I made it to adulthood without ever seeing a Star Wars movie. I grew up in a household that watched plenty of television, but was too busy with Bottle Rocket and Raising Arizona to bother with science fiction. I was brought up to believe that the hype around the series was just that: hype. But in honor of the annual Star Wars holiday, May the Fourth, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and watch the original Star Wars trilogy.
What I thought going in
It's impossible to watch original three Star Wars movies the way they debuted in theaters, of course. Not only have changes been made to the movies since their theatrical release, which my video store clerk thoroughly warned me about, but the cultural impact of Star Wars precedes the story. The icons and characters of Star Wars, are so prolific that the movies cannot be approached with fresh eyes. The biggest twists of the original series had been spoiled by memes, and parodies. It's impossible to go in knowing nothing about the characters.
To prove the point, before I started, I wrote down everything I knew about the series without seeing it. Sure enough, pop culture had successfully transmitted a whole lot of basic character information before I even began A New Hope:
- The movies had been released out of order, and there were six of them. (True!)
- Luke Skywalker is a Jedi. (True!)
- There's gonna be bright colored light sabers. (Yep!)
- Darth Vader gets to strut around to a a death march. (Uh huh!)
- Luke has floppy hair and wants to kill his father Darth Vader. (Close enough).
- Princess Leia wears all white and has buns on her ears. (Her wardrobe varies, but sure.)
- People said my family's dog looked like an Ewok. (He does.)
- Lightsabers are a weapon that people use normally in the course of combat. (Wrong! Only Jedis get to use them.)
- Luke lived on a planet called Tattoo. (It's Tattooine.)
- Darth Vader literally says, "Luke, I am your father." (Not the real line.)
- They want to blow up the Death Star. (Twice!)
- Luke is a pilot. (Among other great qualities.)
- Yoda is green. (Nailed it.)
Pretty good, right? But looking it over again, it's striking how superficial these are. I had picked up some of the very, very basic facts about the series but I still started out with next to no knowledge about the plot or how the characters related to each other.
My initial reaction
After marathoning through the original trilogy, I…liked it. And my view of the characters more or less matched what people told me going in. As much as Luke Skywalker annoyed me with his naiveté and lack of judgment, he is a consistent character who I wanted to win. Princess Leia is the kind of badass boss lady (at least for the first two movies in the original trilogy) that I love to see in popular movies, and young Harrison Ford as Hans Solo is as good of a love-interest/best-friend as Hollywood can get. It got the intended emotional reactions out of me where relevant. I was genuinely sad when Yoda died, and I wanted to hug an Ewok, just as Lucas would want.
But the films weren't good enough to really explain our collective cultural obsession with the series. If it came on the television on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I might stick around for a little while, but I'm not sure that I'd ever intentionally choose to watch them over again. Annoying and seemingly useless side characters — I'm looking at you C3PO —received way too much screen time. The characters I loved, Han Solo and Princess Leia, never received the kind of personal development I had hoped for. They were there to be Luke's sidekicks, and not much more. Watching a movie is spending a prolonged period of time with a group of fictional people, and there wasn't enough substance to the people of Star Wars to sustain my interest a second time.
For a casual viewer, the exposition just wasn't sufficient to get a real grip on the plot. At many points, I had to ask my viewing buddy what was going on, or who someone was, because the movie hadn't made it clear. In moments that were supposed to be high-impact, I found myself confused. "Why can't he take off his helmet?" I asked about Darth Vader near the end. "Because he'll die," my viewing buddy responded. I had thought the line about him being "mostly machine" was a metaphor. It wasn't. "Who's that guy?" I asked when Hayden Christensen appeared as young Anakin Skywalker. If you watched the original trilogy, I suppose that appearance makes sense, but if you skipped it like a sensible person it's just baffling.
Even after watching the trilogy my understanding of the plot is only marginally better than this person who has never seen Star Wars:
So what's the fuss about?
At some level, I think people recognize the flaws in the movies, which is why critics and scholars have developed countless theories to explain just why the movie elicited the passionate following it did. Scholars like Mary Henderson argue that it had such an impact because the first movie was released in the 1970s, a tumultuous time which tested America's faith in government. In the wake of defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, we "needed new stories to inspire and instruct it," Henderson argues.
Critic Scott Smith credits the extreme popularity of the series to its pacing, which was considerably faster than most other movies at the time. David Rodriguez credits Lucas's brilliant merchandising campaign, which allowed the children the movie was marketed at to continue the stories of the characters on their own with spin-off products like action figures and toy spaceships. James Lawler argues that Star Wars succeeds because it has the structure of a modern fairy tale; each episodes even begins with a variant on "Once upon a time" in "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." George Lucas apparently agrees with Lawler; he was quoted in Dale Pollock's biography of him saying, "There's a whole generation growing up without any kind of fairy-tale, and kids need fairy tales."
But at some point, the reason the series became such a deep part of our culture is irrelevant. What matters is it's there, and has become a potent force in our lives quite apart from the films' actual contents. When I stopped for iced coffee on my way home from the video store where I rented the movies, the barista told me about watching the original series as a kid with his dad. The woman next to me at the coffee shop told me that she used to beg her mother to braid her hair up like Princess Leia. Star Wars is a powerful story not because of the movies themselves but because of how they've shaped the lives and stories of the people who love it.