Memories of a first-generation “Star Wars” fan

I’m an original Star Wars geek, and I’ve just seen the latest chapter, The Last Jedi, on its opening weekend.  It’s spectacular, as I knew it would be.

But my story as a Star Wars fan begins a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to be exact.

I was there with my parents for winter vacation in December of 1977. School was out between Christmas and New Year’s. We spent several such vacations in Florida; a tropical escape, adorned with beautiful palm trees, as relief from the winter doldrums. This time–it may even have been early on New Year’s Eve–we decided to go to the megaplex or the whateverplex movie theatre in town. My parents opted to see one movie, while I decided to finally see Star Wars, the film the entire world had been talking about.

I sat down, got comfortable in my seat, and almost immediately my senses were under attack, as the huge STAR WARS graphic hit me in the face, to the accompaniment of the dramatic musical fanfare. After the set-up for the story scrolled up the screen and faded, I saw the most unforgettable shot I’ve ever seen in a film: the long, slow progress of a starship, shot from underneath, as it enveloped the screen

…and kept going…and going… and going. I had never experienced such a sense of sheer size so graphically and mesmerizingly shot for a film. My popcorn spilled out of my mouth as my jaw hit the floor. And that was just the opening shot. Watching the rest of the film, I saw jumps into hyperspace, duels with light sabers, a truly frightening villain with deadly powers–well, you know. At 16, it was nothing less than a transformative experience for me. I really mean that–and it’s sort of my job to choose my words very carefully.

Afterwards, I met my parents in the lobby, with a gushing review and probably a great deal of nonsense syllables (I wasn’t choosing my words quite as carefully at that moment). I was hooked. I don’t know how many more times I saw it in the theatres, before it ever reached TV screens or video. In 1980 came The Empire Strikes Back, considered by many critics and movie mavens to be one of the greatest film sequels ever. The crowds were enormous. I saw it at the Stanley Warner theatre on Rt. 4 in Paramus,

The exterior and lobby of the fondly-remembered Stanley Warner theatre.

New Jersey. Back then, it was one giant theatre, with 2,000 seats. Watching the house lights dim, hearing the crowd go crazy, and then seeing the STAR WARS logo again, with the same fanfare, and adrenaline-fueled cheer from the audience, was amazing. So was the film, offering the ice planet Hoth, huge Imperial Walkers, a small, green Jedi master named Yoda, city in the clouds, the freezing of one of the heroes in carbonite, and a surprise revelation that I actually didn’t believe at first.

The film ended with an implied message from George Lucas to the effect, “see you in another three years with the next one, everybody.” It was to be a long three years.

Opening day for The Return of the Jedi in 1983 was memorable in its own way, as my friend Jody and I returned to the Stanley Warner, to witness a line of people totally encircling the entire building, waiting as long as necessary to get in for the next available showing. Some had brought lawn chairs, others said they had just seen the film and immediately returned to the end of the line to see it again. I never had so much fun waiting three hours in line to see a movie. Again, the anticipation reached delirious levels, and was rewarded with another fantastic trip into the galaxy, highlighted by more space battles, a super high-speed chase through the forest planet of Endor, perhaps the most famous bikini in movie history, and the destruction of the Death Star.

We all thought this was the end of the story, tied up in a neat little bow in its closing moments, to the admittedly corny song stylings of the planet’s diminutive Ewok population.

Then came the long, long period of Star Wars dormancy. Little did we know that the famous trilogy of films would become episodes 4,5, and 6 in a still more expansive saga. Lucas originally described a nine-film series, but later dropped the idea, partly due to exhaustion from supervising the first three installments. But further advances in movie-making techniques encouraged him to return.

In 1999, The Phantom Menace (Episode 1)brought long lines back to the cinemas. Many fans were disappointed, however, by the complicated political story, and felt a seething hatred of the goofy Jar Jar Binks character, for which Lucas got fairly well skewered in the press and elsewhere. I had mixed feelings. The follow-up, Attack of the Clones in 2002, often gets dismissed or overlooked completely, despite many breathtaking

Attack of the Clones.

visuals and exciting sequences, especially one in which we see dozens of Jedi knights in an epic battle against the bad guys (to this point, we had seen only one or two Jedi at any one time). Unfortunately, the wooden dialogue, and even woodier acting, especially by Hayden Christiansen as Anakin Skywalker, received still more vitriol from diehard fans.

(Just as a grammatical side note, I happened to observe that the stiffness of the dialogue throughout the second trilogy was often due to the fact that, unlike the original trilogy, the characters were no longer using contractions, saying words like “cannot” instead of “can’t.” To me, this gives the dialogue a more formal, less colloquial rhythm than that of the earlier films. Happily, it’s been corrected in the current trilogy.)

Lucas redeemed himself greatly with Revenge of the Sith,   in which we witness Anakin Skywalker’s descent into evil, as he is coerced to join the Dark Side of the Force. A stunning duel with his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, on a river of molten lava, provides an intense climax to this second trilogy, ending with the birth of Luke and Leia. I still like this trilogy great deal, but I’m in the minority.

In 2012, Lucas sold Lucasfilms to Disney for a cool four billion dollars. His own ideas for the third trilogy were largely abandoned, as J.J. Abrams took the creative helm. The 2015 release of The Force Awakens, picking up thirty

years after Return of the Jedi, introduced to us a new group of lead characters, especially the strong, appealing heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley), while bringing back the original lead trio of Luke, Han, and Leia-and killing off one of them!  Rogue One, released in late 2016, follows a group of rebels plotting to destroy the Death Star, then still under construction. This film is sort of a Star Wars movie without actually being one, but it is nonetheless thoroughly entertaining.

Which brings us to The Last Jedi, with its breathtaking action, and a story that continues to interweave the old, familiar characters with the new heroes and villains. And, oh, that Daisy Ridley as Rey!

And so my longstanding love of this saga remains intact, with more to come, and not too far, far from now.

Until next week…