Tomorrow, audiences can head to theaters to see the rerelease of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in 3-D. Regardless of how you feel about the much-maligned prequel, there’s no denying the Star Wars franchise made more than an impression on millions of moviegoers who experienced the magic of the first three films in theaters or on their TV screens. This week, EW‘s writers will be celebrating their complicated relationship with George Lucas’ beloved, yet contested, franchise with a series we call “How Star Wars changed my life.” And for those of you headed to the theaters this Friday… may the Force be with you.
There are those who are content to be merely delighted and dazzled by an entertaining magic trick, and there are those who become obsessed with needing to know how they were so persuasively, thrillingly fooled. When it comes to the sort of magic that we routinely see on movie screens, I have long been the second kind of fan, and the film that got me hooked on such enchantment – and put the “How did they do that?!” bug into me – was Star Wars. Like a lot of people my age, George Lucas’ hyperkinetic space opera was a cultural event that seized my imagination and seeded a desire for transporting escapism that has never left me; in some ways, I think my interest in the movies is all about chasing after the same ecstatic WOW! that I felt when I first saw Star Wars at the grand (and now demolished) UA 150 in downtown Seattle in the summer of ’77, and then over and over and over again when it reached the more modest (and still in business) neighborhood movie palace, the Admiral Twin. It wasn’t enough to have the memory of that far-out yarn running on a constant loop in my mind, or to reenact the story each night with my brother for our parents, or to recall and recite (sometimes with peculiar competitive intensity) favorite scenes and memorable lines with my Star Wars-loving friends during recess. And during class. And during the dawdling walk home…
No, I also had to have the action figures, the comics, the novelizations, the soundtrack album, the posters, the Wonder Bread and Topps trading cards, the Burger King collectible glasses, plus a yellow plastic toy lightsaber, a lunchbox, and a T-shirt or two. I also had to consume every shred of media – all the movie magazines, any kind of Art of Star Wars book, anything like The Making of Star Wars documentary that aired on Sept. 16, 1977 on ABC that I totally remember watching — that explained (or purported to explain) the secrets of the movie’s creation. How George Lucas synthesized a wide swath of mythological and pop culture influences into an epic franchise vision. How he developed the story and wrote the script, fought the naysayers, and secured the financing. How he cast the parts and chose the locations and all that behind-the-scenes jazz. But more than anything, I wanted to know how George did his tricks –- how he produced all those incredible yet oh-so-credible special effects. The ‘droids and the blasters, the land speeders and the Imperial Star Destroyers, the Cantina bar aliens and the holographic board game, the lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader and the fighter ship dog fights above and through the canyons of the Death Star – everything. Thanks to Star Wars, I learned a whole new language. I’m not talking jargon like “jedi” and “wookie” and “Koona t’chuta, Solo?” I’m talking terms like “miniatures” and “blue screen” and “matte painting” –- the conjuring words of a certain class of Hollywood wizardry, one whose ancient spellbinding art had just taken a major leap forward, and more, was about to transform the medium.
NEXT: “I became a harsh, snooty judge, and worse, I enjoyed being so severe.”
Star Wars, then, was an invitation to peek behind the curtain. And from that moment forward, I have been
a boundary-challenged busy-body who’s pathologically drawn to mysteries, secrets, and other forbidden knowledge and loves lording my inside intel over other people and exploiting it for my own gain fascinated by the creative process. It also changed the way I looked at movies — for better and worse. Knowing how George conjured his illusions ruined me for other filmmakers who wished to dazzle me with similar enchantment. I also became a harsh, snooty judge, and worse, I enjoyed being so severe. I went into movies looking for the frayed seams in the work, eager to bellow the geek snob catcall of “That’s so fake!” at the screen. (Okay, it was more like a condescending whisper into the ear of my less-demanding friends, who would respond by (a) Ignoring me; (b) Rolling their eyes; (c) Offering me a breath mint.) I also turned the aesthetic triumph of Star Wars – which made a virtue out of realism – into a standard that for a long time cost me the ability to appreciate other, more stylized forms of special effects artistry. Case-in-point: Ray Harryhausen, an f/x trailblazer whose pioneering work paved the way for the modern era of industrial light and magic. My first exposure to his signature work: Clash of the Titans. I left the theater profoundly disappointed by a menagerie of meticulously crafted, painstakingly shot stop-motion models that looked so… well, fake. Why couldn’t they have looked more real? Why couldn’t it look more like Star Wars? Who the hell was this hacky Harryhausen clown, anyway!?
Of course, I would learn. Indeed, Star Wars inspired a movie love that has never ebbed. But the passion is more refined (I’m not sure Star Wars would even make my all-time Top Ten anymore), and considerably more gracious. “That’s so fake!” is no longer an unforgivable sin. In fact, I’ll forgive a lot of fake if the greater whole is ambitious and entertaining. (I’m a big TV watcher. If I had continued to adhere to a severe, uncompromising standard for special effects, there’s no way I could have bought into some of my favorite shows ever, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost.) These days, I am more engaged by the idiosyncratic artifice of Tim Burton than the artificial realism of James Cameron. I am also reconsidering the virtue of being a pop culture know-it-all. During my time here at Entertainment Weekly (a magazine that surely owes its existence to the geek culture that spiraled and evolved out of the big bang that was Star Wars), I’ve written a lot about J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan, both children of Star Wars, and both famed for their coy showmanship and for protecting their secrets. Some people are bugged by their stance. I’m not. Because when they say that too much knowing, too much savvy about the process of making movies can diminish if not spoil the experience of watching the movies, they’re talking about people like me. Yes, it’s true: Thirty-five years after Star Wars set me on a path that has brought me to this blog post today, I find myself at philosophically at odds with the very premise of my job.
Saying all of this out loud was a really bad idea, wasn’t it?
How ‘Star Wars’ changed my life: Luke and Darth taught me what’s good and what’s evil