What? There’s a New Star Wars Movie?

star-wars_tfa_poster_wide[Ed. Note: This is not a review, and there are no spoilers ahead, just in case there’s anyone remaining at this late date to whom that matters. What this entry is is something I started noodling with a week before The Force Awakens opened but ran out of time to finish before I got swept up in the events of the big weekend. I liked the direction my musings were taking, so I decided to come back and see where they ultimately led. Think of this entry as something that got lost in hyperspace for three weeks and has finally arrived in the here and now. Because of that provenance, you may encounter some odd phrases relating to time. Sorry about that. And for the record, I am planning to do an actual review of the film, so that’ll be coming soon…]

Did you guys know about this? A new Star Wars movie? Wonder how they managed to sneak that onto theater schedules without anyone noticing?

Just kidding.You’d have to be living under the cliche’d rock to not know about this movie. The familiar logo and character faces are everywhere this holiday season. As far back as Halloween, some of my friends were grumbling that they were already getting sick of it, that it was even worse than the marketing blitz for The Phantom Menace back in 1999. Personally, I’ve been enjoying it, at least to the extent that I’ve even been aware of it. Weirdly enough, I was more or less oblivious to it until just a short time ago. Aside from the online hubbub that accompanied the release of each new trailer, I somehow didn’t see all the merchandise trickling into stores or notice all the tie-ins infiltrating TV and even social media ads. I don’t know how I could’ve missed it; too damn busy with the mundane duties of my daily life, I guess. Adulthood… sigh. But now that my eyes have been opened… well, I’m in my element. My friends may find it obnoxious to go into a grocery store and see a jug of coffee creamer decorated to resemble Chewbacca, but I enjoy it. I like feeling that old Star Wars buzz again, the same one I remember feeling way back in 1980 and ’83, and yes, in ’99, too. It makes me happy.

However, the buzz isn’t exactly like it used to be, is it? While people are unquestionably excited about the prospects of a new Star Wars, I sense an undercurrent of reservation this time. At least I am more reserved about it. Back in ’99, I had a countdown clock and a pre-production painting of a podracer on my work computer’s desktop for months ahead of time, and I’d already bought a bunch of merchandise well before the movie opened. (I can recall a coworker shaking his head and hissing, “It’s like a cult for you people!” Um, yeah. So?) This time around, though… well, it’s just different somehow. I’ve known the release date was coming up and I have my advance tickets, but like I said above, I really haven’t given the movie much thought until recently. And I’ve looked at some of the new toys and collectibles that are out there, and while a lot of them have made me smile, so far none of them have found their way into the Bennion Archive.

Some have suggested all of us cultish fans are gun-shy after being burned by the prequels. Maybe that’s the explanation for some people, but I don’t think that’s what’s holding back my enthusiasm. The truth is, I basically liked the prequels. No, really, I did. I had my quibbles with them, sure; they weren’t what we all hoped for, certainly, or what they could’ve and arguably should’ve been. But they weren’t that bad. Trust me, I’ve seen bad movies, movies so bad they can boil your eyeballs and liquefy your brains, and the prequels really, truly were not in that league. At least not in my estimation. If your mileage varies, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree and not discuss it. I’m done having that conversation, because all the bile those movies have inspired over the last 16 years has been hurtful and toxic and tiresome, and frankly it’s sucked a lot of the fun out of being a Star Wars fan. If anything, that’s probably more to blame for my “wait and see” attitude about The Force Awakens than anything: my fear that the Great Fanboy Wars, which finally seemed to be calming down a bit in recent years, are about to flare up all over again.

Consider: If TFA sucks, then the outcry will be enormous. For many fans, it will be the final disillusionment, and a whole lot of people will just turn away from Star Wars once and for all, as many already have because of the prequels. And I, a die-hard loyalist to the end, will be find myself constantly defending what the popular wisdom will have decided is indefensible, namely, the entire Star Wars franchise. (Like I haven’t been there before, any time anyone mentions the 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica or even — increasingly and utterly baffling to me — the original Star Trek series.) And if by some chance the new entry is great, then the “I told you so’s” directed against poor old Uncle George and his prequels will be deafening. And that will really trouble me too, because I already think the amount of disrespect he receives is unjustified.

