Star Wars & I

There doesn’t seem to be anything more profitable than a good film franchise these days. There have been a lot in my lifetime. James Bond was raking in the dough before I was born. When I was small few things made me as happy as Christopher Reeve flying through the air as the Man of Steel. The Rocky movies brought everyone to their feet, and the Indiana Jones flicks had those same viewers tensely clutching their armrests. As I grew older, I repeatedly gave money to reprobates like Freddy Krueger and Chucky the serial-killing doll to test the limits of my fear, and yet more money to Batman (as portrayed by Keaton and Kilmer) to save the day. A bleaker and hoarser version of the Dark Knight drew my business as I reached adulthood, but it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe that rarely fails to leave me grinning from ear to ear.

But there is only one film franchise that seems to have defined my generation the world over, and has far outstripped all competitors in terms of financial reward. I’m, of course, referring to Star Wars, and most people would expect me to be a huge fan, but I’m here to tell you that my feelings for the Saga are… complicated.

As anyone with an internet signal knows, discussing Star Wars these days is like Michael Richards hitting the stage at the Laugh Factory; it can get ugly. But I don’t think it has to be this way. I think, when discussing art, we need to step back and realize we’re not dealing with tangible matters. At the end of our debate, no treaties should have been torn up, no dwellings should have been torched, and everyone’s vital signs should be okay. Knowing that’s not how it goes anymore, allow me to delve into my long, checkered relationship with those beings from “long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

The first Star Wars movie was released on June 24, 1977, when I was five. My life didn’t change right away like you might imagine. My parents didn’t load my sister and me into the station wagon and scoot directly to the ticket wicket. Nope. Instead the movie went largely unacknowledged in our household – for a while anyway. My parents ran a strict, god-fearing household, and my mother tried her best to keep her children’s entertainment free of as much violence and profanity as possible. So while my friends’ cultural upbringing consisted of generous helpings of Led Zeppelin and Clint Eastwood, my sister and I were fed more wholesome fare like ABBA, Anne Murray and Little House on the Prairie. According to my mother, my first trip to the cinema was for a re-release of Mary Poppins. I don’t remember that, but I remember my cousin taking my sister and me to see Grease. That probably looked innocent enough to my mother, at least more innocent than a movie full of laser guns and exploding planets.

What I’m trying to say is that I wasn’t exposed to Star Wars through a movie. But, if not a movie, then how? Well, back in those days, kids would go to each other’s houses and play with each other’s toys. In the late 70s, Kenner made a fortune selling Star Wars toys. All of my friends had, at the very least, an X-Wing fighter and a Luke Skywalker action figure to sit in it. And it seems like every one of my friends knew who all of these characters were, and how their stories would pan out. They spoke of the Jedi, droids and wookiees. To me it was simply a matter of out who the good and bad guys were, so I could join in and play with what were, without a doubt, the coolest toys in the whole wide world.

Eventually some television network played the movie, and I saw it that way. C3PO quickly became my favourite Star Wars character, and he was my most prized action figure. Eventually I amassed an impressive Star Wars toy collection, consisting of an army of storm troopers, droids, Luke, Darth Vader, Vader’s Tie Fighter and some sort of rebel ship.

I absorbed very few details from the movie at this stage. I liked how light sabres sounded, and I liked Anthony Daniels’ English accent. I couldn’t tell you why anyone was fighting, just that Darth Vader was bad. I don’t think my sister ever developed an interest in Star Wars, and certainly neither of my parents did. But it was definitely all the rage in the schoolyard, if the backpacks and lunchboxes were any indication.

By the time the 80s rolled around, I was sleeping in a set of Star Wars bedsheets, and there was rumbling of a second movie. Did my parents take me to see The Empire Strikes Back? Of course not, but I was given the storybook version, written by Shep Stenemen, complete with full-colour photographs. That may sound like a far inferior substitute for what many agree is the best movie in the entire franchise, but that was a surprisingly good storybook. Most of the film’s best lines were included (“That is why you fail,” “Luke, I am your father,” “We would be honoured if you would join us.”) From that book alone, I gained much more interest in the characters beyond whether they were merely good or bad. By the time a television network ponied up the cash to play Empire, I had turned ten, and this was a far more enthralling viewing experience. My beloved C3PO is blown to bits. Luke nearly dies on a frozen planet and later gets his hand chopped off. Han is frozen in carbonite. Darth Vader turns out to be Luke’s father?!?

