Some people have strong ethnic or cultural ties, others have religion. I had Star Wars. Sure, I’m not as devout as I used to be, but the latest news out of Lucasfilm—and Disney—has stirred my interest once again.
The first Star Wars film was released the year after I was born, so I never got to see it in theaters originally. My introduction to Star Wars came in the form of a VCR and a—possibly bootlegged—VHS tape. I say “possibly bootlegged,” because from what I understand today, Lucasfilm didn’t release the Original Trilogy for sale until long after I’d begun my association with the Galaxy Far, Far Away. The minute I watched the first film, it was like a supernova exploding in my consciousness. The movie was beyond thrilling with its space battles, menacing villains, and likable collection of heroes. Its themes of good versus evil resonated with a boy who was developing a strong sense of justice.
I became instantly consumed with everything Star Wars. Any artifact, toy, clothing, or bed sheets I could get my hands on with the Star Wars logo was a treasure to me. The toys especially were a gateway into my imagination as I continued the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia and their friends. My favorite toy in the arsenal was the Millennium Falcon. By the end of my childhood, it looked just as rundown and beat up as it had in the films.
I remember coming home from preschool every day, popping the cassette into the VCR, and watching Star Wars as I ate my lunch. Some people boast, with no shortage of hyperbole, that they’ve seen some movies hundreds of times, but I can say with all honesty that I’ve seen Star Wars over a hundred times. Hell, I even learned to read with a Star Wars Mix and Match book. I flat-out loved Star Wars.
When I was very young, my main interest was superheroes. I loved the old Batman reruns, Spider-Man, and called my walk-in closet my “Superman Telephone Booth.” That all fell away with the introduction of Star Wars into my life. Oh sure, I still loved the superheroes—still do to this day—but nothing shaped my life-like Star Wars did. It ignited my interest in sci-fi and fantasy. Every sentence I write of the current novel I’m working on, I can thank Star Wars for sparking the inspiration in my mind. As a boy, I looked more like Luke Skywalker with my dark blond hair, but I always wanted to be Han Solo and often was him when playing outside with my friends. To me, and thousands of other kids, Han was the absolute coolest guy in the galaxy—the rogue with a heart of gold. He paved his own path in life and didn’t bow down to anyone, but always did the right thing when the chips were down. Because of Han Solo, I developed an affinity for vests and blue jackets, like the one he wore in Empire Strikes Back and Harrison Ford became a major hero to me.
I also seemed to gravitate to tall guys as friends—Chewbacca, anyone? And there’s no question in my mind that Princess Leia is the sole reason why I’ve been consistently drawn to brunette women with brown eyes. Yes, Princess Leia literally shaped my romantic desires—for life. That’s how profound an effect Star Wars had on me.
However, no matter how much I loved the original film, it paled in comparison to The Empire Strikes Back, my favorite movie of all time.
If I recall correctly, it had to be the first movie I ever saw at the movie theater. My dad took me to see it twice. The first time my oldest sister came along and the second it was just me and Dad. He wasn’t the biggest Star Wars fan, but he liked it because I liked it. We had the Making of Star Wars VHS tape at home and I watched it over and over again, mainly because at the end they played the trailer for The Empire Strikes Back. I loved everything about the film, even if the Yoda portions made me a little antsy in the theater. It had everything: action, adventure, romance, comedy—you name it, it’s in there. I loved the sci-fi look of Cloud City—the one environment in the Original Trilogy that actually felt like real science fiction to me—as well as the color palette of the entire film.
Everything had this cool tint to it—very sci-fi—which juxtaposed nicely with the warm sunrise and sunset of Cloud City. I mentioned Han’s blue jacket, which I thought was way cooler than his black vest in Star Wars, and Bespin Han Solo quickly became my favorite action figure. And better than that, my favorite character was scoring with the Princess! Even my prepubescent mind could grasp that that was very cool. Yoda was adorable and wise at the same time and the lightsaber duel at the end of the movie was ominous and filled with great, iconic film frames. Some of those frames were collected in the three series of trading cards Topps released to promote the film. The sets were differentiated by color—red, blue, and green. Most of the cards I managed to collect were in the blue set, but for me, it was thrilling to own a piece of this film that had such a profound effect on me. It was like having little snapshots of the film that I could look at whenever I wanted.