I’ll be honest, I’m much more apprehensive about the former possibility — that Episode VII will suck — than the latter. I have very little faith that director JJ Abrams can deliver any sort of watchable Star Wars movie, not after the utter hash he made of my beloved Star Trek. (I know, I know, those films had a different writing staff than The Force Awakens, and JJ has always claimed to be far more of a fan of Star Wars than Star Trek. And I also know I initially gave the 2009 reboot picture a somewhat positive review. But as time has passed, my position toward that one has hardened. A lot. That’s a tangent I shouldn’t take right now, but let’s just say that as far as I’m concerned, the reinvention of the Star Trek franchise has been an unmitigated disaster, and JJ is the one person most responsible for it, since he was the man in the center seat. That’s a reference that Trekkies will get.)

Ultimately though, it kind of doesn’t matter if The Force Awakens is any good or not, because Star Wars is — and always has been — much more than the movies themselves.

Star Wars is the tattered paperback novelization that I read over and over and over until it finally split in two, coming apart right up the middle of the spine, a book I read so many times as a kid that I can still remember some of the lines. It is the plastic Slurpee cups and the cheap, fuzzily printed posters from Burger King. It is the black-edged trading cards that came in loaves of Wonder Bread, which we never actually ate but which my mom cheerfully bought anyhow, so I could collect those cards and carry them in my wallet like family photos. It is the incredibly daft (I like to say “swashbuckling”) Marvel comic books that featured a six-foot-tall green rabbit and a space pirate who strode the decks of an off-model star destroyer in hot pants and a muscle shirt. It is the summer afternoon I spent in a corner of our still-under-construction barn listening to the entire NPR radio show on a scratchy transistor radio, and the cheap knock-off “lazer sword” toy I waved at my friends who were armed only with sticks, and it’s the rubber-backed t-shirt iron-ons that always made my chest feel clammy but were so damn cool looking.

Star Wars is the line that wrapped around the block in front of the old Centre Theatre in downtown Salt Lake, and it is Meco’s disco “interpretation” of John Williams’ famous music, and it is all the painfully bad variety-show and sketch-comedy attempts to hop on the bandwagon. Yes, it’s those episodes of The Donny and Marie Show and The Muppet Show and The Richard Pryor Show, and it’s Bill Murray singing the theme on SNL. It is even — god help us — the infamous Holiday Special.

Star Wars is my dad buying me a copy of Han Solo’s Revenge by Brian Daley that I spotted in a drugstore window, just because he knew I wanted it, and it is that awesome birthday cake my mom made for me that had all the Kenner action figures standing knee-deep in chocolate frosting instead of candles.

Star Wars is the night I passed on going to a dance so I could record the film from broadcast TV without commercials. It is the all-day marathon of the original trilogy I went to with an old girlfriend, and the all-night marathon I went to with my Anne. It is the rush of sheer joy I felt one afternoon in 1991 when I wandered into Waldenbooks and literally stumbled across a display for the first tie-in novel published in years, the start of the publishing juggernaut that came to be called the Expanded Universe.

Star Wars is the Qui Gon Jinn insulated tumbler I used to use during my morning commute, and the Darth Maul figurine that was on the cake I received for my thirtieth birthday.

Star Wars is all the conversations I had with the younger guys I worked with at the movie theater, the guys who nicknamed me “the Jedi Master.” And it is the debates I had with my friend Robert until the wee hours of the night at Selwyn College in Cambridge, England, my friend who flew in from halfway across the country to see The Force Awakens with me. And it is the countless arguments I used to have online before I decided it simply wasn’t worth my time to argue about it anymore.

And yes, Star Wars is that damn Chewbacca coffee creamer, and the Death Star tea infuser, and the box of Cheez-Its with the First Order stormtrooper on the front.

In short, Star Wars is a thread that runs throughout the tapestry of my life. All our lives, anyone who’s been alive in this culture for the past 40 years. It is a thread both material (in the form of merchandise) and experiential. It has penetrated our discourse and our thoughts to the level that people can use its characters and situations as metaphors with no doubt that they will be understood.

Star Wars is an exercise in marketing hype, yes. And it is even, when you get right down to it, a series of movies. But in a weird way, the actual movies are the least important aspect of the whole thing… and I personally wouldn’t have it any other way.