“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has been out on digital for a week, and releases Friday, March 30 on DVD and Bluray. The polarizing conversation on whether or not it’s worthy of being a Star Wars film has heated up once again. What follows is one lifelong fan’s take on the film, the franchise, and life in the Star Wars Culture.
In July of 1977, my mom took her six year old son to see his very first feature film in a theater. At three years old, my brother was too young, and my father had no interest in the film’s subject matter, but Mom wanted to see what all the hype was about. It was called “Star Wars.”
That Saturday afternoon matinee at the 21st Century Fox theater in Visalia, California sparked a 40 year cultural obsession with a franchise that came to a grinding — but not instant — halt when I saw “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” on opening night.
My fandom is over not because I grew up, but because they tried to grow up Star Wars. The results are disappointing to some, but to those like me, they’re disillusioning. I didn’t want them to remake the same movie I saw when I was six, I just wanted them to remake the same type of movie I saw when I was six; good triumphing over evil in a hard fought battle to decide the fate of the galaxy. How ironic it is, then, that my love for Star Wars should come to an end in a Galaxy theater not too far away from my house.
Star Wars emerged as a cultural phenomenon first and foremost because it was a solitary beacon of optimism in the sea of gritty realism that was 1970’s era cinema. Where Dirty Harry and Serpico showcased morally ambiguous authority figures waging illegal wars against street criminals in the gutters of San Francisco or The Bronx, this fantasy epic (no, Star Wars is not science fiction) shot through the cinematic stratosphere with a tale of swords, magic, heroes, dark forces, exotic worlds, and yes, the morally ambiguous character who was an actual criminal instead of an authority figure.
For years afterward, in my make believe games with my friends, the girls wanted to be Princess Leia, some of the fellas wanted to be Chewbacca, and those who pretended to be Han Solo were only content to do so because the role of Skywalker had already been claimed, usually after a tense argument and the promise that roles could be switched later in the adventure.
There wasn’t much to do when pretending to be a wielder of the Force. The only examples we had to draw from were blocking small laser fire emitted by machines, and hitting small targets with projectile weapons. Even the seemingly all powerful Ben Kenobi only showed us that he could hypnotize the weak minded and make weird noises when a distraction was called for. How fortunate for these two to live in a Galaxy where the entirety of the evil army possessed no marksmanship abilities whatsoever.
When the Empire Struck Back, it was a serious matter for aspiring Jedi Knights. We could now draw objects to us from across the room, make rocks float, and get a vaguely worded message to a relative without using technology. It was a dark time for the Rebellion, scattered across the Galaxy as fugitives on the run from a hidden Emperor who barely made his presence seen though it was certainly known. If Vader was kneeling to that guy, then you knew he was not to be trifled with. And while the final scene is not necessarily a happy one, it was a setting tinged with optimism. There was hope. If pop culture is a reflection of its society, the American political landscape strongly resembled that final scene in “Empire,” because five months later, it would be morning in America.
But that sequel was also ushering in another facet of pop culture that would come to be embraced whole heartedly by mainstream audiences: fantasy and science fiction. Where the first Star Wars film brought about a smattering of anti-gritty realism films such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and Disney’s “The Black Hole,” “Empire” would usher in the likes of “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan,” “The Thing,” “Blade Runner,” “The Secret of Nimh,” “Tron,” “The Dark Crystal,” “Poltergeist” and the jewel in the 1982 crown that was “ET: The Extra Terrestrial.”
For an eleven-year-old boy who was beginning to put make believe games behind him, pop culture cinema was offering up all kinds of fascinating places to take the imagination. Let the adults bicker over Reaganomics, Khan’s plot for revenge must be thwarted!
When The Jedi Returned the following year, most of the grownups complained that it was little more than one long battle sequence punctuated with savage teddy bears. We kids knew better. This was the payoff for the long, dark wait brought about by “Empire.” Of course the battle had to be a lengthy one; anything less would have been unsatisfying and unearned.
Then it was over; a finale that felt genuinely final. Sure, we wanted more “Star Wars,” and sure we watched the “Ewok Adventures” on television because they were part of the “Star Wars” universe, and yes we salivated over every rumor and possibility that Lucas would be making another sequel.
But we knew that wasn’t going to happen. “Return of the Jedi” was the end of it. The Republic restored, the people of the galaxy free. All had been set right and the heroes were victorious.
When, in the year 1997, Lucas rereleased the “Star Wars” trilogy with all new special effects, I was excited for one reason and one reason alone: I would be taking my six year old son to see his first “Star Wars” film in a theater.
The two sequels were released in the following months and a good portion of that year was spent helping my son’s burgeoning fandom and living a little vicariously through him as I viewed the Special Edition films through his eyes. OK, so Greedo shot first and Han was now some sort of reactionary instead of a badass scoundrel. I still had the originals on VHS.