Of course, the reason I had to look at the cards so much was because it was impossible to get Empire on home release at the time. Lucas put the VHS out for rental, but in order to buy it, the price was something ridiculous like $98. After having Star Wars on tape for so long and watching it to death, I had to have Empire Strikes Back. Then, a ray of light appeared. In the early eighties, my father purchased one of the first laserdisc players when they were released. He bought a bunch of films like Blues Brothers and Smokey and the Bandit. When Empire was finally made available commercially in 1984-85, we bought the laserdisc, which was cheaper than the VHS for some reason. It was annoying to have to flip the disc over halfway through the movie, but I was finally able to watch Empire Strikes Back whenever I wanted.
Now, as a little kid, I automatically assumed that Darth Vader was lying to Luke when he made his big revelation—apparently, I’m in good company, James Earl Jones thought the same thing—but I didn’t even mind the cliffhanger ending. To me, even as a child, it was significant that the bad guys had won. It made the movie more meaningful as a whole. It also made me totally impatient for the next chapter in the saga. Luckily, I had Bantha Tracks, the Official Star Wars Fan Club Newsletter, to keep me up to date on the production, all the way back when it was known as Revenge of the Jedi or by its codename, Blue Harvest.
I can’t remember if I saw Return of the Jedi on opening night, but it was very early in its run if not opening night. While Empire was mainly a thing for me and my dad, when we went to see Jedi, the whole family went—the only time I can remember that happening. My mother, not usually a sci-fi fan, loved Jabba and wondered why Darth Vader wasn’t James Earl Jones when Luke took off his mask.
Return of the Jedi was an event. It was the conclusion of the Star Wars Trilogy and in that, a little bittersweet. I remember enjoying Jedi, but ultimately feeling like it hadn’t lived up to the previous two movies. I took in a second viewing when I visited my grandmother that summer and recall being really bored during the scenes with the Ewoks, so take that for what it’s worth, Mr. Lucas—they should have been Wookies! I will say that Return of the Jedi, to this day, still has the greatest space battle ever committed to film in the assault on the second Death Star. When you realize that that scene was created with all models and blue screen, it makes it even more impressive considering all the CGI effects artists have at their fingertips these days.
I remember still collecting the trading cards and toys—less cards this time, while way more toys seemed to be released for Jedi—but there was a sense that Star Wars was starting to wind down. I followed the Marvel comic books at the time and liked some of the post-Jedi adventures they were putting out there, but nothing really felt like true Star Wars in those comics. Even as a little kid, I felt like they were just aping what was in the movies and just rearranging it. Soon, I was swept up in G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Nintendo too much to realize that Star Wars had faded away. I still loved the three films, but they didn’t consume my life anymore.
Then, in the summer of 1991, I was making one of my weekly trips to the mall with my dad to pick up some comic books. We stopped in Waldenbooks and I saw a blue cover for a hardcover book with some familiar faces staring back at me.
The book was Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, the first novel in what would become a new trilogy of post-Return of the Jedi adventures and launch the Star Wars Expanded Universe in earnest. I remember I didn’t buy Heir the first time I saw it. I waited, making sure it wasn’t a mirage and was a real going concern. However, when I finally did begin reading Zahn’s books, I devoured them, reading late into the night, pulse-pounding with the action that played out in my mind’s eye. Unlike the Marvel comics, this felt like Star Wars—I could practically hear John Williams’ iconic score as I turned each page.
Zahn introduced great, lasting characters that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the original gang. Mara Jade was a worthy opponent for Luke before becoming much more to him. Talon Karrde was another fine addition to the long line of Star Wars scoundrels. But the crown jewel of Zahn’s new characters was the main villain of the piece: Grand Admiral Thrawn, a tactical genius and appreciator of art.
Thrawn was a coldly terrifying villain that made readers truly worry about the fates of Luke, Han, and Leia. Also introduced in the Zahn trilogy were Han and Leia’s newborn twins, Jacen and Jaina, who would go onto lead lives of great importance in the Expanded Universe.
More books followed after Zahn’s trilogy. Some were better than others. To be honest, I didn’t read all of them. Some of the ones I read after Heir to the Empire just didn’t measure up, like Lucas’ disappointing Shadows of the Empire project that covered the time between Empire and Jedi.
