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Front Page - Friday, March 3, 2017

Growing older, not necessarily up, with Star Wars

It was June of 1977. Star Wars had been out about 10 days and my curiosity finally caught up with the hype. I was 20 years old, exhausted after my sophomore year in college combined with a virtually full-time job, and only recently aware my eyes had gone bad.

So me and my new specs grabbed my usual seat (first row, center, behind the aisle) at the usual time (Tuesday matinee), and I sat back to see what the excitement could possibly be about.

I saw.

That first scene, even though the rather tedious and obtuse scroll made no sense; (it spoke of movies unmade that had somehow gone before), began bringing out the goosebumps thanks to its heroic, majestic music.

Those goosebumps were locked firmly in place when the Imperial warship appeared in the frame, chasing the hopelessly overmatched Rebel ship. From there, everything happened at a pace you could barely keep up with – part of the George Lucas genius at this point. 

I was on board for the long ride.

Being somewhat busy with my job and summer classes, I only saw it four times that summer, but I was pretty much all-in. Make no mistake: I did not buy the toys or the action figures, nor did I ever feel the need to cosplay (a word that did not exist in 1977). But I was a sponge for the written word.  A long-forgotten sequel novel by Alan Dean Foster, “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,” came out less than a year later – we only found out decades later that it was planned to be the second and final movie if Star Wars bombed.

Star Wars did not bomb.  Even people who refused to see it, those far too hip or “grown-up” to see a “kid’s movie,” would know the lexicon. Every villain in literary history was seemingly compared to Darth Vader, and he to them. But we barely knew anything.

I tried to be the one who knew; I bought the authorized Marvel comic – all 107 issues, and the two sequels, in large part because I knew and appreciated the writers and illustrators Marvel hired. They actually carried the Star Wars universe past the movies, and it was thrilling – even though you knew why nothing ever happened to the central characters.

“The Empire Strikes Back” made its premiere in May of 1980, and I was there. Being an eager volunteer and newly hired full-time at the News-Free Press, I offered to help the wonderful Entertainment editor, June Hatcher, with stuff about the much-hyped grand opening.

At a theater that is no longer there (Eastgate), I did interviews, helped our photographers with things to shoot, mingled with the crowd and in the process watched “The Empire Strikes Back” three times that day.

It was a real movie, not a mere sequel (which was a dirty word in those days), and it presented both a shocking twist and one of the few true and stunning cliff-hangers I’d ever seen in a theater. My world was moving at 100 mph for those few short years, and Star Wars was along for the ride.

In 1983, I was 26 and less entangled with my job when “Return of the Jedi” rolled around. It was my year of rebellion; I had grown a full beard for the only time in my life, and I was aiming way out of my league in pursuit of the opposite sex. Making a date for “Jedi” did not seem to be a prudent option, so it actually took me a few days to get around to checking it out.

But the darn movie reminded me of something: about having fun with what you were doing. While I perhaps did not make a big deal about it, I saw this sequel four times in the theater, even saw “The Ewok Adventure” when it was on TV that one time.

Soon, the beard went and a redoubled effort into my job followed, and I soon was named the News-Free Press beat writer for the Chattanooga Lookouts – doing my favorite thing covering my favorite sport. Until my life began heading down different roads, 19 years later, I did the job well – and with great joy.

There would have been little room in that world for new Star Wars, had there been any. But the Braves went from worst to first in 1991 and four years later, I was able to follow the Braves to their World Championship in 1995. I undertook the last great road trip of my life, going to New York for the first two games of the 1996 World Series, and returned home triumphant and with the Braves up 2-0. But soon, crushing defeat followed and disappointment would soon become the dominant emotion in my world.

In 1997, George Lucas in his infinite wisdom bolstered by a newly infinite bankroll, re-edited his three movies, radically changing several scenes in the first. He gave it a new name (“A New Hope”), he added a bunch of special effects that did not exist in 1977, and then – blasphemy! – He made it seem that Han Solo did not shoot first when he took out Greedo in the cantina.

And somehow, the re-released theatrical movie seemed to confirm this. We now saw Greedo shoot first and miss, then take a blaster charge from Han. And, no, I was not the only one angered by this; you watch something close to 10 times and now you see it differently?

Almost as bad, we unnecessarily saw a scene cut from the first movie with Han Solo sparring with a digitally created Jabba the Hut, who looked sadly like a runny turd. A line from the 70s went through my head as I left that theater that is no longer there (Hamilton Place): “Everything You Know Is Wrong.”

Lucas, newly invigorated by the new technology, now felt he could produce the first three films that had long been in his head but unable to visualize on the screen. So in May of 1999, I was 42 years old, dealing with the recently acquired knowledge that my mother had contracted lung cancer, and I made myself go see “The Phantom Menace.”