Just two years later: “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” emerged. This was going to be glorious. It would leave the finale of “Return of the Jedi” intact and instead, give us a look at how the Empire rose to power, and the emergence of one of the greatest pop culture villains ever: Darth Vader. By this time, my son was living with his mother 450 miles away from me, but it didn’t matter.
I took a day off, spent most of it driving, and took my son to the midnight premiere. This would be his trilogy. I would be an enthusiastic supporter of his expanding fandom and perhaps find new facets of my own with these new chapters in the Star Wars saga. The title appeared in a burst of John William’s iconic fanfare and then …
… trade negotiations. Jar Jar Binks. Midichlorians. An absurd immaculate conception into slavery, with the mother remaining a slave, because apparently that’s not something worth the time or attention (a concept which would rear its ugly head again in “The Last Jedi”). Darth Vader built C3PO when he was a kid because of course he did. A chariot race. A victory of happenstance while a powerful Jedi is slain by a Sith amateur who is in turn slain by an even more amateur Padawan. Sure, why not?
My six year old loved it. It was “Star Wars,” because it looked and sounded like “Star Wars.” I spent a day or two trying to believe I liked it before I finally admitted I was kidding myself.
I didn’t bother taking my son to see “Attack of the Clones.” When I did see it, I had forgotten most of the movie before the end credits rolled.
Advance word on “Revenge of the Sith” was that this was going to be different. This was going to be more like the Star Wars we all knew and loved. It wasn’t. I could go on for days about how the Jedi had become corrupt and inept (and easily duped) but I will sum up the movie with the following observation:
The line “Only a Sith deals in absolutes” is an absolutist statement.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm for the prequels, my fandom hadn’t wavered. I was still a child of the original trilogy, someone for whom Star Wars will always be “Star Wars” and never “A New Hope.” I found my fandom rewarded by the animated series “The Clone Wars” which actually makes the prequels look better … not much … but better. I also found a new hero in the “Star Wars” universe, the greatest Force wielder who ever lived, the one strong enough to walk away from the corruption of the Jedi and find her own path: Ahsoka Tano.
If you’ve never watched “Clone Wars” or “Rebels” and you’re a fan of the Star Wars universe, you owe it to yourself. Collectively, they’re better than all but the original trilogy.
Which brings me to “Force Awakens.” I enjoyed it. Didn’t love it, but I was appreciative of the fan service, even if some of it strained the boundaries of plausibility amidst the fantastical rules set up in that fantasy universe. It was fun, and it asked a lot of questions that seemed would eventually be answered: “A good question, for another time.”
But some part of me should have known that those questions would stay questions because after all, it’s Jar Jar Abrams telling this story, and he’s long believed in red herrings as an effective plot device (it really isn’t). I kept my optimism simmering, and went to my local Galaxy IMAX to see “The Last Jedi” at the midnight premiere …
… Luke is still a narcissistic crybaby. Incompetent admirals with no sense of battle tactics whatsoever. A quest to free horsies and yet leave slave children right where they are. Oh yeah, that was a quest about something else and it failed. Leia Poppins. Snoke is no one. Rey’s parents are nobodies. Hyperspace tracking and fuel are now a thing. And where the Empire was an omnipresent force of evil that meddled with everyone in the galaxy, including the residents of Tatooine, the First Order is nowhere to be found; two on Jakku, none on the planet where Maz Kanata’s bar was obliterated, none on the Casino planet. It’s like 50 First Order fighters are battling about 30 Resistance fighters while the rest of the galaxy doesn’t seem to care.
And then I found myself no longer caring.
I walked away tired, because it was 3 a.m. I also walked away disillusioned, because “Star Wars” wasn’t “Star Wars” any more.
At 47, I find I am no longer looking forward to the next episode of the franchise. I’ve still got a couple of collectibles and the original trilogy on Bluray. I’ve got my original “Star Wars” poster so I can look back and remember when I believed in heroes. Yesterday I found myself wondering if Luke Skywalker ever really was a hero.
It took “The Last Jedi” to cause me to look back and wonder if his leaving the mission, his friends, and the Rebellion in jeopardy to go try and turn his dad back to the light side was a heroic thing or just a selfish thing. After all, can there be redemption for a genocidal monster who saves his confession until his deathbed? By tossing the Emperor over the railing, wasn’t Vader just clearing the way for himself to take power? Or his son?
My own son is 26, serving his country in the military, and doing his own thing. I have no grandchildren, but if I did, I would be taking them to see an animated film, or a superhero movie, or just about anything that doesn’t involve Jedi, the Force, and heroes that — thanks to the power of “The Last Jedi” — perhaps were never actually heroic to begin with.