“George Lucas raped my childhood.” Spend any amount of time in fanboy forums or the comments sections of genre-focused websites like Ain’t It Cool News, and you’ll come across this oft-repeated gem. It’s an ugly phrase and while its origins are unclear (the first time I saw it was on AICN), its meaning is not: even when spoken in jest, it reveals that there are a LOT of angry Star Wars fans out there.
Those fans see it as a move straight out of the Dark Side playbook: George Lucas’ ongoing attempts to remake his own movies. Starting in the mid 90’s with his “Special Editions” – theatrical re-releases of the original trilogy with added scenes and enhanced special effects – Lucas began what Star Wars devotees considered a sacrilegious attempt to unmake the movies that meant so much to them as kids. Greedo shot first, and a nation of wanna-be Padawans roared its disapproval. Making things worse, Lucas made it clear that the original versions of the film, with their old-school but still quite good model-based visuals, would never see the inside of a theater or DVD player. The final outrage for many: Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, and the near-universally-reviled Jar Jar Binks. The floppy-eared amphibian was seen by many as the nadir of Lucas’ attempts to squeeze as much merchandising cash from the franchise as possible: here was something worse than the Ewoks, not so much a character as an excuse to make more action figures, t-shirts, bedspreads, and beach towels.
Like many dads, I saw Star Wars – the original version, sans digitized Jabba the Hutt, Han Solo’s glorious dispatching of Greedo intact, none of this “Episode IV – A New Hope” nonsense – on the big screen at a young age. I was just finishing up second grade, my idea of science fiction was stuff like Star Trek and Doctor Who (lots of talking, cheap models, and rubber masks), and when I heard that a new space movie was starting that Friday, I convinced my mom to take me. I lived in a small suburb of Omaha, Nebraska, and we didn’t have the Internet to tell us that this movie was something special. I remember on opening night there were maybe ten people in the theater. I remember my eyes and brain and heart being filled by the sight of that impossibly gigantic Star Destroyer emerging from the top of the screen. In that moment, I was lost to Star Wars. When we drove by the theater the next day, the line of people wrapped around it at least three times.
Yes, I was lost to Star Wars, and like many of my peers, I still have a toehold in George Lucas’ universe. Whether or not you approve of what he’s done with his work, his impact is profound and inescapable – Star Wars is one of the closest things we have to a cultural mythology, permeating every aspect of American pop culture. There might big a group of hillfolk in the Kentucky wilds who’ve never heard of the Force; the Inuit family living just south of Nome may not understand you when you tell them that YOU are Luke’s father. Has there ever been another movie series that’s so engrained itself in our collective psyche? And make no mistake – it’s guys like me that made it so. And we STILL can’t seem to let it go, this attachment we feel for movies that our kids never saw in the theaters. (Go to any dadblog, scroll through the pages, and count the number of Star Wars references you come across.) When my son was born, the first thing I thought: “I love my wife so much.” The second: “I can’t wait to play sports with the kid.” The third: “He’s gonna dig the Battle For Hoth.”
And of course he did. Lucas (my kid, not George, and no, the one is not named after the other) grew up on a steady diet of X-wings and lightsabers. At four, he watched the original trilogy; at five, the prequels (except for Episode III, because it’s pretty dark, what with the dismemberings and getting burned by lava and such; I finally let him watch it this year); and from six on, he’s been a steady viewer of the surprisingly good Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series. (I’d watch it anyway, but having him there provides a nice excuse. Father-son bonding, you know.) In this, he’s like every son born to every dad who considers himself a fan. And judging by the amount of cash George Lucas has made from the prequels and everything associated with them, there’s a lot of us.
At some point, though, we all have that conversation: “Dad, which movies do you like better? The old ones or the new ones?” And my answer’s always the same. “The first ones.” “You mean episodes one, two, and three?” “No, I mean the real first ones. Four, five and six.” (Of course, I showed him the movies in the order they were made, not in chronological order, and this confused him. Prequels are a tough concept for young minds to grasp.) “Why don’t you like the new ones?” And here’s where I dodge the question. My feelings toward the prequels are mixed: eye-rolling dialogue, wooden acting, and those awful awful Gungans on the one hand, Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan, Darth Maul, and most of Episode III on the other. I avoid laying any in-depth criticism of the prequels on him partially because he does like the new ones – even Jar Jar – and I have a dim view of adults who tell kids that the things they enjoy are silly. But I also keep the truth to myself because he’s too young to really get why I prefer the originals.
I was already sending a jubilantly grateful “yes, thank you!” email even before I’d finished reading the invite: 20Th Century Fox was putting on a large press event at Skywalker Ranch and Lucasfilm Headquarters, where we’d get to participate in an exclusive screening of The Phantom Menace in 3D, and would I like to attend, and bring my son? For two days, we’d be right where the mythmaking happens: Skywalker Ranch is Lucas’ retreat and sound studio, located north of San Francisco in Marin County, and Lucasfilm currently occupies a sizeable portion of the old Presidio army base, right by the Golden Gate Bridge. Lucas and I spent the following week in a state of geeky bliss, wondering what we’d see, who we’d get to meet. I was having a hard enough time staying focused at work; I was amazed that he managed to make it through the school week without incident. (“Yes, Mr. Avant, your son kept interrupting science class by loudly insisting that these weren’t the droids he was looking for.”)
