I’ve spent 40 years thinking about ’Star Wars.’ Here are 40 thoughts.
1980. Suburban Maryland. Time magazine is sitting on my grandmother’s table. Darth Vader is on the cover, which is weird for Time, given that Darth Vader is not a real person.
The piece is on “The Empire Strikes Back.” I am not yet 6 years old.
“It looks scary,” I say, flipping the pages. I have a vague idea of what “Star Wars” is. Thanks to some impressive after-school programming, I am a much bigger fan of “Star Blazers” (just Google it), which in retrospect is FAR scarier.
“I think you would like it,” my grandmother says.
I see photos of a massive starship, a robot and two humans in what looks like the cockpit of another ship. And the scary guy from the cover, reaching out to a broken, crying person on the edge of what looks like a very long fall down a very large shaft of some sort.
These people are a total mystery. I have absolutely no idea what is going on. It is all potential energy. I am hooked.
2019. I’m sitting in a theater in North Austin getting ready to see “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” supposedly the end of a now-nine-part saga. In the past five years, I have seen and experienced more on-screen “Star Wars” material than in the previous 30. It’s beginning to feel like … a lot.
1981. I tear off the wrapping paper. It is the finest moment of Christmas morning: the proverbial Big Present. It’saSnowspeederIt’saSnowspeederIt’saSnowspeeder. It’s my Red Ryder BB gun, as it were. It is the best Christmas present I will ever receive.
1992. Not everyone I become friends with in college and right after is a “Star Wars” fan, but that (and a fondness for punk rock and hip-hop) is a pretty good barometer for whom I would see eye to eye with, or not. As I go to more punk shows (think bands that open for Fugazi), I see more references to “Star Wars” in more songs, on more stickers on more instrument cases and well-worn amps. “Star Wars” is common coin.
1997. Sometimes battle lines are drawn. At a big dinner one night at Abi’s, a Salvadoran place beloved by Dischord Records types, I express my lack of fondness for many, many things about “Return of the Jedi.” The guitarist in a band I like goes dead silent. He’s never all that pleasant to me again. (To be fair, I always hated his guitar tone.)
1984 or so. My family gets its first VCR. My aunt tapes “Star Wars” off of cable. I watch it roughly a kabillion times. I have an audio adaptation on vinyl. I read the novelization.
1999. May 19. A friend has scored tickets for a bunch of us to see “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”
We hang out in line like we’re waiting for results from a doctor. The trailers have been somewhat promising, but only somewhat.
First, the crawl: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.”
Obi-Wan Kenobi: “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Wait, George Lucas is burning off the franchise’s signature line this early? Like, immediately?
Qui-Gon Jinn: “I don't sense anything.”
Obi-Wan: “It's not about the mission, master, it's something ... elsewhere ... elusive.”
Qui-Gon: “Don't center on your anxieties, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration here and now where it belongs.”
Obi-Wan: “But Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future. …”
Qui-Gon: “... But not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the living Force, my young Padawan.”
This is ... terrible writing.
The sinking feeling in the theater is almost tangible, a leaden realization that this probably is going to be mediocre at best, terrible at worst.
Then the trade federation echoing “yellow peril” tropes. And Jar Jar Binks. And the damn midichlorians, proof that Jedi are born, not made.
The movie ends. My pals and I just kind of look at each other in mild shock and not a little bit of shame: Why did we just assume this would be good?
The preview poster remains fantastic.
2015. It’s October. The Millennium Falcon roars into view in the first trailer for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The flick seems both familiar and new: a young person on a desert planet, a villain clad in dark robes, Han Solo saying, “We’re home.” Fans likely feel the same way.
And yet, there is nothing that seems risky or out of place. This is definitely a movie by a corporation.
1984. The playground “Star Wars” figure trade is vigorous and occasionally cutthroat. I score a blue Snaggletooth off a friend; it remains the best business deal I have ever made. (I have no idea where Big Blue is now.)
My ultimate goal, which I eventually reach, is a set of bounty hunters. Why? Because they have the most narrative potential. Except for Boba Fett, we see them once and never again — the bounty hunters can do or be anything, can stand for anything. They are pure imagination fuel.
2019. Several decades later, Jon Favreau essentially will acknowledge this in Disney+ TV show “The Mandalorian,” aka, “Here is my fan fiction about Boba Fett if he hadn’t died, and it’s also pretty much ‘Lone Wolf and Cub.’” (Google it.)
1999. My closest “Star Wars” friend and I literally schedule a phone call to complain about “The Phantom Menace.”
Pros: Great lightsaber battle; this is the first time in the movies when we see what they should look like, not the old-man shuggle of Obi-Wan and Vader or the slow-burn drama of Luke and Vader, but fast and skilled. And the shot of Qui-Gon praying between rounds with Darth Maul is inspired, reminding the viewer that Jedi is a faith and a worldview and a discipline.
Cons: Pretty much everything else, from Anakin Skywalker as evil Jesus to poor Jake Lloyd as young Anakin to the terrible dialogue to the endless podrace to the (expletive) midichlorians.