But I think another often overlooked aspect of what was so surprising about Empire was the introduction of Yoda. Everyone my age found Yoda’s voice familiar, which made sense. It belonged to Frank Oz, the puppeteer who operated and voiced Grover on Sesame Street, along with countless other Muppets. Yoda’s voice is almost identical to Grover’s, but, even though Yoda’s syntax was quirky, his dialogue was highly profound. Yoda taught us so much more about the Force, and that appearances mean next to nothing. Most of all, Yoda revealed to all of us, not just little kids, that puppets could be serious.

So, with this second movie, I knew that this was now a “Saga,” and that the story had taken on far more weight. I had gotten more toys, and the stories my friends acted out in our playgrounds had taken on a new dramatic flair. But, was Star Wars my favourite film franchise? No.

A year after the first Star Wars movie, Warner Brothers released Superman: The Movie. I was already familiar with the character because of his animated adventures on TV. Every six-year-old boy loves Superman. When a kid in my class wanted to go see the movie on his birthday, I was invited to come along. I was blown away. It was simply a “bigger” looking movie than anything I had ever seen. Christopher Reeve was perfect as Superman, and I doubt there will ever be a Lois Lane as spunky and charming as Margot Kidder’s. I also saw 1980’s Superman II in the theatre, and I remember loving it even more. And these aren’t short movies. The first one is 2 hours and 23 minutes, while the second is only 16 minutes shorter.  Nevertheless, both movies never lost my attention for a second.

Looking back, though, I find it weird that I had so many Star Wars toys, while I can’t be sure I had a single Superman doll. I think it’s because, in my case, Star Wars was more about the toys and the adventures I made up with my friends than the movies themselves. As great as I knew The Empire Strikes Back was, I was far more drawn in by the characters and earthbound situations presented in the first two Superman movies.

In the summer of 1983, I was eleven years old, and both Star Wars and Superman had films hitting the cinemas. As much as I adored the first two Superman movies, something just seemed off with the commercials for this third one. What was the guy from The Wiz and Stir Crazy doing in a Superman movie? It looked like they were trying to make it a comedy. So, instead, I chose to see a Star Wars movie in the theatre for the very first time. (The Superman movies with Christopher Reeve never recovered.) I enjoyed The Return of the Jedi. My sister and her friends adored the Ewoks because they were the cutest things. I think if people my age were honest, they would admit that they all fantasized about having a pet Ewok in 1983. There was a reason why there was an animated Ewok series along with two made-for-TV Ewok movies (both of which I’ve never seen.) Ewoks were big business.

Still, it was cool to see Luke in full Jedi mode. I still think the climactic battle between Luke and Vader in this movie is the greatest light-sabre battle in the entire franchise. There is so much at stake. Darth Vader is torn between sparing his son and saving his Emperor. Luke is simultaneously trying to kill the Emperor and pull his father from the Dark Side. However, I now think the Luke and Vader drama is the only compelling part of the movie. The rest of Return of the Jedi seems like so much business for business’ sake – no matter how adorable the Ewoks were.

After The Return of the Jedi, that seemed to be it for Star Wars as a movie franchise. We played with the action figures less and less, until we stopped playing with them altogether. Soon no one was talking about the characters or spaceships at all. George Lucas retreated into his special effects studio. Star Wars was a thing of the past, specifically spanning a six-year period from the late 70s to the early 80s. Surprisingly, the movie business found ways to thrive without it.

In the summer of 1994, I was 22 years old. George Lucas announced to the world that he was developing a prequel trilogy, and I felt absolutely nothing, partly because 1994 was shaping up to be one of the best years in movie history. It was the year of Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Speed, Ed Wood, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Last Seduction, Immortal Beloved and The Mask. When the movies are better than I can ever remember them being, why would I care about Star Wars? Besides, I had no idea where my toys were.

