It was a passing comment by a friend a few weeks ago, shortly before the 13% beer hit home, that finally alerted me to what the rest of the world had known for a year: a new Star Wars film was imminent.
I know, right? 13% beer!
Frankly, it’s been a hell of a year with far more pressing, distracting and distressing concerns but even so, it was a surprise. Now, my 11 year-old self would claim that it was an oversight on a nigh on criminally negligent scale, not only due to the life-changing effect that the first Star Wars film had on me in 1977 – we’ll get to that – but due to the fact that I knew that this latest film was coming even before I saw the first film. Yes, that’s right too. I’ve known that this new film was on the way since 1977.
I don’t have George Lucas in my address book nor am I on the board of Lucasfilm. Which, in hindsight, may not even have existed when the first film was released¹. No, what we have here, my friends, is a gen-u-ine first generation Star Wars geek. A little dormant since the Special Editions, I grant you, but a geek nevertheless. I was that irritating kid that would tell anyone “but this isn’t the first film – it’s the fourth!” only to be met by those “that’s nice, dear” and “oh, he’s missed his medication” pitying looks.
A little like when, as a kid, in response to a visiting pastor’s request for subjects for prayer in chapel one Sunday, my answer was “Guatemala”. I think that there’d been a massive earthquake there but the rest of the congregation was stuck in World War II and thought I’d said “Guadalcanal“. It wasn’t my first tumbleweed moment in life by a long shot.
Yes, that’s right too. I’ve known that this new film was on the way since 1977.
Back to ’77 … As I recall, mainstream film and cultural wisdom had it that Star Wars wasn’t going to be very good. In fact, our local single screen cinema owner, Mr. D.M. Davies – my population 9,000 hometown’s screen count had recently reduced from three to one, the rather elegantly named Commodore Cinema – had decided against showing the film as his usually reliable intel had informed him that this was a film which would disappear without a trace. Practically, this meant that the family had to make the seventy mile trip to Swansea in South Wales, to the nearest cinema screen that was showing it, a two-and-a-half hour trek in pre-dual carriageway and motorway days. By then, my incendiary enthusiasm about the film had persuaded my parents that the trip was worth it and they were kind enough to indulge my wide-eyed madness and several Christmases’ worth of excitement. We made a day of it, as the saying went back then. Not only did Swansea have the nearest cinema screen but it also had shops bigger than Peacocks. It was a Welsh Seventies thing.
What partially fuelled this insanity was that, despite any of Mr. Davies’s disparaging pre-release rumours, Star Wars took cinemas by storm in the US around May but the UK had to wait until after Christmas that year to see it. This gave British fans seven months to become a frothing anticipatory mass of whirling dervishes, eagerly mopping up everything and anything to do with the film. In pre-internet days, sci-fi fans such as me would scour newspaper and magazines for anything about the film, buy special edition fold-out ‘poster magazines’ and collectors’ edition publications, read the novelisation and the Marvel Comics serialisation² (which was based on an early edit of the film and gave us glimpses of scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor) and buy every toy, watch, paper plate and commemorative mug that 50 pence weekly pocket money would allow. It was this obsessiveness that turned up the information that this first wondrous film was in fact the fourth in a series of nine: three set in the imagined “present” of the story arc, followed by three prequels and three sequels.
That said, nothing, absolutely nothing prepared me for the opening fanfare of that unmistakeable soundtrack, the surround sound of that Imperial Cruiser slowly filling the screen and a couple of hours of watching what had previously been confined to the realms of mere imagination brought to glorious, technicolour life. My love for science fiction had, until then, been limited to books, by and large, eked out with some low-budget UK television series and what sci-fi films made it to our mono-screened West Wales town. One of my first cinema outings, to the pre-Commodore Coliseum Cinema, was to see a Planet of the Apes double bill and that had imprinted itself vividly enough on my impressionable, spacesuit and laser pistol-hungry mind. Blu-ray? DVD? Decades away. VHS was still a few years from being commonplace. Fuel for the imagination such as that we take for granted today was rare.