2015. Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, is a “Star Wars” character for the meme and Twitter age. His performance rankles when I first see it (and the Emo Kylo Ren Twitter account remains hilarious). But it dawns on me during the “Last Jedi,” you could drop him into any movie and he would make sense.
2002. “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” is almost unwatchable (save for a few lightsaber fights; yes, including the one with hilariously bonkers Yoda versus Christopher Lee, wherein Yoda is bouncing like a Super Ball).
Sometime in the 1980s. Of course I read “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,” the first “Star Wars” sequel novel with an original story. Of course I read the Han Solo books. Little kids like to categorize things, and I become mildly obsessed with canon. This is reinforced by “A Guide to the Star Wars Universe” by Raymond L. Velasco. I receive this as a Christmas gift in ... ’84, ’85? From a family friend, a lawyer who also is a giant “Star Wars“ nerd. It is easily the second greatest ”Star Wars“ gift I have ever gotten. I read it until it falls apart. I tape it up. For a while there, I have it on me constantly. It has very specific things it calls canon (movies, novelizations, radio shows, early tie-in novels) and things it does not (the Marvel Comics adaptations).
1991. “Heir to the Empire” by Timothy Zahn appears in bookstores, about the time people start calling these secondary texts the “Star Wars” Expanded Universe. By this time, I am spending all my thoughts and time and such on popular and unpopular music. This is someone else’s “Star Wars.”
2017. Fans have absolutely no idea how to feel about Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” In it, he deliberately ignores or actively subverts all of the tropes about destiny and family. Much to Mark Hamill’s chagrin, Luke is seen as a crank living by himself on an ancient island. Kylo Ren tells Rey (the new trilogy’s heroine) that she comes from nothing, rather than being the heir to a galactic dynasty.
People get salty about it. I celebrate its relative oddness compared to recent “Star Wars” fare. Luke drinking green milk from an animal: This is as weird as “Star Wars” gets in the 2010s.
2012. George Lucas sells “Star Wars” lock, stock and Outer Rim to Disney. It sets them back about $4 billion, which seems like a lot at the time. It turns out to be a bargain.
I go to Circuit of the Americas’ inaugural Formula One U.S. Grand Prix. Lucas, famously a car and racing nerd, is rumored to be there. I do not run into him. Later, Disney declares that everything in the Expanded Universe is noncanonical. This is, of course, their right. But it can’t help but feel like an insult.
2002. “With no primary texts forthcoming between ‘Jedi’ and ‘Phantom Menace,’ it was arguably up to the faithful longtime fans to become curators of the mythos ... to sustain it both through their financial investment in all the secondary texts (the EU material) and ... participating in folk activity like fan fiction or amateur digital cinema. Lucas’ return as omnipotent author therefore puts him in the ironic position of reclaiming control over an Empire, stamping his own vision of the ‘Star Wars’ universe. ...” — Will Brooker, “Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans.”
2019. “There's no source material. We don't have comic books. We don't have 800-page novels. We don't have anything other than passionate storytellers who get together and talk about what the next iteration might be.” — post-Disney Lucasfilm executive Kathleen Kennedy, in an interview.
1977. Luke to Obi-Wan: “You fought in the Clone Wars?”
Is there any phrase more pregnant with potential than the words “Clone Wars”? There wasn’t a dork in the galaxy who didn’t spend time wondering what the hell the Clone Wars were. Did the Jedi fight clones? Was it about the ethics of cloning?
Instead, what we got was … an army of clones fighting an army of robots.
1985. Being a nerd pre-internet meant a lot of saying to your friends, “Hey, do you remember this weird thing I may have dreamed up?” For me and my pals, the crown prince (queen? something) of these is a special issue of a magazine called Starblazer — an extremely sketchy and sleazy knockoff of “Star Trek” fan magazine Starlog and unrelated to the cartoon “Starblazers” — that traded in mere speculation.
I ran into one that blew my tiny mind at a drugstore in my hometown. The cover was a picture of Darth Vader’s helmet with some weird robot skull underneath.
Under the Starblazer Special logo were the words “Star Wars IV: George Lucas’s great new film.” (Note that not one word of this headline is true, other than spelling Lucas’ name correctly.) Also on the cover: “Darth Vader: How He Became the Prince of Evil: More Machine than Man.”
In the lower right-hand corner was C-movie queen Sybil Danning, whom the magazine swore was playing a witch who seduced Anakin to the dark side. (The magazine also swore Hamill was going play Anakin.)
Years later, I confirm with college friends that yes, everyone remembered this issue, and yes, everyone thought they dreamed it up.
This was how fandom worked: through rumor and conjecture and swearing you saw this one thing one time and anonymous writers making things up that got into print.
But let me tell you, a “Star Wars” movie in which Anakin gets seduced by a Sith witch played by Sybil Danning sounds freakin’ fantastic.
2019. There is a whole podcast episode devoted to this insanity. Everyone on the episode thought they had imagined it, too.
1977. Marvel Comics gets on the “Star Wars” bandwagon really early. The first six issues of the series are an adaptation of the first movie.
