On Sunday, my wife and I will be talking our two young sons to see “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.”
I’m completely terrified.
Not because I think the movie will be a disaster — all the advance reviews say that director J.J. Abrams nailed it, that the new characters are exciting and well-drawn, and that the return of the war horses (Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher) actually works.
I’m terrified because I’ve been faking it with my family when it comes to “Star Wars.”
The problem is that I outgrew “Star Wars” in a furious hurry four decades ago, but with the my kids, I’ve pretended that the films represent a deep and resonant tapestry of timeless myths. At times, I almost talked myself into believing that. But the truth is that I think all the “Star Wars” movies are pretty bad, as movies. As a 10-year-old boy, I was thrilled beyond words by “Star Wars.” But I wasn’t planning on remaining a wordless awestruck 10-year-old forever.
It’s baaacckkk …
We are definitely a “Star Wars” family. My two older kids, at 13 and 10, have seen all the movies and watched a lot of the follow-on stuff, like “Clone Wars,” and know the ins and outs of what I have to admit has become our modern-day answer to Homer. My five-year-old hasn’t seen it all, but he knows enough to get by.
It’s all my fault. I inflicted “Star Wars” on them years ago. I felt it was a necessary initiation.
But I also sort of forgot what “Star Wars” actually meant to me.
And now I’m going to relive the whole thing, because my 10-year-old is going to see “The Force Awakens” in a real movie theatre, replicating my own “Star Wars” origin story — I saw what was my “Episode 1,” later rechristened “Episode IV: A New Hope,” in 1977, when I was his age. (My kids have only ever watched the “Star Wars” films on video.)
I can already tell that the “Force Awakens” isn’t really Episode VII. It’s a reboot of the original film, with Abrams taking a page from his successful “Star Trek” playbook.
This is going to place me in the awkward position of deciding whether to do the fatherly thing and guide my 10-year-old toward what I felt, over 30 years ago, was the correct response to “Star Wars,” or just give in and allow “The Force Awakens” to achieve what Disney clearly wants it to achieve: mint a whole bunch of new 10-year-old superfans who can keep “Star Wars” going for at least another three installments and, maybe, forever.
This isn’t going to be easy because I’ve been a total fraud where “Star Wars” is concerned.
Lies, lies, lies
Here’s why. “Star Wars” was indeed exhilarating in 1977. I hadn’t really ever seen anything like it. It was spectacular, somewhat gritty, but also utterly simple — an old-school black-and-white epic, pitting good against bad, darkness against light
In the context of the mid-1970s, “Star Wars” was the ultimate cinematic distraction. Because outside the theatre, America was in rough shape. The grownups were all freaked out, and the kids could tell. Just two years after “Star Wars” opened, President Jimmy Carter would give his infamous “Malaise” speech, which now serves as shorthand for the grim realities of the ’70s: stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis, the collapse of the American middle class, the breakdown of traditional family. The 3 Mile Island nuclear disaster, the long hangover of Watergate and Vietnam and the vanished promise of Woodstock and the counterculture.
“Star Wars” has been derided for being nostalgic, but in those days, when the Cold War was still on and the Detroit auto industry was losing its battle against upstart Japanese car makers, when the US military was still licking its wounds after the debacle in Southeast Asia and inflation was in double-digits, the country was lusting for a throwback mood swing. Ronald Reagan, a creature of Hollywood in the 1950s, arguably rode that desire to the White House in 1980.
“Star Wars” was the turning point. But it did arrive a long time ago in an America that now seems far, far away, indeed.
Although I thought “Star Wars” was very cool when I saw it at age 10, by the time “The Empire Strikes” back landed in 1980, I considered “Star Wars” to be embarrassingly uncool. I was a teenager — “Star Wars” was kid stuff.
This is basically the way my 13-year-old is thinking about “The Force Awakens.”
“It’s going to be awful,” I told her, right after I saw Carrie Fisher as Princess (now “General”) Leia on a sign atop a New York taxi (I know far too much about Fisher’s post-“Star Wars” life) and before I read some of the early reviews.
My daughter agreed. Not that she isn’t going to see it (she’ll beat the rest of us by at least a day). But she’s got the jaded teenager thing down. Even if it’s terrific, it will still be “Star Wars” and vastly less cool that what she really likes these days, which is rock-n-roll and hair dye.
The vast cultural phenomenon that “Star Wars” has become never stopped baffling me, even as I grew to accept it. For starters, I saw many more movies after “Star Wars” and I quite quickly realised how bad “Star Wars” was as cinema. The logical and mature reaction to “Star Wars” was to put it rapidly in its proper place and at the very least move on to “Alien.”
But that was a lost bet on a different future. “Star Wars” set us on a course for “The Avengers,” inevitably. My adulthood unfortunately developed in the wake of a period of rebellious innovation in moviemaking — and the rejection of that innovation in favour of “Star Wars”-style blockbusters. It didn’t take me long to figure out how bad “Star Wars” was. But that coincided with over three decades of fighting the tide.
So I gave up and just let “Star Wars” wash over me — my kids have the arsenal of toy light sabers and the Lego sets and action figures to prove it. To borrow a line from the TV reboot of “Star Trek,” resistance was futile. I can do a decent impression of Darth Vader informing Luke Skywalker that he’s his FAH-ther.
Still, I wasn’t wrong in the late ’70s. And here I am, with a 10-year-old boy who in the next few years is going to have to make up his own mind about “Star Wars.” The guidance that I received when I was in his position was “that’s not a real movie.”
“The Godfather” was a real movie. “Citizen Kane” was a real movie. “The Graduate” was a real movie. “M*A*S*H” was a real movie. “The 400 Blows” was a real movie. “Blue Velvet” was a real movie. “Lawrence of Arabia” was a real movie.
But everything I’ve said and done since I introduced “Star Wars” to my kids has suggested that it’s actually more than a real movie. It’s something that defines us. “You raised me on ‘Star Wars’,” my daughter said, trying to convince me let go to a midnight showing.
Of course that was a fun angle to take for a while, but it’s also something I don’t entirely believe. And now I’m at a treacherous impasse: the right thing to do is seize the moment and set him on a path away from superfandom — but he’s going to want to know what all the fuss over “Star Wars” since he was five was all about.
The obvious solution here is to simply relax, get some popcorn, sit back, enjoy myself, and let the entertainment value of “The Force Awakens” override the fear. My kids can draw their own conclusions. Life goes on, bra! And who knows, maybe Abrams has found a way to make his 1977 flashback both exuberant and aesthetically magnificent.
I’ll let you know how it goes. Because the truth is, I’m scared to death!
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