There was a novel, comic book, video game, toys—everything but a movie. Generally, it was a weak story with a decent villain in Prince Xizor. Because Han Solo was still encased in carbonite for the duration of this story, fans were introduced to Dash Rendar, or Han Solo-lite. Some people may have liked this detour, but I liked the idea of it more than the execution. That was the case for many of the novels. My frustration with the stories being told led me to attempt to write my own Star Wars novels in college. However, when I found out Lucasfilm offered those jobs to authors and one couldn’t really apply, I cannibalized the ideas for an original project that I’ve still yet to tackle.
As I moved on from high school, Kenner released a new line of Star Wars toys that proved to be as popular as the previous incarnations back when the movies were being released. My best friend Josh and I hunted the figures down like we were bounty hunters hired by Darth Vader himself. I remember Josh calling me one day to tell me he’d found the elusive Boba Fett figure at a K Mart or someplace like that.
He reported, “I hid it behind the Yahtzee. Nobody looks behind the Yahtzee.” Sure enough, when we arrived back at the scene of the crime, Mr. Fett was chilling behind the Yahtzee waiting for me. I remember paying exorbitant prices at my local comic book shop for the rarer figures with each new wave of specialty figures that was released. It was a sickness, and I didn’t want the cure. Star Wars was back in my life and it was great.
The toys carried through to the Shadows of the Empire thing, but they were really gearing fans up for George Lucas’ 1997 re-release—and re-tinkering—of the Original Trilogy to theaters with what he called The Special Editions.
For Star Wars and Empire, I was there opening night and saw them both twice. Jedi I saw once and like I was having a flashback to my childhood, was bored out of my mind during most of it. Star Wars was incredible to see on the big screen after having only seen it through a television set. For the culture, Star Wars was back in a big way. I remember the prognosticators being stunned when both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back—20-year-old films—won the box office on multiple weeks. Lucas had made additions to all the movies—some good, some atrocious—and used their release to bankroll what was coming next.
The lead up to the Star Wars Prequels was an exciting time to be a Star Wars fan. Lucasfilm had done a great job priming the pump with the toy relaunch, the Special Editions, and the growing Expanded Universe. Josh and I roomed together at Rutgers University and would spend endless hours discussing what we expected from the new films. I devoured every bit of news I could get my hands on, scouring the Internet for any tidbit I could find. I watched the fan-made trailers and then when the announcement came down that a teaser trailer would be attached to Meet Joe Black and The Waterboy in November of 1998, Josh and I headed to the theater to see The Waterboy. Say what you want about George Lucas these days, but the man can cut a trailer. The teaser trailer for The Phantom Menace was light on plot details and heavy on the imagery, which was mind-blowing. By combining the coolest images with John Williams’ score from the original movies, Lucas sucked audiences in.
The unveiling of Darth Maul’s double-sided lightsaber was just the nail in the coffin: everyone was pumped for The Phantom Menace. Then…a second trailer debuted in the spring of 1999. This one had some more dialogue and a bit more plot and I started getting nervous. My friends and I purchased our midnight showing tickets for May 19, 1999, the same day as my college graduation was to take place. Yes, I missed my college graduation for Star Wars—I actually missed it for other, more important, reasons that I won’t delve into here, but Star Wars was one of them.
I’m not going to dwell on the Prequels, because this essay is supposed to be about how I love Star Wars, not what I hate about it. I will say that I gave the Prequels a chance, I really did. There were definitely elements of each that I thought were good, but for the most part, the whole trilogy is a complete mess. I tried to convince myself that they were good, but with each subsequent viewing, they just got worse and worse. The only salvageable thing from The Phantom Menace is the lightsaber duel, but as Mr. Plinkett from Red Letter Media points out, what the heck were those guys even fighting about? All three films were just horribly written disasters that demonstrated the problems that crop up when a director—in this case, George Lucas—has complete and total control over a project. Lucas had surrounded himself with yes men and the Prequels were the result. With no one to challenge him—like Star Wars and Empire producer Gary Kurtz—and say, “Maybe Jar Jar isn’t such a good idea,” the films suffered. And in all honesty, Jar Jar is not the most glaring problem with those films, because he barely shows up in Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith. I will say this for Lucas, he suckered me every time with the great trailers he cut for those turds. Maybe it was my love of the Original Trilogy that gave me such optimism in the face of such inept products.
