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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: December 15, 2015

The return of ‘Star Wars’ makes me an 8-year-old all over again

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Familiar faces and images abound in “The Force Awakens,” but a new cast of talented young actors will help to carry the story forward.

Familiar faces and images abound in “The Force Awakens,” but a new cast of talented young actors will help to carry the story forward.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens tomorrow. It’ll play everywhere, and make all the money, and every other piece of merchandise in the land will have a “Star Wars” logo or that adorable new rolling droid on it. (Points for finally coming up with a design that can move over uneven ground, by the way.)

And that’s fine.

I was 8 when “Star Wars” came out. (And by “Star Wars” I will always mean the first film – “A New Hope” is its sub-title. Don’t mess with me on this.) If you were a precocious cinephile in 1977, there was no cable, no VCRs – you saw movies at the movies or, if you got lucky, edited on network TV. Even reading about movies was harder. There was no internet, obviously, but even movie guides weren’t a thing at that point. (Roger Ebert’s groundbreaking “Movie Home Companion” was still almost a decade in the future.) For a kid who innately loved but knew little about movies, knowledge arrived in snatches of schoolyard conversation, newspaper ads and commercials.

“Star Wars” arrived in rumbles. As it approached, I could practically feel it in the ground, then vibrating up through the soles of my sneakers, until, by the time the lucky neighborhood kids had seen it, I was literally hopping up and down in anticipation and envy – and greed. And when I finally saw it, my incessant, crazy-eyed pleading wearing down uncomprehending parents, it, quite simply, blew my world apart.

It’s hard to envision a time before George Lucas’ modest little sci-fi creation was one of the primary cultural touchstones in America. Most real movie critics in 1977 saw it for what it was – a scruffy, visually inventive, dramatically juvenile entertainment. Kid stuff. The great Pauline Kael – who famously once said “movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them” – didn’t think “Star Wars” trash, necessarily. But she did call out Lucas’ programmatic design in making as calculated an entertainment machine as humanly possible, and the cast as sounding lost amidst Lucas’ clunky dialogue. Spinning a phrase as poetic as “Star Wars” was not, Kael pronounced, “It’s an epic without a dream.”

But it caught up a country (a world really) in its undeniable thrills and moderate invention. (Kael again: “it’s like getting a box of Cracker Jack that is all prizes.”) But 8-year-old me wanted those prizes – I devoured everything “Star Wars” (and there was a lot to devour as Lucas’ calculation extended to theretofore unimagined possibilities of merchandising) and clamored for more. As the original trilogy sped on, each film was greeted as not just a cinematic event, but a life event. The “Star Wars” phenomenon invented everything that we think of now as “geekdom” or “fandom.” My mom – ever-bewildered by her kids’ hunger for this world – lied to three separate schools to pull her four kids out so we could be at the first matinee of “Return of the Jedi.” She didn’t get it, but she got what it meant to us.

Now, after Lucas revealed how little his screenwriting had progressed with his widely derided (but still ludicrously lucrative) prequel trilogy, new sci-fi “it boy” and, like me, “Star Wars” fanboy J.J. Abrams (also in charge of our childhoods with his flashy, uneven “Star Trek” reboots) has been handed the reins. He’s assembled all the old players, and brought in a truly talented, eclectic crop of new actors, most of whom never knew a world without “Star Wars” at the center of their movie-going lives. It’s not a terrible idea – as Harrison Ford said of Lucas’ writing, “George, you can type this (expletive deleted), but you can’t say it” – even though Abrams’ slickness is as problematic in its own way as Lucas’ tin-eared exposition. The now-grown and jaded film critic in me can look back at all the films and see their many, many flaws, and project forward to how they’re only going to be magnified by Abrams’ attempts to adapt them to his style (while retaining the series’ massive profitability.)

And yet.

When the very first teaser trailer came out earlier this year, and I saw the same faces, and heard the same sound effects (whoosh of an X-Wing, electric hiss of a lightsaber), I was 8 years old again in spite of myself. And when Abrams – knowing exactly what he was doing – ended the clip with Ford’s Han Solo, ever-rakish smile crinkling his now-weathered face, tell best pal and “walking carpet” Chewbacca, “Chewie, we’re home,” I felt myself welling up like my 8-year-old self as well.

Other films have come and gone, would-be franchises and “films that define a generation.” And perhaps younger film geeks look back on the Harry Potter films or the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy as their “Star Wars.” But there’s a reason why “Star Wars” is the point of reference. Defying time, and disappointing prequels, and incessant merchandising, and Jar Jar-freaking-Binks, “Star Wars” always makes the movies feel like home.

 

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