After that, well, Marvel had to keep putting a comic out, and “Empire Strikes Back” was years away, so issues No. 7-38 were kind of winging it. This resulted in some rip-roaring space opera, including a large humanoid with a green rabbit head named Jaxxon.
2019. If he wants to warm the hearts of fans forever, Jon Favreau will put Jaxxon in season two of “The Mandalorian.”
1986. The Marvel comic ends in 1986, which turned out to be one of the most innovative years in the history of American comics. This feels like a tiny nadir for this for-profit mythos.
2005. “Revenge of the Sith,” in which Anakin Skywalker kills a bunch of children and loses huge on a lava planet, Obi-Wan leaves before making sure Anakin is dead and Darth Vader lets out a big “NOOO” after finding out his wife died of a broken heart, is released.
There is nothing about this movie that isn’t weirdly depressing.
1997. The “Original Trilogy Special Editions” arrive, re-releases of the old films with some changes made, both minor and major. Greedo shoots first. I can feel my jaw drop, physically drop. This really, really should have let us know what was coming with the prequels.
1979-84. The “Star Wars” newspaper comic strip is not particularly well-remembered, but the creative team featured some giants: writers like Archie Goodwin and Steve Gerber. Artists like Al Williamson, Russ Manning and Alfredo Alcala, just to name a few. It’s fun stuff, gorgeous to look at. It has since been compiled into three lovely volumes.
2015. I am standing outside a theater in North Austin, waiting with a handful of critics, mostly pretty dorky, to see “The Force Awakens” Nobody is saying anything. Nobody really wants to admit how excited a bunch of 40-somethings are for this thing.
1983. “Return of the Jedi.” My dad and I see it at Tysons Corner, then merely a large shopping mall and the name for a Washington, D.C., suburb; in 2019, the designation for one of the most significant tech corridors on the East Coast.
I have never tried harder to learn everything about a movie before I see it — talked to friends, flipped through magazines. Whining about spoilers is for nerds. Just shoot the new “Stars Wars” info straight into my brain, baby.
Still, even then, the Ewoks were kinda crap. And watching now, it is clear Harrison Ford would rather be anywhere else and Carrie Fisher, God rest her brilliant soul, might actually be somewhere else.
2015. Of course there are problems with “The Force Awakens,” and Ford still looks unhappy to be there. But that rush is back. Even Disneyfied, it’s back.
2016. The first standalone, non-Skywalker “Star Wars” movie, “Rogue One” works pretty well, from a straight war movie plot to some decent fight scenes to Darth Vader absolutely wrecking dudes.
2016. The CGI-ed Grand Moff Tarkin and Leia, though, probably were mistakes.
1982. A friend’s father has recorded the entire “Star Wars” NPR radio drama straight off the radio. It proves mesmerizing, even with some cast replacements. (Brock Peters as Darth Vader! Perry King as Han Solo! Someone named Ann Sachs as Leia!) The story starts before the movie.
Writer Brian Daley gifted Leia with a great scene where she must escort an Imperial officer around Alderaan, while Daley also expands the Imperial torture droid scene in a psychologically brutal manner. The other two original trilogy films were made into radio dramas, a format all but dead for decades that has made a quiet comeback in the podcast era. With extremely good production values and top-flight acting, it is a must for all “Star Wars” nerds.
2018. The second standalone “Star Wars” movie, “Solo,” does not work well.
1990. I’m sitting in my local comic book shop in Falls Church, Va. I’ve been a three-times-a-week customer for about four or five years at this point. I’m yakking with a clerk, an older, hippie-ish gent who chain-smokes Camels. Later, stale smoke plus aging paperbacks will become my favorite smell in the world.
“What you have to understand is that NOBODY had EVER seen ANYTHING like that opening shot before,” he says. “There’s a little starship and laser bolts, and then the ship chasing it comes into frame and just. Keeps. Going.”
1983. We are at Toys R Us. I spot a “Star Wars” LP called “Rebel Mission to Ord Mantell,” which to this dork was very obviously supposed to be about the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell that Han mentions in “Empire Strikes Back.” I bought it with “my own money” and played it until it was flat. I’m telling you, Disney: “Star Wars” audio drama is dope.
1977. At its best, “Star Wars” is about firing the imagination. The first movie explained so little; it constantly demanded you look at it and think, “Who is THAT guy? What is THAT planet? Is parsec a unit of time or space or both?”
As much as I love the work of legendary conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, my favorite piece of “Star Wars” art is a painting by a guy named John Berkey. He was a well-known sci-fi artist, but he was commissioned to do a poster without knowing much about the plot, which means that there are some inaccuracies. (A few Millennium Falcons, for example.)
I love this because it is wrong, and I love this because it is weird. His brushstrokes have a cloudy, almost foglike quality. Fog contains mystery; you don’t completely know what is behind it. Those ships are flying into the unknown, into potential.
2019. My kids, who have not had all that much interest in “Star Wars,” get into the “The Mandalorian.” I can’t blame them. It’s all potential.
1978. Summer. I am about 4. We drive by the local movie theater. I look at the marquee and ask, “What’s ’Star Wars’?”