We are now less than four weeks from the release of THE FORCE AWAKENS. Less than four weeks until the STAR WARS saga finally moves forward into EPISODE VII, a chapter I honestly never imagined we'd get when I was a kid, and that's just the beginning. There are at least six further films planned at the rate of one a year, and all indications are that Disney is planning on milking that cow for as long as it will produce.
I've been thinking recently about how my age bracket is probably the last generation that will have experienced a childhood where STAR WARS was mostly a dead franchise. I was born just a little too late to see any of the original trilogy in theatres. In fact, I'm pretty sure my first exposure to the world of STAR WARS came not through the movies, but through MUPPET BABIES. That series often edited in stock footage from STAR WARS and other films, such as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. In fact, there was an entire episode devoted to the Muppet Babies making their own version of STAR WARS, complete with Obi-Rolf Kenobi and Animal Vader.
I'm pretty sure I first saw the original Star Wars in first grade. That would have been around 1986 or '87. I was getting into the franchise, just as it was on its final merchandising legs. Oh, you could still find the toys in the clearance aisles of the stores, but pop culture was moving onward. Star Wars had made its stamp and it was about to lie fallow. It's something akin to what AVATAR occupies in the popular consciousness now - it was a major hit and a massive technological leap forward, but it had faded from the cultural conversation.
I'm sure that some will dispute that claim, but they would be forgetting that the Kevin Smith CLERKS scene where Dante and Randall discuss STAR WARS and the contractors on the Death Star was so notable in 1994 because at that point NO ONE was talking about STAR WARS. People weren't walking into stores to buy Boba Fett T-shirts or Darth Vader coffee mugs.
That was pretty much the state of the franchise for my entire childhood. Sure, when I was in 6th grade, the first book in the Star Wars Extended Universe, Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, was released. Because that series of books was a trilogy set five years after RETURN OF THE JEDI, it was easy to accept it as Episodes VII through IX. Even then, the Extended Universe was a playground for the hard-core fans only. From 1991 to 1999, it was pretty much the only game in town for fans seeking new material, but you could never claim that had the same impact on the wider culture as the features. During that time frame, the sci-fi franchise that was really flying was STAR TREK. By the mid-90s, there had been three TV series in recent memory and a recently-launched feature series with the NEXT GENERATION cast.
The sixteen years between JEDI and THE PHANTOM MENACE represent a state that the franchise hasn't been in since. The prequels sparked a new generation of young fans who are now probably as old as I was when THE PHANTOM MENACE came out. (And actually, the time between those two films is equal to the time between THE PHANTOM MENACE and THE FORCE AWAKENS.) As I reflect on that, I can't help but feel like the films ahead of us might be too much of a good thing.
What made STAR WARS special when I was growing up was that those three films were really all we had. (Yes, I know about the Holiday Special, the Ewok films and cartoons and the Droids cartoons.) From the time I was seven until I was ten or eleven, I must have checked the films out of my local library at least two or three times a year. My library somehow had lost its copy of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, so I saw that less-frequently, while the first and third films were burned entirely into my memory by repeated viewings. I also regularly watched FROM STAR WARS TO JEDI, a behind the scenes video that I'm certain helped stoke my interest in filmmaking.
And then I remember taking a break from the films for a few years. I'm not sure how long, but it was long enough that when the USA Network started running the movies during Christmas of 1993, the novelty had returned rather than it being "just another viewing." I also found that because I hadn't worn out EMPIRE, it eventually shifted to being the superior film in my mind. Up until then, I'd preferred JEDI for its faster pace and awesome action. It has speeder bikes, that amazing three-way climax, which includes an intense lightsaber duel and an assault on the Death Star. Plus, the Emperor is one of the great villains of film and no man of my generation can deny the impact of Leia's bikini on our young minds.
Thanks to Kevin Smith, it became cool to rag on JEDI in favor of EMPIRE, and that's a side of fandom I've long grown weary of. EMPIRE probably is the better-made film, but JEDI's often more fun to watch.
And I can even enjoy the prequels. They're not perfect films, but I hold fast to my belief that anyone who believes they are "the worst films ever made" really needs to see more movies. Prequel-hate is something I find both fascinating and utterly irritating. Psychologically, it's fascinating to study how a viewer could have such a strong tie to a work of fiction that mere disappointment triggers a rage at the films and its creator that persists years after the fact.
The original trilogy made an impact on its audience in a way that none of the sequels or prequels possibly could. STAR WARS impacted so much of modern filmmaking that newcomers to the series now have likely already been exposed to media informed by and progressed from the original films. A gentleman I work with recently told me he showed the first film to his 7 year-old son and was shocked by how slow the film felt. That's quite a contrast from the original perception of the films pace, that it moved at a breakneck clip.
It was always inevitable that future audiences would come to STAR WARS more jaded than the generation that grew up on it. The fact that an additional six films will join the canon over the next six years also seems likely to rob the mythology of its mystique. We cannot miss something that refuses to go away, particularly something that has such a long merchandising reach.
I can't help but wonder of overexposure will rob the films of the scarcity that made them so coveted. The fact that audiences waited 16 years for a new chapter in the series is surely a factor in the passion that made the negative reactions to those films so intense. With other franchises that turn out entries at an assembly line pace, it's rare for feelings over a particular misfire to linger so badly years later.
And that's a concern when I find it hard to believe ANY film could satisfy the build-up that most fans have given it in their minds. I'm doing what I can to temper my own expectations, but I'm well aware that a letdown here will be more difficult to rationalize. At least with the prequels, they were distinct visually from the originals. Despite efforts at continuity, their aesthetic was unique enough that it was easy to accept them as something only tangentially tied to the originals.
But the new films will actually feature an older Luke, Han and Leia - the three characters and actors most synonymous with STAR WARS. As excited as I am about that reunion,I realize that by its very nature, it makes a misfire harder to ignore. JEDI sent them off with a happy ending and a galaxy of possibilities. THE FORCE AWAKENS is going to be in the position of showing us the trials they faced in the intervening years - and perhaps will even force a re-evaluation of how uplifting the future was at the end of the original trilogy.
As dark as the prequel trilogy got, it was clearly a tragedy from the start. We knew that the babies were going to be sent into exile, we knew the Jedi would be wiped out, we knew that Palpatine would seize power and we knew Anakin would be evil. If the new films break up Han and Leia and have one or more of the main characters become the villain of the series, will it taint the more beloved chapters?
I don't think the answer will matter much to the 24 year-olds who were eight when the prequel trilogy began. No matter what happens, I'll be fascinated by how the new chapters are received by fans in my age range as opposed to younger fans who came of age on the second trilogy and the CLONE WARS TV series. It also occurs to me that a viewer who was 12 in 1977 would now be pushing 50. This would have also put them in their early 30s upon the release of the prequels - still at the right age for the desecration of their childhood love to tap into the right rage. Is it so easy to get mad about these things when they're 50?
And as a 35 year-old fan who doesn't hate the prequels, will nostalgia blind me to any of the new movie's flaws? Or will it make me that much more unforgiving? I'm purposely trying to go in with tempered expectations, not because I think the movie will be bad. It's more about trying not to put the film on the screen in direct combat with some sort of idealized vision of how I think the story should go.
And we have less than four weeks until we'll know. Exciting.