
I drove in one of the worst ice storms in New England history to see special edition of Return Of The Jedi — a movie I had seen hundreds of times on VHS. I even tried doing Star Wars-themed radio shows at my Community College station, called Dark Empire and The Rebellion. I was completely immersed (though engulfed is probably a better word) in all manner of Star Wars ephemera. I filled my life with Chinese plastic geegaws because there was nothing else going on and I was lost in a galaxy far, far away. I wasn’t particularly good at talking to women my age and I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life long-term. But, I told myself, it doesn’t matter. Forget it. The movie’s coming. Star Wars is coming.
I had invested so much of my time, money, and energy into Star Wars that I couldn’t even process how I was going to feel if The Phantom Menace wasn’t an awesome, emotionally charged, genre-changing, life-altering experience for the ages. In all honesty, the possibility that it could be underwhelming or even terrible was completely unfathomable to me. Because if it was, then what was the point of buying all of this gaudy plastic bullshit? I didn’t exactly tie my own personal self-worth to a sci-fi/fantasy film; things weren’t that dire in my life, but I felt like it was important on some level that it would be this amazing thing.
After the movie came and went, the epiphanous moment that I wished had struck me 6 years earlier finally punched me in the face — well dummy, what now? I was in my mid-20s and I had a two-year Liberal Arts degree, a massive Star Wars collection, and not much else. So, I took stock of my current situation and decided things had to change. I went back to school to get my four-year degree in communications, I started going out to bars and restaurants more frequently. Two of my best friends moved back home to stay, and I made wonderful new ones, I got closer to my brother, had a few long-term relationships that were admittedly tumultuous but the point is, I got out there; I lived. Then in 2005, I decided to do the equivalent of tearing a band-aid off as quickly as possible and purged my entire Star Wars collection via Ebay. I lost a ton of money on it, but it was freeing; I was no longer consumed by Lucas’ infernal machine. As it turns out, he was pretty sick of being ground in its gears himself.
You may be thinking that going through all of this would have soured me on The Force, Jabba The Hutt, Wookiees, lightsabers, and all things Star Wars forever, but I never lost my affection for it. The brief flashes of watching Star Wars at the Drive-In theater when I was 3 years old are some of the earliest memories I have, and I begged for an R2-D2 action figure at age 4 because I remember being strongly drawn towards it. Once something takes root in you it never really leaves you, which brings us now to the second question. Yeah, I’m going to be okay.
I’m going to be okay because my childhood is not going to be destroyed if The Force Awakens is disappointing; my adult life won’t be irreparably damaged. The biggest crimes these new Star Wars films can commit in my eyes is to try to be too complex plot-wise, or, even worse, soulless. Inauthenticity and insincerity are the easiest things to spot in a film these days and they are rampant in modern blockbusters. Michael Bay doesn’t give a shit how you feel about Transformers, he’s just blowing metal shit up on the screen in order to put your butt in a seat and sell you Bud Light, Beats headphones and the dozens of other products he plasters on the screen. You can tell me I’m naive or even a hypocrite because Disney might be doing something even more insidious by using nostalgia to fleece us out of our hard-earned dough, and you’d certainly have a valid point, but by hiring someone like JJ Abrams—a lifelong fan of Star Wars who essentially became a film director as a direct result of the feelings he experienced watching the original film—new Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy has demonstrated to me that there is heart and emotion motivating most of the decision-making and storytelling here. I just get the feeling that JJ cares about this stuff, you know? You can’t package that.
I’m going to be okay because I finally have knowledge of things that are more powerful than The Force — perspective and priorities. I’ll be okay because I know now that you don’t have to possess things in order to love something with all of your heart or to be called a “true fan.” I’m going to be okay because I’m not looking for answers in Star Wars anymore — I’m just looking for simplicity and to have a good time with my friends and family. May The Force Be With Us All.