For me, Revenge of the Sith was the final straw. I became completely disillusioned with Star Wars and the disaster that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull made it even worse, but that’s another essay.
I did read the Legacy of the Force series of novels that traced Jacen Solo’s arc from hero to Sith Lord, which was great, but I took little interest in the Clone Wars cartoon, even though I heard pretty good things about it. I just couldn’t trust Lucas anymore.
Then, in October of 2012 came the news: Disney was buying Lucasfilm and there would be sequels to Return of the Jedi. For decades, Lucas denied ever saying that there were supposed to be nine Star Wars episodes as opposed to the six we had at the end of the Prequels, despite Mark Hamill himself telling the story of how Lucas informed him he would need Hamill to play Luke again thirty years later. All that was past, though, there would be an Episode VII. I immediately thought that Hamill would be involved for sure. It looked like the story he’d been telling for years was true. But what about Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford? Fisher would more than likely reprise her role of Princess Leia, but what of Ford? In the past he’d always kept his distance from Han Solo, sometimes outright disparaging the character in favor of Indiana Jones. In more recent interviews, Ford seemed to warm to the idea of returning to Han Solo, even though he’d lobbied for the character to die in Return of the Jedi. Rumors flew about that the three principals would be back, but there was no official confirmation—until now.
On April 29, 2014, Lucasfilm and Disney revealed the principal cast for Star Wars Episode VII. All the original actors from the first film—including 3PO, R2, and Chewie—will be back alongside a cast of new characters that will more than likely carry us through Episode VIII and IX. Unfortunately, Billy Dee Williams won’t be back as Lando, or at least as of yet, anything could change. Director J.J. Abrams is at the helm along with Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan on the script. Kasdan is an excellent choice, but Abrams leaves me a little uneasy. I have not been a fan of his new Star Trek films and I felt that Super 8 was a little too much of an E.T./Cloverfield mash-up. However, there’s no denying that his Star Trek movies feel more like Star Wars, so he might just be up to the task.
Despite how much George Lucas hurt me with the Prequels, I can’t help finding myself excited for these new films. Admittedly, it’s a cautious excitement—Star Wars was tarnished badly by the Prequels. And I’m not terribly happy to hear that Disney is keen on spinoff films to pump Star Wars titles out once a year. To me, that sounds a lot like milking the property dry. However, Marvel Studios has a bunch of films lined up covering a diverse array of characters—why can’t Star Wars do that? I for one would love to see a Pixar/Star Wars film with the original cast as voice actors in the near future. The Expanded Universe has been swept away as canon in order to allow the new stewards of the franchise to move forward without being beholden to stories already written. It’s a little crappy for those who have cherished those stories, but I can understand the move. Besides, the old stories will always be there to revisit whenever fans feel like it.
Like with the run up to the Prequels, it’s an exciting time to be a Star Wars fan. My mind is definitely churning with all the possibilities of this new cast, but it’s not as fever-pitched as it was prior to The Phantom Menace—nobody wants a major letdown like that again. I’m just happy I’m going to get to see the heroes of my childhood get one last shot at Star Wars glory. I’ve heard naysayers bring up Indiana Jones 4 as evidence why Harrison Ford shouldn’t be involved with Episode VII or any of the original cast for that matter. I call bullshit on that logic. Harrison Ford wasn’t the problem with Indy 4—it was the shoddy, patchwork script. As long as the Episode VII script is squared away, fans shouldn’t be disappointed. If nothing else, it’ll be interesting. As with the Expanded Universe, we’ll always have the Original Trilogy to go back to the “real” Star Wars, but I’m hoping Episodes VII, VIII, and IX are worthy successors to that legacy.
Yes, people have their ethnic and cultural ties and others have their religion, but not me. Why? Because Star Wars struck first.
Doug Simpson is an author and blogger. As one half of The Hodgepodge Podcast, he talks movies, music, TV, and pop culture with his partner, Dirty A. He also writes a ton of movie reviews, which can be found at Doug’s Reviews and The Hodgepodge Podcast. His first Young Adult novel, Great Big World: The Trouble with Dr. Beamo, will be available in Summer 2014. Please follow him on Twitter.
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