I was 6 years old when Star Wars Episode IV came out in 1977. No one, not me or any of my friends, could have imagined Star Wars before we left the theatre exhilarated and electrified. It was one of the few times people would simply go back to the end of the line and see it again.
All the biggest film releases came to the Tivoli Theatre in Hamilton, Ontario and it was there that I saw Star Wars. Just a few doors down was Dreamland, a musty corridor of some of the most fascinating things on earth! Fangoria, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Cinefantastique, Starlog were just some of the many delights that I was first exposed to there. Seeing Star Wars or any movie at the Tivoli, always included visits to Dreamland and this ritual created a fusion of film, comics, fantasy, science fiction and horror that has been the heart of my imagination ever since.
People forget this but for a long time it wasn’t ‘cool’ to like Star Wars. It probably had more to do with fans of the movies moving on to an interest in girls, cars, jobs or other concerns of adolescence. Almost everyone still liked the movies but people just didn’t make a fuss about it. It wasn’t a thing to proudly display a Star Wars t-shirt, cap, key-chain, backpack etc. because to do so made you look a little childish. When the re-releases happened, I was excited to see them and I know I enjoyed them. It was a way for many of us to try and relive those first experiences by seeing those films almost like new. Honestly, even with the new effects, I really liked the movies and I was reminded of my love for them but I don’t think I felt as charged as I did as a kid. It just didn’t speak to me or inspire me to the same degree. Coming away from these movies, my friends and I were excited to see what they had in store for us in the prequels.
When the prequels started coming out, I saw them all at the theater (The Phantom Menace three times!) and felt that they improved but the takeaway for me was that they didn’t live up to their promise. I saw Phantom Menace three times because my good friend and I both agreed that it was terrible. It was so hard for us to accept that we went again to make sure we weren’t wrong. Surprisingly we liked it better the second time and when we were lacking something to do, it was easy for us to go for a third time. Unfortunately, it seemed like Phantom Menace only worked for us on even numbered viewings. After the third we had decided it just wasn’t good. I don’t think we were angry but there was great speculation about where George’s genius went. Watching the remaining prequels was successively less disappointing but the movies didn’t inspire or elevate me.
I don’t have a child with whom I can relive it, so I have very little investment in the latest sequels. When I hear about petitions to make The Last Jedi more to fans’ liking, I’m honestly perplexed. Why the insistence on a particular vision of Star Wars? Should it not change to reflect its times or at least how the world has changed and we’ve all matured since the original films? How can we really expect a single story to be continually expanded and always have it deliver the same jolt as it did the first time so many years and views later? And if the contemporary take on Star Wars is so distasteful, why are we so needful of this that we effectively tell the filmmakers how to do their jobs for us? With all the vast array of diversions available to us at all times, why insist that this be something it’s not, rather than just collectively move on?
My theory is that these stories aren’t what we need now because they don’t and can’t deliver the same elevation we all experienced the first time. Star Wars Episode IV was a smash, runaway hit because it was a heroic tale that resonated with us on a deep collective level as discussed by Joseph Campbell in his interviews with Bill Moyers. It also spoke to the world of 1977. For a country in a deep recession and big cities mired in crime and hardship, people began to flee to the suburbs. Most kids like me grew up in the suburbs and I could relate to the feeling of being on the furthest star from anything cool. The seventies also came on the heels of a very turbulent decade in the US. Nixon was president, the unpopular Vietnam war was dragging on, there was deep systemic racism and segregation at home with rampant inequality for women, gays, blacks, latinos, students, workers and more. The notion of America as an evil Empire was not far from people’s minds. Many could easily relate to these characters in their struggle and their triumph stirred hearts across the globe. Sure, there were the breathtaking special effects but I think it was the way we all felt exhilarated that a monolithic and dark regime had been bested by the underdog they never expected. I think it’s that feeling that people are desperate for and the stories today just don’t deliver. Don’t too many of the heroes today arrive on the scene already with everything they need to achieve the happy ending? Perhaps our faith that the rebels and the skywalkers are always fated to win has taken away enough of their underdog status to make them less relatable? What elevates an audience is a hero who, like us, doesn’t feel guaranteed to win and in life has no assurance of a happy ending. Without these kinds of heroes, the stories are going to be less compelling.
When you take into account the primacy of the fans today, they feel entitled to demand a Star Wars that they LOVE, or at least like a whole darn lot. Certainly the amount of money spent on Star Wars merchandise and ticket sales should guarantee that. I think fans are wanting something from Star Wars that can no longer be attained. They express a need for something else because what the filmmakers are providing isn’t what they need. And just like that 6 year old me would never have been able to describe Star Wars until I saw it, fans today are demanding better heroes but think those heroes have to come from things that they know like Star Wars. They don’t. Fans are really demanding something that speaks to them as forcefully as the original and there’s no way that can happen except in a new form.
What form is that? If I had the answer to that question, I would be feverishly working away on it right now. Unfortunately the corporate system is just not going to give you anything new as long as you keep buying recreations of some of your favourite stories from 40 years ago. If you keep supporting all those things that have existed for decades, you are unwittingly investing in getting nothing new and therefore effectively starving yourself of exactly what you need, really powerful stories. For corporations, it’s easier to keep selling you the same ideas than to risk their money promoting something that you may not like. So it’s diminishing returns, folks.
What’s the solution? As fans you can’t hold the writer’s or artist’s hand while they create and you can’t really expect Corporate owned intellectual properties to deliver what you need endlessly. They can always use the media to hype the latest Star Wars movie into the stratosphere for ticket sales, but the movie will likely never deliver what you need and so the disappointment is acute. So corporate license holders will continue to profit and because money is their only goal, they’ll not change the model that takes your money and doesn’t offer you much in return. My advice is to reward the creators who give you something new with REAL heroes. Many will give you heroes that are like you on an identity checklist of race, sexual orientation and age but unfortunately that doesn’t elevate everyone. Because I feel so disenfranchised in my own life, I’m attracted to characters that no one would expect to win. When those underdogs become their best selves and do great things, that’s something everyone loves regardless of race, colour, creed or planet.