One of the memories that I treasure most from 1998 came when I was driving from LA to Palo Alto with my friend Pete. I had a copy of “The Beginning” with me, the script by George Lucas, and he had a CD player loaded up with the soundtracks for the first three films. I read the script aloud while he drove, and by the time we got to his family's house for Thanksgiving, we were both convinced that we were going to get an amazing gift in movie theaters in May of 1999.
History has proven the two of us to be a wee bit overenthusiastic. While I am not a rabid prequel-hater the way many people are (watching the films with my kids radically changed my opinions on them and their place in the overall saga), I think there is something magical about the original three that only becomes more clear with time and distance. It's not as simple as saying “practical effects!” over and over the way some fans seem to think it is, and if you want to really appreciate just how barely the original films worked, you just need to read the amazing behind-the-scenes books that J.W. Rinzler wrote about each of them. I just recently finished reading the Kindle versions of each, completely with audio and video clips a-plenty, and they are astonishing. More than anything, they reminded me of all the ways the “Star Wars” films originally inspired my love of the craft of filmmaking, and fantastic filmmaking in particular.
During the countdown to the release of “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” I think it's safe to say I was on the forefront of reporting about the movie. After all, that drive with Pete led to me publishing the very first script review of the film anywhere, and that move led to Lucasfilm giving me a ban from the Ranch that lasted until I visited with Toshi in January of 2012. It was an exhilarating time, and I loved writing about all of it… the speculation, the drips and drabs of new information that could be confirmed, the toys, the photos, the casting news, the marketing… it was all thrilling precisely because I'd gotten to the point over the course of those 16 long years between movies where I believed we'd never see new “Star Wars” again.
At this point, I'm concerned we may never stop seeing new “Star Wars,” what with the one-a-year-until-the-end-of-time plan that Disney and Lucasfilm announced. It feels like we're eventually going to see movies about every thing that has ever crossed the screen even fleetingly, and while that's good news because the sheer manpower required to pull it all off means I have a good shot at both writing and directing “Gonk: A Star Wars Story” in 2041, it also means it all feels a little less special, and it's harder for me to get excited in the way I did back in 1997 and 1998.
Then again, I'm 45 now, and I have children of my own. In 1997, I was 27 years old, and I was as gloriously, unabashedly selfish as any 27 year old can be. Part of what made it so much fun to cover “Star Wars” was knowing that I was one of the first people outside of Lucasfilm to experience any of what I was seeing or reading. It was thrilling. It was forbidden. And sharing it with “Star Wars” fans both in person and online felt like I had found this army of people I never knew I was connected to, but who were immediately familiar to me. It was a remarkable moment, and I think that's when I got addicted to doing all of this. The way it's felt this time around, though, has had me questioning things. There's been none of that same near-chemical rush for me, and I've been trying to pinpoint what's wrong.
After all, there's plenty to be excited about with this new film. I was in the room at Star Wars Celebration when that new trailer premiered and people were getting weepy about their first glimpse of Han Solo and Chewbacca. When Instagram showed off their new Landscape settings today with that glimpse of “The Force Awakens,” I thought it was thrilling…
… and I've worked hard this time to not spoil the entire movie for myself. I've had spies send me way more stuff than I've reported on, and in some cases, that spy stuff has gone unopened because I don't want to know the entire movie beat for beat before I sit down in the theater in December. That happened on all three of the prequels for me, and I know for a fact that it changed the experience I had.
Our own Donna Dickens posts one thing every single day about “Star Wars,” and sometimes more than that, and her hunger for it is prodigious. She is all aboard in the way I was back then, and watching her, I've finally realized what the change is for me. It's not that I don't care or that I'm not enjoying what I've seen from the film so far. It's simply that I've been through this entire cycle before, three times, and by the time 2005 rolled around, I was worn out. There is nothing like the mania that surrounds “Star Wars,” and even at the eye of the hurricane, it is exhausting. It requires a stamina I'm not sure I have anymore.
When I was a kid, part of the appeal of “Star Wars” was the sheer volume of stuff that I absorbed from each film and from all of the various ancillary items. The books, the comics, the soundtrack, the radio play, the action figures… they all added little tidbits to what I knew, and it all went into that brain of mind as if it were the most important information in the world. It must have driven my parents crazy when I would get a C on a test, but I could tell them all about the various aliens scattered around Jabba's Throne Room or I could expound for hours about what must have happened between Obi-Wan and Anakin during the Clone Wars. These days, I am so disconnected from what's going on that I made a comment on Twitter today about “the New Order.”
Since I'm pretty sure there's not a synth-mope band in “The Force Awakens,” that was inaccurate. I was referring to The First Order, which is what JJ Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan have named the main bad guys in this new movie. In an interview in the latest Empire, Abrams talked about how they used the idea of the Nazis who escaped to Argentina as their beginning point for these villains. “That all came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again? What could be born of that? Could The First Order exist as a group that actually admired the Empire? Could the work of the Empire be seen as unfulfilled? And could Vader be a martyr? Could there be a need to see through what didn't get done?”
Why, yes. Yes, there could.
That shot is impressive to me because of what it conveys. If you look at the people onstage, it appears that Kylo Ren is the person standing at the front of the stage, out of his distinctive armor that we now know is influenced by his own fascination with Vader and with the now long-dead Sith. He is a collector, which seems like a canny way for Abrams and Kasdan and company to comment on the fan community while selling them tons of new merchandise at the same time. Not an easy trick.
What I also find impressive is how clearly that entire image is obviously a technical accomplishment, augmented with tons of visual effects work, and how nobody's crying about it. I'm so tired of hearing people complain about effects, and it's gotten to be a drag hearing the “Star Wars” team beat the “practical effects” drum so much, as if the prequels didn't have any physical effects work or as if there are no computers being used to make this new film. Of course they're using computers. Of course they're using a mix of technology. Of course things are better for actors and for directing when you can have an immersive environment filled with real performers and objects. But because of the way they've steered the conversation, it feels like the team making “The Force Awakens” has successfully ended all the typical griping, and the emphasis is back on what we're looking at, not how they made it happen.
Bottom line… I was never going to maintain any kind of grip on “Star Wars” supremacy, and it would have been madness to try. Right now, my oldest son knows more about the current state of the “Star Wars” universe than I do. He's the one reading all the comic books. He's the one watching “Star Wars Rebels” every single week. He's the one who knows all the names now. He's the keeper of the arcana, the one whose inner life is full of Jedi and Sith. When he corrects me about some bit of “Star Wars” trivia, I feel an almost indecent amount of joy. I wrote about sharing the “Star Wars” series with my children, but what I didn't anticipate at the time was that it would eventually belong to them and I would end up as the tourist, the one who shows up for the movies but who isn't really invested in every bit of it anymore. What I also couldn't have anticipated is how much I enjoy this paradigm shift. It's a pleasure to hand it off and no longer feel the need to consume every single bit of everything. I read a press release about 24 straight hours of toy unpacking videos being treated like an event, and all I can think is “Damn, that's going to cost me a lot of money once my kids see what's in stores.”
Don't get me wrong. I'm looking forward to December. Absolutely. I want to see the new movie as soon as possible, and the boys and I are going to play “Battlefront” for months, I'm sure. But I am not obsessed, and that is the switch that I was having a hard time defining for myself. As my own interests have expanded, it has become impossible to throw things in reverse. I'm fine with that, because as long as I can share the actual movies with my kids, who believe this in the way I used to, the Force will be with me…
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens in theaters everywhere December 18.