No matter. Five years later, Lucas’ first offering in the prequel trilogy was ready. A friend had VHS copies of the original trilogy, and we agreed to watch them before heading to the theatre to watch the new installment.

Watching the old movies with fresh adult eyes brought new insights. First, there was a lot of sub-par acting. To this day, I contend that the only good performances in the 1977 movie belonged to Sir Alec Guinness and James Earl Jones (who only provided Vader’s voice). Harrison Ford may have become a genuine movie star, but he seemed so uninvested throughout the first three movies. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher grew more assured as actors by Return of the Jedi, but their performances were still uneven.

Similarly, while there were interesting concepts, such as the Force and the Dark Side, the screenwriting throughout the trilogy was clunky, particularly the dialogue. Lucas tends to load his screenplays with expository dialogue. Most information is conveyed by characters saying what is happening, rather than the movie simply showing us. On top of that, a lot of the lines don’t actually sound like things a person actually would say. Has anyone outside of someone’s first screenplay ever said, “Boy, am I glad to see you”? So much of the dialogue is “on the nose” and devoid of subtext. It’s not awful, and the writing is better in Empire and Jedi, but it’s remarkable how 1977’s Star Wars can continue to maintain its reputation with such amateurish writing and acting.

Still, with all its faults, I still found the original trilogy enjoyable, and had grown excited for the new movie. Because the 1977 film begins in the middle of a larger story, I realized that the prequel trilogy was going to have to cover a lot of the political roots of the rebellion. Although I was ready to watch a brand new Star Wars movie with fresh eyes, I clearly had on a thin veneer of nostalgia goggles.

Walking out of the cinema after viewing The Phantom Menace, I felt satisfied. The movie successfully scratched whatever Star Wars itch I possessed. I remember cheering when I first caught a glimpse of R2-D2. I remember being thrilled by the three-way light-sabre fight between Darth Maul, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon. (For a brief time I even thought it was better than Return of the Jedi’s. It was a very brief time.) I also didn’t think Jar Jar Binks was as offensive a character as others made him out to be, since he performed heroic deeds. (I admit his speech is based on a horrible racial stereotype, but doesn’t a character’s heroism count for anything?) However, something irked me. The opening scene shows Qui-Gon melting a door with a light sabre, which, somehow, to me, feels too inelegant a job for the weapon. Secondly, Jake Lloyd was insufferable as little Anakin Skywalker. I couldn’t believe Lucas accepted that take of him shouting, “Yippee!” Hell, I can’t believe any grown human would type that word into a screenplay.

But, for a time, I accepted it. After all, I didn’t revere the original trilogy as highly as other people, so if this new movie was only okay, then that was par for the course. But then I started thinking about the battle-droids. It seemed we had an ocean of these stupid robots attacking the Jedi, and I was never worried once that any of them would even graze one of our heroes. That seemed wasteful. Then I thought of the cast. In 1977, the only actors Star Wars had of any renown were Sir Alec Guinness and James Earl Jones. The Phantom Menace was loaded with actors who had dazzled earlier in their careers. Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman and Liam Neeson now all showed as much acting ability as their characters’ bobbleheads. Ewan MacGregor showed a little bit of effort, but clearly Lucas wasn’t as good at coaxing a quality performance out of him as Danny Boyle did in movies like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.

The more I thought about The Phantom Menace, the more and more it seemed like a waste of talent and resources. That should have been reason enough to stop me from lining up to see Attack of the Clones three years later, but there I was, amongst my friends on opening weekend. This time, when the movie ended, I immediately realized I had just been served garbage. Jackson, Portman and MacGregor were still wasted, but now they added screen legend Christopher Lee to the sewage. The romance between Portman’s Padme and Hayden Christensen’s Anakin was one of the worst in film history. Particularly infuriating was that, for the first time, the climactic light sabre battle – the emotional centre of Star Wars movie – was now played for laughs.

The light sabre battles throughout the prequel trilogy, while immaculately choreographed, seem to exist for their own sake, as if to fulfill a quota. The stakes in the 70s and 80s were much higher, and that’s why those battles still resonate more – because they mean something.