In that environment, the first Star Wars film was – and you’ll pardon the pun – several Apollo’s worth of rocket fuel lit simultaneously. My wide-eyed madness became wide-eyed incredulous wonder at what I had seen. This was a film that heralded possibilities. And they were life-changing possibilities that led in later life to a brief writing career, four or five sci-fi and fantasy novels and a BBC radio sci-fi series that didn’t quite turn out as expected.
Which is a little like the Star Wars series, this blog post and life itself. Star Wars IV: A New Hope, to give it its full title, gave way to 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, the darkest of the initial trilogy and my favourite, followed by 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Return was a schmaltzy merchandise-pushing fest that barely prepared us for the atrocities that were The Special Editions and the execrable Phantom Menace. Decades later, spellbound by another trilogy that brought a childhood favourite to life, Star Wars didn’t stand up to the comparison with Middle Earth and I couldn’t but wonder what my life-changing original films would have been like in the hands of a director like Jackson who, until the Hobbit films in any case, had the better ability to bring an epic to vibrant celluloid life.
It didn’t quite turn out as expected. Which is a little like the Star Wars series, this blog post and life itself.
The new film has rekindled an old feeling, something I haven’t felt for a very long time. It’s not just the fact that the new film promises to return to production values closer to that of the originals – that’s Episodes Four to Six to us cognoscenti – where special effects were produced from real stuff, not a computer program’s cartoonlike CGI. That return to the old ways may yet resurrect that sense of excitement and amazement that over-analysis, too many geeks and slowed down YouTube videos have long conspired to quash in a tedious avalanche of smug self-congratulation on another flaw, error or inconsistency exposed. That said I will admit, out of earshot of that 11-year old, that a changing and more critical taste in films – not to mention the betrayal of the Special Editions – had long since consigned the Star Wars films to the drawer marked “Films that I used to like but don’t really understand why now.”
No, seeing that life defining title in a form more akin to when it did actually define my life has reminded me of some of the things that have been lost to me since. It’s not just the fact that as a man I have been expected to put away childish things. It’s not just the equally expected cynicism of adulthood and the fact that big life changes and losses have made me question every decision that led to those. It’s a realisation that we lose our sense of wonder at our peril. At a time when I have been in survival mode for a significant length of time, a sense of wonder may help, not least because, as Laurence Gonzales outlines in his excellent book Deep Survival, it is a trait that many, many survivors retain in their darkest hours.
It strikes me that hope and wonder are closely aligned, being both open and expansive frames of mind. When we marvel and wonder, our imaginations are fired, and imagination is the fuel of hope. While I know that I could personally use a little more hope, I am fairly confident that I am not alone, as a cursory glance at the news headlines confirms.
It’s a realisation that we lose our sense of wonder at our peril.
A visit to my hometown a few days ago brought me once more to the doors of the Commodore Cinema and in my mind’s eye I saw the huge queue of people that stretched back hundreds of yards down the road to the long since demolished King’s Hall. Mr. Davies very quickly realised his mistake. I also considered the long and very winding road that had brought me to that point. It’s a truism that life is a fickle thing and no doubt my own life hasn’t turned out quite the way my 11 year-old self had hoped for or expected. I’m not foolish enough to believe that Star Wars Episode Seven: The Force Awakens will change my life in the way the first – sorry fourth episode did.
Watching the newest film may, however, may reawaken an 11-year old’s more hopeful, wide eyed and wondrous way of looking at life. Which, right now, may be no bad thing at all. Take it away, Jeff.
¹ Oh wait, Lucasfilm was formed in 1971.
² Though clearly memory is a fickle thing as it turns out that the UK Marvel comics didn’t come out until early 1978, a few months after the film appeared in this country. Perhaps I managed to get hold of an US issue in my weekly Marvel Comic run to the town’s railway station newsagent, the only place that got in Marvel and not DC comics.