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A personal journey through Star Wars
by Slarek

So it looks like it's on it's way at last. The original Star Wars trilogy is strongly rumoured to be heading for DVD some time next year, and for me the biggest plus of this is that all those on-line petitions to prompt this very event will cease and maybe those organising them can move on and find something else to do.

Of course, with Star Wars now less a series of films than an integral aspect of the Western cultural identity and a post-modernist icon (everyone from Kevin Smith to Bill and Ted to The Simpsons have referenced it, Mel Brooks lamely sent it up, and lest we forget, the name was hijacked by Ronald Reagan for his idiotic 'Strategic Defence Initiative', an orbiting missile platform to be constructed in space and aimed at Earth under the usual guise of defence), this excitement is all somewhat inevitable. So why on earth aren't I jumping around with joy as well? Not your cup of tea, eh, matey? Not so fast. My relationship with Star Wars runs as deep or probably deeper than most of its more vocal modern fans. I was there at the very start, back in 1977. Things were different then...

It's hard for a modern audience, especially one young enough to regard the original Star Wars as an "old film" (my God, I've heard than more than once), to appreciate just what an event its release was in the UK back then. There was barely a soul on this island that wasn't aware of it – its success in the US had been record-breaking, and the excitement had powered over the Atlantic like cinematic tsunami and was washing over everything and everyone. They were counting down the days to its London release on the national news each night. The country-wide anticipation was extraordinary – I genuinely can't think of a recent equivalent. Forget the Golden Jubilee – this was bigger.

I was working in London that Christmas, and as a cinema-obsessed film student I was determined to get to one of the early screenings, so queued at Leicester Square Theatre for two hours to buy one of the last available advance tickets for the third night (the first two nights were already gone). While I was queuing, the film itself arrived in huge steel cans. The buzz that went through the gathered minions was something to hear.

The night of the screening the atmosphere was electric. News cameras were still outside the cinema recording the assembled crowds, which were full of ticketless hopefuls in search of a way in, something the touts were doing their best to supply. I was even approached, but I was already sorted, and by then my ticket was as valuable to me as Wonka's Golden Ticket was to Charlie Buckett.

If you've never been to Leicester Square Theatre then be aware that it is huge, and cramming every seat with excited cinemagoers creates an electricity that you almost believe you could reach out and touch. The lights went down, a "long time ago..." style intro came up and the audience drew a collective gasp of breath, which exploded into laughter when this was revealed to be not the start of the film, but a topically tagged-on intro to a Cadbury's Smash commercial. These were hugely popular at the time, and featured a set of ludicrously comical robots who would fall about laughing at the attempts by primitive humans to bash their potatoes to bits instead of using this actually rather horrid instant mash potato.

Finally the film ran. If you weren't there, then I'm sorry, but you'll never know the sheer joy of seeing Star Wars for the first time on a massive screen with a thousand or so other enthusiasts – it's something that made an extraordinary impression on me and will be there for ever. I saw the film nine more times at the cinema over the next three years. I just knew I would never tire of it.

In those days, of course, the film was a one-off called Star Wars and I was a lot more innocent than I am today. I'd yet to read Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey and knew little of the work of Tzvetan Todorov, Vladimir Propp or Christopher Volger. If you teach narrative and genre, then Star Wars is a great example to work with because it follows all of the rules, has all the stock characters, and they behave in all the programmed ways. Star Wars retells and updates elements from folk tales hundreds of years old, repackaged with wit, style, and a real knack for how to tell a story. It was after the dust had settled that Lucas announced that what he (now) really wanted to do was make a nine-film saga, of which this was the fourth part. What would follow next was parts five and six.

Three years later two things happened. The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, arrived, and Star Wars was no longer the title of a single film, but the whole series. The title of the first film was changed to A New Hope. A New Hope? Do me a favour. Even as a secondary title that blows, and would Lucas seriously have considered releasing the film with that moniker before it became the multi-million dollar success it by then was? But no matter, there was a second Star Wars film. My closest friend went nuts for it. "It's better than the first one!" he enthusiastically told me. Better than Star Wars? Oh wow! How could this be possible? Ah, well...

Much of The Empire Strikes Back delighted me, but just as much annoyed me. I liked the darker edge, I liked the fact that we started in the middle of a losing battle, I liked the development of Han Solo, I liked Luke Skywalker's self-doubt. But early on I began to worry – The Force had gone from being a space age flower power to some telekinetic magic, Imperial Walkers looked impressive but seemed idiotically impractical (there was no surprise on my part when the rebels were able to trip one up) and Obi-Wan was dead, so bringing him back as a ghost seemed like one of those Saturday Morning Picture cheats when the character you saw go off a cliff one week was shown jumping out of the car the following Saturday. And then there was Yoda. I know this is going to prove controversial in some quarters, but I was watching a sequel to a film I had loved and I was being asked to believe that the greatest warrior of all was a bloody muppet, and a supremely irritating one at that. Get on my nerves, you will! I wasn't alone here. John Brosnan, writing in the once excellent genre magazine Starburst, also expressed extreme irritation, remarking tellingly that "a little of him goes a long way." But the final blow was the ending. It may seem all very well now, but that "to be continued" ending really pissed me off at the time. Matrix Reloaded fans may get twitchy waiting six months to find out what happened (and let's face it, that wasn't worth it), so imagine having to wait three years.