I knew Attack of the Clones was beyond saving when Padme fell at least twenty feet from a speeder onto the desert sand. Some other character runs up to her as she clutches her shoulder in pain. “Are you okay?” they ask her. Padme lets go of her shoulder and hops effortlessly to her feet. “I’m fine,” she says, and she runs out of frame. Why have a character fall a few dozen feet if it’s going to add nothing to the story? If that is good enough for Lucas – if he cares that little – then I shouldn’t reward him with any more of my money. I swore then and there I wouldn’t send a penny towards the next installment’s box office total.

So, everyone lined up to see The Revenge of the Sith without me. The reviews were unfavourable, and I heard people making fun of Vader’s anguished wail of “Padme… Nooooo!” Eventually I borrowed someone’s DVD copy, and I concluded it was only slightly better than Attack of the Clones. The cast puts in a little more effort, but Anakin’s surrender to the Dark Side couldn’t be less climactic. I thought the computer-generated lava during the standoff between Anakin and Obi-Wan was shoddy even then, and the scramble to place all the characters where they need to be at the beginning of the Episode 4 was ham-fisted to say the least. To me, Star Wars was forever tainted because of this prequel trilogy, and I didn’t find that the movies of the 70s and 80s were of high-enough calibre to survive their new malignant growth. If this was the death of Star Wars, I felt fine throwing a clump of dirt on its coffin so it could rest in peace.

Clearly, a lot of people did not share my attitude. In 2008 – three years after The Revenge of the Sith – someone on Facebook with a flair for wordplay declared May the 4th Star Wars Day. In 2011, the world’s first organized celebration of Star Wars Day was held at the Toronto Underground Cinema. This baffled me. Surely Star Wars should have died off by now. After all, there hadn’t been a competently-made Star Wars movie in twenty-eight years. But there were the kids waving light-sabres and playfully Force-choking each other. I felt like a fuzzy green creature on a mountaintop, horrified at the villagers below singing the Ewoks “Yub Yub” song.

“Maybe Star Wars,” I thought, “was more than just movies. Maybe Star Wars means something more to the loonies.”

My tiny heart retreated deeper into my chest as I harrumphed back into my cave.

Never letting a market go untapped, Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion in 2012. While I was glad to see Star Wars out of Lucas’ control, I was not excited at all about new movies. When J.J. Abrams was put in charge, I was even less excited. I saw his first Star Trek movie, and was driven crazy by the sheer volume of jokey references to that franchise’s history. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if Abrams had played it absolutely straight. I felt safe in assuming he’d take the same goofy tone with Star Wars.

The first trailer for The Force Awakens was rapturously received and shared all over social media. After reading the three-hundredth post about how awesome it looked, I decided to take a peek. The trailer I saw was an impressive display of the Millennium Falcon, AT ATs, light sabres, a new droid and other gear familiar to the fan base. What I didn’t see was any sign of a story, so I remained uninterested. When my friends would invite me to go see The Force Awakens with them, I told them to enjoy it without me. The movie scored an enormously successful opening weekend and tremendous word of mouth. One friend was insistent that I had to see it, so I told him I would wait until it showed up at this century-old second-run movie theatre in my neighbourhood. I waited, and that’s when I saw it.

If The Force Awakens is criticized for anything, it’s that it copies and pastes the story from the 1977 movie. That’s a valid criticism. However, there was never, ever, a Star Wars film as well acted or with as punchy dialogue as this. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega inject the franchise with a fresh new energy we haven’t seen for decades. It had been a long time since I saw actors in a Star Wars who looked like they gave a shit. Ridley’s character, Rey, was a protagonist whose journey we actually wanted to follow. For the old fans, we were treated to reappearances from old characters like Leia, Chewbacca and Han Solo. To me, this was, hands down, Harrison Ford’s best performance in a Star Wars movie. For the first time, Han is given dialogue that doesn’t sound like it was originally intended for Humphrey Bogart with all its “ain’ts” and “dames.” Ford never sounded comfortable speaking those lines. Here, he looked right at home beside his best wookiee friend. Carrie Fisher is similarly fantastic as Leia. I think my favourite image of her will always be when she calls after Rey and tells her, “May the Force be with you.”

