On August 7, 1977 I finally went to go see the smash summer hit, “Star Wars.” I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was working that summer at the East Park Drive-In movie theater, and our manager had told us that it was “unexpected and phenomenal” what this film had done. The surprise hit took the country by storm, being held over month after month as the crowds kept coming.
I can still picture where I sat – right side, half way up in a packed movie theater on a Sunday night. The words came on the screen, “A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy far, far away…” and then the music, the scroll, for the next two hours I was blown away by the best movie I had ever seen.
The force! Luke and Leia! Hans Solo, Obi Wan Kenobi, such a different movie, both mystical and real, funny and dramatic, with special effects of a sort I had never seen. It was so real, yet pure fantasy.
I realize no one can watch what’s now called “A New Hope” and have that same experience. The technology of 2015 makes the effects of 1977 appear quaint. The story line of Star Wars is so well known that no one can go into it and have the sense of surprise and exhilaration that hit us in the summer of ’77. While getting old may be a bummer, it’s worth having been able to experience Star Wars that first summer – to understand first hand why it overwhelmed the American psyche and became iconic, even legendary.
The seventies had seen the rise of raw realism. In politics the US lost in Vietnam and saw President Nixon resign in disgrace. Top movies portrayed this cynicism as well – Marlon Brando as the Godfather, Jaws, the Exorcist, Taxi Driver, the French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, etc.
The public was yearning for something mythical, a clear good vs. evil, a feel good story that transcended the every day. In 1976 the film “Rocky” by Sylvester Stallone surprised the pundits by being embraced by the public as an unlikely case of a two bit has been boxer being given a chance for the title and having his life changed in the process. That was a hint that the public was ready for a different kind of film, one that spoke to our hopes as well as our cynicism.
Over the next years the sequels came – The Empire Strikes Back gave us Yoda and more substance to the characters. The Return of the Jedi brought victory for the rebellion and apparent closure. I enjoyed and looked forward to movies, but none captured the magic of that August 1977 night when I left the theater floored by what I had just experienced.
Then about 15 years ago the prequels started. The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. I enjoyed all three. They were fun, intense, and the special effects were fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed the story. The last half hour of Revenge is intense and raw. Moreover the story line – that Anakin Skywalker would be redeemed and saved despite having done things that would make Hitler shudder – was powerful. As I noted then, it really was a story of Anakin’s redemption.
I loved that my kids were putting together Star Wars legos and learning the characters better than I, and that this was a film experience that transcended generations. Excellent entertainment, but it never left me feeling like I did that August nearly 40 years ago.
Last night I took my sons, aged 9 (almost 10) and 12 to see The Force Awakens. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew the reviews were good, but I had not been in a hurry to see it. Still, why not? After all, Farmington’s movie theater has wide rocking comfortable seats, $4 admission and popcorn for $2. Heck, that’s probably not much more expensive than Sioux Falls was in 1977 (and the seats are definitely more comfortable).
The “Long time ago…” screen came on, and I felt that feeling – one that connected me back to 1977, and I swear I almost had tears in my eyes as the music blared and the scroll started. Star Wars! Yet this film did something else. It tugged at me emotionally in the same way the original did, something none of the others had done. The last part of Revenge was emotionally powerful, but in a different way.
It wasn’t the same as 1977, but the movie had a pace, a feel, a sense of purpose that brought back the kind of emotion I had back then. The gritty realism, the mix of humor and drama, and something new – connections with the original characters that made sense. It was powerful, mesmerizing and fun. If I had never seen any of the other films, I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it. But in the context of the Star Wars series, this episode came closest to bringing back the emotion of 1977. J.J. Abrams, trying to stay true to Lucas’ overall theme and vision, got it right.
As the final scene faded to credits and the oh so familiar music began, getting up to leave I felt something that must have been similar to what I experienced after that original. My 12 year old son, who was lukewarm about going, said, “wow, that was great, I want to see all the rest again, I forgot how good Star Wars was.” And as I get older and my body moves a bit more slowly and with more aches and pains, I take some comfort that Star Wars retains its relevance, and can still reach inside. As I left the theater I knew that the force was with me. May the force be with you!