It feels like the very first time!
It felt like I was 9 and it was 1983 once again. Sitting in the VIP section of my theater in a chair suitable for first class, while wearing 3D glasses, and sipping an adult beverage with my boss and coworkers was much different than the opening night of Return Of The Jedi in 1983 at The Mall Cinema (since renamed The Orpheum) in downtown Twin Falls, Idaho, where I sat in uncomfortable seats with my dad, while sipping my Coca Cola and scarfing down a giant package of Kit Kats. That night in '83 was the last time I felt the magic I felt last Friday afternoon when I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the very first time.
When Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Jedi each were released, each time it was pure magic. And those of us old enough to remember will attest as to how long it really took between films back then. Looking back on it, it really wasn't too long for that time period, but when you're 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9, three years is really like a third or even half of your life, and like everything when you're a kid, having to wait that long seemed like an eternity. For me, each three year wait (from when I was 3 to 6 the first time and from when I was 6 to 9 the second time) I was even more pleasantly surprised by the sequel than I had been the previous time. However, there was a bittersweet moment when I walked out of the Mall Cinema on Jedi's opening night in May of 1983. I felt like the journey was over.
At the time, George Lucas had no plans to continue the series. He was tired of Star Wars, and I think the 1980s were, too. There wouldn't be a new conflict involving Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia leading the Rebellion against Darth Vader, The Emporer, and the Empire. It was over. All I had to continue that journey was my imagination and my Star Wars action figures, but over time, that wasn't enough, and I had to move on, too.
Walking out of Jedi on opening night was the end of the first half of my childhood. That solemn feeling of the end hit me like a wrecking ball and over the next nine years, I tried to find something -- anything -- that could replace that magical feeling I felt when I watched Star Wars, Empire, or Jedi for the very first time. Unfortunately, I never really rekindled that flame, and it would be nearly a decade and a half before that magic would be "awakened" (yeah, I know that was cheap!) in me.
It was 1997 and Star Wars was set to be rereleased in the theater once again to mark its 20th anniversary. This time with new "goodies" mixed in. I was 23 at the time and my buddy and I stood in a line with 500 other people outside the Cordova theater in Pullman, Washington for three hours to get tickets for a film everyone in line had probably seen at least ten times over. Someone from the Moscow-Pullman Daily News snapped a picture of the crowd that day and the picture ran in the NY Times the next week. It felt magical. And after watching the this "special edition" of Star Wars, I had "a new hope" (Oops! Another cheap one!) that the much-talked-about prequels would send me back fourteen years to that opening night of Jedi.
Teo short years later, I was 25 and it was 1999 before the excitement of that magic would come again with the impending release of Episode I. After five years in development -- not the painful three years between Empire and Jedi -- the idea of that magic returning began to grow. Like most people, as a kid I couldn't wait to be an adult, and as an adult, I wish I could go back and be a kid again. It was in 1999 that I was hoping to feel like a kid again with the release of The Phantom Menace.
There was no waiting in line for hours upon hours. There was no magical excitement. There wasn't the kid-like nervousness I experienced when I was six and again when I was nine. It was more like, "I really hope this lives up to the hype," as the buildup to Episode I had been dragged out and thrown at us with a massive marketing campaign for nearly eighteen months. Then came show time.
I was living in Moscow, Idaho at the time, but my friends had moved away during the previous two years, so I was on my own. Alone, I made the 7 mile journey from Moscow to the Audian theater in Pullman for the opening of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I was alone and the magic was missing. I did, however, end up getting in line behind a former coworker and his girlfriend, so after chatting with him in line, I just stuck with them for the film, but it wasn't the same. My personal life had recently exploded like a Death Star empregnated with proton torpedoes, so I wasn't exactly in the best emotional state. I was very numb to the world.
On my drive home after that initial viewing of Phantom Menace, I remember thinking that maybe I had outgrown Star Wars. It was exciting and I enjoyed it, but it wasn't magical. It didn't make me feel like a kid again. I did see it again in theater, and again it wasn't what I had been hoping it would be. I was disappointed and shocked that Jedi Master, George Lucas had lost his touch with the Force. Phantom Menace wasn't magical. To me, Episode II: Attack Of The Clones was an improvement, but Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith was way out of place. To this day, Sith is the Star Wars film I've watched the least. Of the three prequels, I think it is the best film, but of all seven films, it is by far the darkest and most depressing.
For me, Sith is very hard to watch. All three prequels were difficult to swallow simply because everyone knew the storm that was coming. Everyone knew the prequels ended with the destruction of Anakin Skywalker and the rise of Darth Vader. These films weren't magical because the end was predetermined in everyone's mind. The end wasn't exciting and new. It was dark, evil, and all childhood innocence that was born of the magic that was Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi would soon be lost with the execution of younglings at the Jedi Temple, the "WHIRRR!" of Obi Wan Kenobi's light saber as it sliced off Anakin Skywalker's legs, and the death of Padme after the births of Luke and Leia. These were Star Wars films for a generation of Star Wars fans who felt the magic that was born with the Force in 1977. A couple of years after Episode III had been released on DVD, one of my non-Star Wars-obsessed friends called me and asked me if I thought Episode III was okay for his 5 and 7 year old boys. I simply told him, "no." Big difference from the Original Trilogy.
Most Originally Trilogy fans have a problem with the Prequels for the technical changes Lucas made or added to the story...("What in the hell are midichlorians?!?") Semantics aside, the Prequels shouldn't really be compared to anything from Episode IV on. Episodes I-III are simply the story of the rise of Darth Vader and The Empire. That's it. Simple as that. Yes, those films lacked some very Star Wars-esque trademarks, and they were very stiff and sterile compared to the Original Trilogy, but for what they are, they aren't bad.
The way I saw it, after Episode III, any future films would be an improvement. As much magic the Prequels lacked, Episode VII was bound to be magical. I had to be! This is a whole new story. The audience has no idea where this is going. This is an untold story involving many of our most loved characters with new characters mixed in.
Last Thursday evening felt like Christmas Eve. That's magical right there! Knowing I would be seeing The Force Awakens the next day would be like opening my brand new AT-AT on Chistmas Moring in 1982. And when I left the Village Cinema in Meridian, Idaho last Friday, I did so with that feeling of 1983 and the opening of Return Of The Jedi. And I felt that same magic when I walked out of that same theater again on Sunday evening after seeing The Force Awakens for a second time in three days! It was full of magic! JJ Abrams has used his own Jedi powers and taken the best of the Han, Luke, Leia, and others and mixed them into Rey, Poe, Finn, Kylo Ren, and BB-8. These next films will be magical just because we want to see what happens next! With the Prequels, Vader was going to arrive at the precipice of all six episodes of Star Wars. There is no Star Wars -- Prequels or Original Trilogy -- without the rise and fall of Darth Vader. That was a given. After Jedi, there is no road ahead of us to tell us where this story is going. Only images from the end of The Force Awakens of Rey presenting Luke Skywalker his long-lost lightsaber. (And I know I'm not the only one who had tears in his eyes when Luke pulled back his hood and turned to face Rey!) Two years isn't a very long time. It was when I was a kid, and it's amazing to feel that way once again! Damn, I wish it were 1983!