There are only two things that keep the film from being great. The first is that I didn’t buy Adam Driver as the big villain. When he took off his mask and revealed his face, I actually laughed. Driver, at least in that film, wasn’t physically intimidating enough. At worst, he looked like someone who would get obnoxiously drunk at a party. I bought Driver as an arrogant hipster in While We’re Young. I didn’t buy him as an evil space lord in The Force Awakens.

My other problem was that Rey seemed able to control the Force with zero training. Even Anakin needed to train. It was as if the writers hadn’t looked at what had come before in the Saga. Still, the movie was good enough that I was curious about the next chapter, which confused me, because the next Star Wars movie was less than a year away.

Disney seemed intent on wringing every dollar they could from Star Wars’ enormous fan base as often as they could. So now, in the years between the “episodic” movies, we were going to get stories that take place elsewhere in the Saga’s timeline. The first of these came out in 2016.

Rogue One was begotten from a single expository line in the 1977 movie detailing how rebel spies smuggled out the plans for the Empire’s Death Star. From that one line sprang a thrilling spectacle featuring spaceships, robots, a heist and perhaps the most horrifying display of Darth Vader’s full power. As much as I enjoyed it, I couldn’t help but grumble about how Star Wars fans can get an entire movie made from a single line from a thirty-nine-year-old film, and Canadians like me can’t get a good movie made about Louis Riel, the controversial real-life leader of the real-life North-West Rebellion of 1885. Perhaps that’s just me.

The Last Jedi was the first Star Wars movie I saw on opening weekend since Attack of the Clones. The cast seemed to only get stronger since The Force Awakens, particularly Ridley, but Driver also won me over as the tortured Kyle Ren. While I thought the movie was flawed yet still good, this one seems to have driven a schism through the Star Wars faithful. The main issue seems to be with the depiction of Luke Skywalker. Many of the film’s dissenters don’t believe that the Luke we know and love would abandon the Jedi cause. I think you have to take into account the thirty-four years we haven’t seen the character. Thirty-four years is a long time, in which many life-changing moments can happen. I don’t think it’s right to demand that a character be exactly as they were three and a half decades earlier. In fact, it’s more interesting if you show a significantly changed character, and then explore why they changed.

The Last Jedi’s detractors also complained about Finn and Rose’s lame B-plot on the casino planet. I agreed with them, but that is nothing new to the franchise. I refer you to any part of The Return of the Jedi that didn’t involve Luke Skywalker.

What I find most perplexing about The Last Jedi schism is that the movie’s loudest detractors claim to be the biggest Star Wars fans. Maybe that’s why I count it as a pretty good movie because I no longer claim to be a big fan; it’s something I always enjoyed, except when I thought it sucked. I’m a true fan of a few things, like the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If radical changes were being made to either of those entities, I think it would be understandable if I were to become nervous. However, I would like to think I would properly assess whether or not the change was valid before raising hell.

The most recent movie was yet another solid yet flawed between-saga entry called Solo. I thought it was an engaging enough story with very good acting. However, I would rather the focus had been on Han’s unusual friendship with Chewbacca, rather than his romance with a love interest we never knew existed. I think there was a missed opportunity with Solo, but I wouldn’t call it a bad movie.

Maybe my relationship with Star Wars isn’t as complicated as I thought. I’m now someone who will buy a ticket to a new Star Wars movie within its first few weeks of theatrical run, which is much better than where I was after Attack of the Clones. Obviously the franchise has won me back as a customer, even if I’m reluctant to label myself as a full-fledged fan. I think what I like about the new movies is that they have re-captured the goofy and irreverent action of the original movies, but the new directors and writers are simply better at their jobs than Lucas ever was. I also don’t hold the original movies up on a pedestal where they don’t belong. They were innovative in many respects, but their flaws must also be acknowledged. And that’s pretty much where Star Wars is today.

May the Force be with us all.