Today is May 4, Star Wars Day. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of people commenting on their affection for the Star Wars films (and plenty of people dismissing the three prequel films). All of this discussion has reminded me of my affection for the original trilogy, especially the very first film (first in terms of release date, not continuity chronology).
I was 17 years old when Star Wars -- A New Hope was released. I first saw it in a theater in another town, with a church youth group. I was awed, amazed and thrilled by the special effects. I had never seen anything quite like it, as cliched as it is to say that. Here were gorgeous spacecraft unlike any I had ever seen before. Here were robots that looked like they could really exist. Here were aliens that looked like aliens instead of people. And of course, being about Luke Skywalker's age myself, I felt an emotional connection to the young hero. I didn't know about 'Mary Sue' characters in those days, and I didn't find Luke's whining nearly as annoying as I do now.
I didn't know how Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca would escape from the garbage compactor. When Darth Vader killed Ob-Wan I was crushed. When Luke found that his aunt and uncle had been slain I felt his despair. When Luke's X-wing made its run down the channel to the exhaust port, I recall that I was gripping the arms of my theater seat the way I would have gripped the sides of an amusement park thrill ride. This was one of the most exciting, engrossing movies I had ever seen.
I was in love with this movie. After it made its way to the new twin theater in my home town, I went to see it three more times.on my own. I purchased the soundtrack on 8-track cassette and listened to it repeatedly as I awaited the release of the second film, wearing headphones in my darkened bedroom or college dorm room as I replayed my memories of the movie in my mind.
Years later, when VHS videotapes became available, I purchased copies of all three of the films and watched them repeatedly. I never watched The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi as many times as I viewed A New Hope, but I had affection for all of them, an affection that mellowed with time but never completely waned. I was eager for George Lucas to produce the promised additional films. Like millions of other fans, I waited decades for him to fulfill that promise.
By the time Lucas finally did follow through and produce more Star Wars films, some of my initial enthusiasm had faded. I had seen what happened when someone came back to a beloved saga years later. It wasn't the same. The Star Trek films had shown me that. Still, when The Phantom Menace was released, I went to see it with high hopes. I wasn't as disappointed as many fans of the original trilogy. I've always been pragmatic about changes to the story. Twenty-five years had passed, after all. It was no surprise that George Lucas had changed his mind about some of the details of the universe and characters he had created. But I came away feeling a bit dissatisfied. I didn't despise Jar-Jar Binks, but I thought the character was unnecessary. Why not just let C3PO resume his comedy relief role from the original films, instead of introducing a new character? I was unimpressed with young Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker. He wasn't a good actor, and Lucas' script had made him too young, so that his later obsessive affection for Padme Amidala was a bit repellent. I found myself wishing that The Phantom Menace had been a film about Qui-Gon Jinn and young Obi-Wan Kenobi rather than about Anakin.
The next two films continued the trend of making me wish that George Lucas had chosen to make different stories. Anakin didn't become any more appealing or sympathetic when he was played by Hayden Christiansen. The once strong and clever Padme became a helpless victim to be pitied when she fell in love with Anakin (I don't object to May-December romance, but Anakin was made to seem like a stalker and it was unconvincing that an 8-year-old boy would become romantically attracted to a teenaged girl). I wanted to see more of Obi-Wan's story, and more detailed development of Anakin's turn to the Dark Side. There was just something missing from these movies, something that failed to take me back to the thrill of watching A New Hope over and over when I was younger. Perhaps no film would have brought me the same emotions that I felt when I watched that film for the first time at age 17, but it would have be nice if the prequels had come a bit closer to that goal.
It's recently been revealed that since Lucas sold the Star Wars property to Disney and JJ Abrams was named to take the reins of a new film series, at least one of the new films will feature the original cast. Much as I'm happy to see Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford together again, I feel a bit of trepidation about returning to those characters after so many years. The actors are all in their sixties now, and while I think people over thirty deserve more leading roles in films, I'm uncertain where the story will go. After so many years the characters should have grown and changed. Will they be allowed to do that, or will the script (and the audience) expect them to behave the same way they did nearly 40 years ago? If they are allowed to be older people who have lived full lives between the end of Return of the Jedi and the beginning of the first new film, what kind of story will the movie tell?
Despite my concerns, I know that my undying affection for that amazing little movie I saw when I was 17 will make me go to see the new film, at least the first one. As long as Disney and Abrams treat those beloved characters with respect, I will likely see whatever they care to produce. It's Star Wars, after all.