The 2010 documentary The People vs. George Lucas stars a bevy of hardcore Star Wars fans who issue a string of variations on the same theme: You made my childhood magical. Then you went and sold it, along with your soul.
I love you. I hate you.
In truth, this process began for me with The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI), which felt a little too much like a stuffed animal commercial. Then I grew older, as we do if we're lucky, and I began to encounter the Star Wars intergalactic hype machine as a professional observer.
1997: New footage in the original movies! (Because who doesn't want to see Jabba the Hutt make like Jackie Gleason)? 1999: The Phantom Menace! (Because there's nothing like a space adventure about the intricacies of the tax code). 2004: The original movies on DVD! (OK, that one was actually pretty cool.)
I had to hand it to the Star Wars empire: These guys knew how to print money, even if they no longer appeared capable of making decent movies. Somewhere in that cynical morass of repackaging and artistic bankruptcy, I lost all contact with Star Wars' rough innocence, and perhaps with some of my own. Star Wars was no longer a joy ride on the Millennium Falcon. It was a deep dive into the pummeling rhythms of movie marketing. I had seen a little of how the sausage was made, and I had lost my appetite.
I'm hoping to get some of it it back by Thursday, when Star Wars: The Force Awakens touches down after what feels like light years of trailer analysis and sweaty-palmed anticipation. I approach with cautious optimism. The store is under new management, with J.J. Abrams taking over for Papa George. Abrams has retained some of the lovable old rogues -- Han Solo, Luke, Leia, Chewie -- but created new friends and enemies for them. He has also expressed his reluctance to indulge in the kind of CGI tinkering that helped drain the life from those unfortunate prequels. (Somewhere, someone is still burning Jar Jar Binks in effigy.) Maybe it's time to rekindle the inner child's old memories.
They're still vivid enough. I was almost 7 when I stood in a five-block line to see Star Wars at the Coronet in San Francisco, an old movie palace with what was then the latest in exhibition technology. I drank the Kool-Aid and had my parents buy the toys, from the Death Star to the Mos Eisley Cantina, the one with the little rotating slots for the plastic action figures to get their groove on.
I saw Star Wars 13 times in its original run; I'm fairly certain I'll never see another movie more frequently in the theater. (If I do, please check on my well-being.) At the time, I knew nothing of Joseph Campbell and the hero's journey. I surely didn't recognize that the one-two punch of Jaws and Star Wars would tilt the movie industry away from its 1970s introspection and toward the low-risk blockbuster formula that now brings us a new Transformers movie every few years. (Thanks for that.)
No, I just knew a ripping yarn when I saw one.
I've been trying to put a finger on the reasons why Star Wars so captured my imagination. Then the novelist/critic Lev Grossman summed it up perfectly in his recent Time magazine cover story. The original movies, he writes, "were a new kind of illusion, one that felt real in a way that no fantasy or science-fiction movie ever had before ... The universe of Star Wars didn't just feel real in the moment; it felt as if it had existed before the film started and would go on long after it was over."
You could argue that it takes a particularly brazen brand of capitalist verve to put the cryogenic freeze on such a grand illusion. You could also argue that these things aren't and shouldn't be repeatable, that the same lightning bolt can't be caught more than once, and that no movie franchise is well-served by the excesses of interminable installments.
And now the arguments actually have a purpose. Star Wars is back, offering a tantalizing bridge between the old and the new. Time to see if paradise can be regained.