Seeing many famous actors climbing on board the Lucas train, and marveling at a CGI Yoda, the move was a crushing disappointment that Lucas had, in a negative way, “Disneyfied” the franchise with little Jake Lloyd winning the dumbest race in the history of movies and Jar Binks portraying the dumbest race ever given life in cinema.

Then, before the disappointment could diminish, in 2002, here comes “Attack of the Clones.” Still very much out of whack following my mother’s death, I was struggling with an insidious disease called sleep apnea, which I did not know I had. All I know is that I fell asleep during “Clones” and am not sure if I ever bothered seeing it again.

I was not alone in my dismissal of this new film. Lucas must have heard about us, because “Revenge of the Sith” in 2005 made up for much of the dreck which immediately preceded it. It was wildly visual; there were more special effects in this one film than the first three combined.

The plot was not for the faint of heart as the evil of Vader gradually took the soul of young Annikan. I was happy for Lucas that he had his vision realized, even if it wasn’t exactly the one I wanted. And it was somehow comforting to know Lucas wasn’t keen on ever going any farther with characters that actually meant something to people.

That summer of 2005, I was newly liberated. At least, that was how I elected to see it. I had lost my job after 29 years, I had filed for bankruptcy and was facing the unavoidable loss of my house by the end of the year. But I was able to keep my 401(k) money and still had my summer timeshare, so I spent the summer writing my first book, the history of baseball in Chattanooga, and playing golf.

By the end of that year, the money had run out and I had become something I loathed to imagine – a substitute teacher.

It took nearly four years for my desire not to be in a classroom caught up with me, and I was enjoying an out-of-the-blue rebirth at the V.P. of marketing for mighty, little WAAK, 94.7-FM in Ringgold. I was a three-headed monster – talk-show host, football color man and producer of other shows – when Star Wars re-entered my life.

In 2015, when Disney and J.J. Abrams announced they were moving forward with the story line of Luke, Leia and Han with “The Force Awakens.”  I was at the point in my life where cynical skepticism would likely prevail, but I went to see the damn thing anyway. I was not disappointed in the fact that I was disappointed.

J.J. Abrams was 11 when “Star Wars” came out, and he’d just finished doing an admirable re-boot of Star Trek for the theaters. So while I appreciated that he, not Lucas, would be carrying the franchise forward, I took all due heed when words like “homage” began being used.

        The final hour of “Force Awakens” was merely a busier version of “New Hope.” They couldn’t even avoid again making the Death Star as the evil weapon of choice. Once Han died (and boy, did they make sure we saw that coming!) it was nothing new.

And “a map to Luke”??? What the hey was that all about? Abrams’ big idea for re-connecting us with Luke Skywalker turned out to be one of the laziest, and nonsensical, plot devices I’d ever seen. Please, no more homages.

And that brings us to “Rogue One.”  I had just turned 60 years old in January, and people these days look askance at me whenever I cop to being a fan from the beginning. In return, I wonder: just where did they get off the bandwagon, and were they able to somehow forget all that they knew about that universe from long ago in a galaxy that was far, far away?

Is Star Wars, indeed, now a series for the current and new generations? The old movies do not look dated – one of the insights Lucas had about preserving them – but be warned:  if you go back and watch the classic films on Blu-Ray or some new technology, Lucas screwed with our memories and changed things in all three that did not need to be changed. It was with that long ago and far away vision and version of Star Wars – the one when Han shot first – that I carried with me to the viewing of “Rogue One.”

New director(s), an almost all new cast of heroes and a very familiar cast of villains greeted me. It was, indeed, a retro film: the technology of 2016 did its upmost to remind us of the tech of 1977. I disliked that the first two-thirds of the move were shot in relative darkness; I was about to ask the theatre if it was me or the bulb in the projector was dim. (Hey, it happened to me once in 1980s).

But the final battle in “Rogue One” was something new, something electrifying and featured, the most horrific 45 seconds ever in a Star Wars movie – we FINALLY see Vader as his deadliest, cutting a swath through a ship full of troopers in attempt to secure the plans for the Death Star. Hands, heads, torsos all were sliced apart in ruthless efficiency that only could have been Vader at the top of his powers.

Even the disconcerting glimpse of young Leia at the end only days after the death of Carrie Fisher could not spoil the realization at the end of “Rogue One:”  the movie ends two seconds before “A New Hope” begins. The circle has somehow been competed with the bridge between chapters 3 and 4 now in place.

There will be more movies, of course, none of them essential to those of us who have taken note of the passing of the people who gave us this magic – Carrie Fisher, Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Peter Cushing (Tarkin, resurrected for “Rogue One” through CGI!) and Alec Guinness (Obi-wan) .

But how many of you could name Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac as your good guys moving forward. Admit it: if Luke (Mark Hamill) isn’t the main focal point of the next film, you’ll be more than a little annoyed. In hindsight, “Force Awakens” needed never be made if “Rogue One” had been allowed to be the last word on Star Wars.

But Star Wars will push forward, don’t you know. May the circle be unbroken.