We took an evening flight; the folks at Fox spared no expense, whisking from SFO to the Ritz-Carlton in a town car, giving us $100 a night to blow on room service. A large bag of Star Wars swag greeted us when we got to the room; Lucas got a new lightsaber, bringing his armory of laser swords up to 7. After spending the next morning at Fisherman’s Wharf, we joined a group of other bloggers (curiously, there were only two other dads in the mix) and headed out to Skywalker Ranch.
Skywalker Ranch is, as the PR guide told us, a working ranch; my comment that the CGI cows were incredibly lifelike was met with the wan smile of someone who’d heard that line at least a dozen times in the past week. The ranch houses Skywalker Sound, where the meticulous work of finding just the right noises to give a voice to Rancors, Wampas, and Tauntauns takes place. We were surrounded by journalists; a few had their kids in tow, but for the most part they were there to work, immune from the charms of the Promotional Jedi. I was as weak-minded as a Mos Eisley stormtrooper – there amongst the props under glass (Darth Maul’s lightsaber! Princess Leia’s blaster!) I was in Geek Heaven, and eagerly absorbed all of our guide’s spiel. We were ushered in to a massive sound recording studio; this was where, we were told, the orchestra scored the films, done while the accompanying scene played out on a theater-sized movie screen above them. Here we met digital artist John Goodson, a twenty-plus year Industrial Light and Magic veteran who worked on the art design for Episodes I, II, and III. He explained how those fantastic vehicles were created; first as sketches, then rendered into models, both real and computer-animated. I ate this stuff up. Much of it went over the kid’s head; he of course knows that the Millenium Falcon isn’t real, and doesn’t much care about the details. (Oddly, Lucas did light up when Goodson mentioned that he helped the alien war machines for Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds; he’d just finished reading a Scholastic version of the H.G. Wells novel. I headed off a potential geek showdown when another guest implied that the movie’s monstrous Tripods were “inspired” by something he’d seen in a video game – Lucas whispered to me “no, that kid’s wrong because the book was written in 1898 and there weren’t even video games back then”. That’s my son.) Next stop was one of the sound effects studios, where Skywalker Sound supervisor Matthew Wood (himself a recognizable part of the Star Wars Universe – he voices the evil cyborg General Grievous) walked us through the process of mixing voice effects and adding them to the picture. Lucas got the chance to “robotize” his voice, recording some Battle Droid dialogue and adding it to a clip from Episode I.
The next day, we were bussed over to Lucasfilm HQ, there to watch a screening of the 3D Phantom Menace. We watched it in at the company’s large, immaculate movie theater; the place was fill of ecstatic kids and tired, jaded journalists and bloggers. The lights dimmed, the familiar “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” appeared on screen, and Lucas whispered something to me that stuck in my head: “Dad! I’ve never seen a Star Wars movie in a real theater before!”
The root of diehard Star Wars fandom is this: the diehard Star Wars fan always wishes for something more. As kids, we were talking about what a sequel might look like as we walked out of the theater after our fifth viewing of the original. We flipped out when Marvel started putting out Star Wars comics with new plotlines, and when Ballantine began putting out Star Wars novels, our allowance money went to the local bookstore. I made my parents take me to see Disney’s bizarre sci-fi entry The Black Hole because a friend of mine told me it featured the trailer for The Empire Strikes Back. (Oh, the rampant speculation over that minute and thirty seconds of footage! What were those giant, walking, blaster bolt-shooting dinosaur-looking things?) But the disappointment began when Return of The Jedi hit, there was that disappointment over the Ewoks, partially because there’s just no way that a bunch of teddy bears could defeat the Emperor’s best troops using sticks and rocks, more so because we’d heard that the final battle was going to take place on the Wookiee planet and how epic would that have been? And it continued when we realized that Episode VI was it, at least for the foreseeable future; a decidedly anti-climatic climax. The grumbling began, of course, with the Special Edition re-releases; a cash grab, perhaps, but despite the tinkering, I always believed that George Lucas was still a fan of his own movies, and wanted to see the films he wished he’d been able to make.
Pure speculation, of course. And none of this mattered in the slightest to the kid. Talk of Clone Troopers and Padawans dominated the drive back to the airport; we conversed as equals, delighting in our mutual knowledge of that galaxy far, far away. I remembered me at that age, going on and on about Y-Wings (better against Star Destroyers because they carry bombs) and Boba Fett. Star Wars matters, and it doesn’t; it’ll fade in time, as did Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Zorro, and all the rest. I prefer the originals not because they’re great movies (although you can make the argument that Empire is one of the best sequels ever made) but because they remind me of what it was like to be 8, with a universe full of wonder and danger at my fingertips. We dragged our tired selves onto the plane and settled back into our seats, visions of my bed running through my skull, visions of Naboo and the Outer Rim Territories running through his. The jet engines kicked in, the ground became a blur. “Lightspeed!” he said, a bit too loudly for our fellow travelers. “Lightspeed!,” I yelled back.