As I’ve been sifting through reactions to Star Wars: The Force Awakens it’s been pretty much a unanimous success. Fans old and new appreciate it as both as standalone film and a soft reboot. It’s apparent their goal was to structure it in a way to feel familiar, almost like a love letter to the childhood of all those 40-somethings. I’m not going to go into any details or spoilers of TFA at this point since I’m sure there are plenty waiting to see it still. All I’ll say is what everyone is openly saying: TFA is A New Hope for this generation. I see all the parallels, understood all the throwbacks, but my reaction is far from everyone else’s that was at that magical age when the original trilogy was released in 1977-1983. Watching reviews I had a realization that I’ve fallen into a weird gap of time where I can’t claim any trilogy as my own.
I was born in 1984. I didn’t watch any form of Star Wars until the Special Editions were on the hype train to rerelease in theaters, so 1996/1997. Even then it was a sub-optimal experience going into it as it was an old hat for everyone else. There was no air of surprise, no mystery, no suspense. All the big story beats and spoilers were public knowledge and it kept them from being great for me. Even my own mother chimed in while I was first watching The Empire Strikes Back with “Did you find out that they’re brother and sister yet?”. Being able to plow through the whole trilogy in an entire weekend eliminated any time to reflect and wonder on where the story might go next. Usually for me those moments allow for the excitement to build with endless possibilities. It was one of the better parts of watching Lost when it was airing versus returning to binge watch it on Netflix or DVD. I still fell in love with the world, it’s lore, and aspects of the story… but it was well past the point where I could connect emotionally with New Hope, Empire, and Return of the Jedi unfortunately.
The Special Editions for those outside the know were used as a testing bed for technology for Lucas’ real project, the prequel trilogy we’d come to know as The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. Providing a proof of concept, generating some easy revenue, as well as gaining some momentum before a new generation was given their own original Star Wars stories to cherish. I was reading some Expanded Universe books, playing Star Wars video games (more on that later), and had built quite a collection of toys based around the universe by the time Phantom Menace hit theaters. I went to a midnight showing and remember falling asleep more than anything in the film. When the big reveal came that Padme was really Queen Amidala I wasn’t shocked, I was more so surprised that it was supposed to be a twist since they telegraphed it so much. I was just outside the age where the movie magic let me suspend my disbelief to feel that awe of adventure most associate with Star Wars. I was too aware of the negativity that swirled around it’s reception and the sequels that followed… partially thanks to the internet, partially thanks to the generation before that wanted to already separate THEIR trilogy from THIS trilogy. A division was created right out the gate that this isn’t Star Wars proper. Once again, I bore no emotional connection to another set of entries in the Star Wars saga. That being said there are plenty of good moments within the prequel trilogy. Unfortunately those moments are held together with really terrible acting and even worse character development. There’s almost no human element found inside what should be the most human of all the stories, the fall and corruption of a good man. Breaking Bad from what I’ve heard does a far better job of telling the story of a man with power meaning to do well until it consumes him, ultimately leading to his destruction and passing the wealth of his legacy on to the next generation.
Fast forward to this week when I saw The Force Awakens in the theater. It was a wonderful film filled with adventure, rich characters, scoundrels, space battles, mystery… and a TON of references to the original trilogy. Without having that emotional connect to the films though there was a weird disconnect for me. The closest I can place it to is looking through someone else’s trophy case or photo album. You can see all the footprints of a great period in their history, snapshots of what were clearly the best moments of their life. Quotes, direct callbacks, story beats, locations, iconography. Everything felt like the original trilogy remixed for the new generation. This is a set of films made for children these days to attach to with new diverse heroes, and for those who grew up with Star Wars back in the 70’s/80’s. Honestly I’d even dare to say that fans of the prequel trilogy aren’t thrown a bone here (yes, there are plenty of them out there I’ve learned). For the third time in my life there’s a new Star Wars trilogy being created and so far… Again… It’s not for me.
I acknowledge this is borderline whining, but it sucks to be outside of something so massive that you want to connect with. I’ve missed that moment where it transcends just a film into something special that you’ll hold dear for decades. I’m still entirely fascinated by the world and where they’ll take episodes 8 & 9. I still value the universe as it’s one of the more fully realized fictional worlds that exists alongside Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I can’t help but be envious of those where it’s sparked something special within them to be cherished.
Luckily there was one point in my life where Star Wars did intersect in a meaningful way that really got me invested in it. I felt that spark in video games, starting with Shadows of the Empire on the Nintendo 64. A shooter both on foot and by vehicle, it put you in control of Dash Rendar as he crosses paths with core characters like Luke Skywalker across familiar settings from the film. You’re there during the Battle of Hoth flying a snowspeeder. You face off against the menacing Boba Fett and his Slave I ship. It touches on so many great moments that convince you that you’re in a massive universe contributing to the ongoing rebellion against the Empire. Oh, and fricking jetpacks! What isn’t there to love? At the time I hadn’t played anything like it since most shooters were exclusive to PC at the time. Not too long after my family upgraded to a computer strong enough to run some modern games. Spending time in a shop called Egghead Software they had a demo set up for Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight and knew I needed more of this. That effectively started up the Jedi Knight / Kyle Katarn trilogy that was followed by Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast and the lesser Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. I missed out on Dark Forces and never made my way back to it still to this day. Fortunately where I started with Jedi Knight didn’t really require any background from the previous game. Kyle went through a transformation as a mercenary into Jedi, clashing with a slew Dark Jedi across the first game. You gained both light and dark side force powers, variety of blaster pistols, and of course a lightsaber as you furthered your path as a Jedi. It felt great to see Kyle’s growth through the series and this is where I connected with Star Wars.
It’s a bummer that I fell outside the right age for any of the film trilogies as all the expanded universe has been irrevocably stripped from the pantheon of official Star Wars lore. Even the games that were extensively dubbed lore at the time such as Shadows of the Empire (complete with official soundtrack!) and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed were scrubbed alongside all the books I had read. It’s somewhat discouraging to know the parts you most associated with something have been dubbed not worth saving while lesser stilted offerings remain in place. Star Wars will always be joyous to experience and discuss. Empire Strikes Back will remain one of my favorite films and still the best Star Wars story to date. I just wish I was either a few years older or a few years younger so I could have been washed away in the magic of it all. To experience them firsthand without expectation or critical dissection of what it is. To wonder and love everything that it is unconditionally. Until then I’m still along for the ride of this new trilogy as it’s sizing up to be one that no one should miss.