But I did. Eventually Return of the Jedi arrived, but not without a title change. Apparently Revenge of the Jedi was rejected because Jedi Knights would be too noble to seek revenge. Groan. This whole Jedi thing was starting to be taken way too seriously. But I went, and to the opening night at the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road. Though lacking the national excitement of the Star Wars (sorry, A New Hope) release, this was still an event – fans were turning up dressed as characters from the film, including Luke, Han and even a few Imperial Stormtroopers. People cheered the heroes, booed the villains, laughed like hyenas at every quip, and danced in the aisles when the Emperor was killed. It wasn't a film show, it was a celebration. The second viewing, without all the brouhaha of the premiere, was a more sobering experience. Muppets were everywhere, Harrison Ford was camping it up impossibly, the whole film seemed to be winking at the audience in places, yet another sequence was adapted from Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, the ending seemed cribbed from Three Comrades, and as if "I am your father" wasn't enough in Empire (that was always bollocks anyway, and lots to silly theories flew around to explain the dialogue in the first film that clearly indicated Lucas had no idea he was going to do that back then), then Leia was his sister! No bloody way.

By now Lucas had made a fair amount of money out of me alone. I'd seen Star Wars ten times, Empire three times, and Jedi twice. Later I saw all three at a special trilogy screening. Twice. Then video came along and the trilogy was released and I bought it, despite the then considerable expense. Then there was a video re-release in widescreen, something new to home video. So I bought these too. I watched the videos, and soon enough the films came to TV, and despite being 4:3 cropped prints I watched them again. And then it was announced that all three films would be re-released in the cinemas with new, added special effects! Now by this point I was starting to run out of steam. I'd seen Star Wars so many times, had seen so many bits of it copied or parodied, that I knew every single shot and line of dialogue, every musical cue, every facial twitch. That glorious third night was a distant memory whose magic had been severely diluted by a combination over-exposure and experience. I had seen a huge number of films in the mean time and a far wider range than I had experienced on that first viewing. I had a developed a different definition of just what constituted 'innovative' or 'amazing'. But I went to the Special Editions anyway. Some of the magic was still there, and it was good to see the films large again after so much video, but the additions were almost all completely superficial. They were there not because George needed to add them, but simply because he could. For the first time I did not buy the videos, but we all have birthdays, and they were nonetheless bought for me. In all the years I've owned them, I have watched them only once. By now, the relentless reviewing, endless spin-off merchandising and external referencing had made the Star Wars franchise too familiar, too everyday. I'd finally reached the point where a movie I once loved had nothing more to offer me. For me, its time had come and gone. I, and I thought the world – with the exception of those Star Wars obsessives who are still to this day on a long quest to find a life – had moved on. Well, not quite.

That's when it all really turned sour. Lucas made The Phantom Menace. I know the film has its supporters, but you won't find any here. Camus was working Los Angeles at the time of its release and went to see it at the city's most famous venue, Graumann's Chinese Theatre. He emerged a very unhappy man. Not as unhappy as I. It was hard to believe this was even distantly related to the film I first fell in love with. The Phantom Menace – with a title even lamer than A New Hope – stank. If evidence was needed that this franchise's time was over, this was it, but to make sure we got the message, Lucas made Attack of the Clones. Another crap title and, despite the "it's an improvement on the last one" apologists, another piss-poor film. Peter Biskind in his excellent book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls persuasively traced the virtual death of modern creative mainstream US cinema to studio greed inspired by the phenomenal commercial success of Star Wars. It is perhaps both ironic and appropriate that Lucas himself, with these two films, was to provide some of the most convincing evidence of this decline.

And with one more still to go, the final three of the series now apparently abandoned, Star Wars has gone from being a cinema event to a corporate business, growing fatter and more faceless with each movie, with each tie-in model, schoolbag, duvet cover, toy light sabre, Star Wars MacBurger. And so no matter how crammed with extras the DVDs are when they appear, how lovely the transfers are, how subwoofer-thumping the inevitable THX sound remix is, I'm afraid that the very, very wealthy Mr. Lucas has had enough of my money. Especially as, twenty-seven years later, he has yet to offer me anything new for it.

A personal journey through Star Wars
article posted
8 December 2003