It was the summer of ’77 when my father, recently divorced and living in a trailer park, came to pick my brother and me up for a weekend visit. We piled into the white station wagon and went off to the movies.
Not wearing seat belts, we leaned over the front seat asking him what we were to see. Dad told us, “It’s a movie about a guy whose desk catches fire.” Groaning with disappointment, incredulous, we cried, “No, really?”
Entering the theater lobby we came face to face with the Star Wars poster. Luke and Leia in their split clothing, a thinly disguised skull in a German helmet in the background. We squealed, high-fived, spun about. It didn’t matter that we were late. We sat down 15 minutes into the film. Breathless we watched Threepio stumble upon his counterpart in the Jawa’s sand crawler. By the time the film had ended, my brother and I were changed boys. We were blindsided by the bait-and-switch that had been performed on us: instead of a science-fiction movie, we got a Saturday matinee serial.
It was a paean to the genre. Its success must have blindsided Lucas. He rushed to revise his creation, stated he had always intended to make a series of films. He made sure to advertise the influence Joseph Campbell on his work. It was no longer matinee fodder. It was elevated to the epitome of the heroic epic.
The critical success of the sequel sealed its fate as a franchise, and the films went downhill from there. With Lucas back at the helm, “Return” did little more than rework the plot of Episode IV, even going so far as to resurrect the Death Star for another go round of destruction.
The recipe was thus fixed. Not to begrudge the influence of Joseph Campbell’s take on the hero cycle: step one, worthy apprentice infiltrates diabolical mechanism, destroys it with the help of some cute creatures or robots, step two, apprentice and company have a setback, repeat.
Disney has had no better luck escaping the formula. In fact, they have dug themselves deeper in the quest for continuity, yet they are desperate to forge something new.
You can feel the conflict within them.
In Episode VIII you can almost hear the writing team and creative director battling it out.
“Lose the stupid mask.”
“We need another infiltration.”
“Can we get some porg in this scene. We need more porg.”
When halfway through the movie my seven year old was asking when it would be over, I told her to be patient. We’d ploinked down a fair wad of dough to see the 3D version. So, we watched it to the bitter end.
The span of decades has colored my critique of film. I’ve become a bit of a snob when it comes to cinema. Middle age and parenthood present me with an appreciation of the shortening years. My time is consequently more precious. I disdain the weaker efforts on the screen that I might have let slide in years past. I have walked out of theaters joyously getting an hour of my life back. I stayed put this time, for the kids, for Luke, for Leia.
When the lights came on and we left the theater my daughter asked, “Where was the epic-ness?” It was a far cry from when, as a ten year old, I knew I had experienced something extraordinary.