Sunday, May 4, 2014
Always Star Wars
When I was a kid in the mid-to-late eighties, my Dad would let me go down to the video shop and rent something out for the family. He knew I could be trusted to get something that everybody could watch, I knew I couldn't get anything too horrific or adult. A bit of exploitation cinema could sometimes have something for the whole family, but the safer, the better.
The only instruction he ever gave me was that I could get whatever I wanted, but I was not - under any circumstances – to get one of the Star Wars films.
He had to tell me every time. And he was right to do so, because if he didn't, I definitely would be coming back with some Star Wars and an excuse that there was nothing else. Even though I'd seen all of the films many times, I wanted to watch it over and over and over and over again, and I had to be restrained for my own good.
I was eight when Return Of The Jedi came out, so that was me: hooked for life. At that age, the Star Wars films weren't just movies – they were absolute phenomenon.
And it didn't feel like a weird little obsession, like some of the comics and TV I liked – everybody was into Star Wars. It seeped into the culture like nothing else before, and nothing since. Star Wars was a Big Deal, and everybody was into it.
The films weren't even on video when I first fell into a life-long Star Wars obsession, (and nobody I knew even had a video player until I was nine), but there was regular re-releasing of the films at the cinema, and all those wonderful toys and books and records and tee-shirts.
I hungered for Star Wars action figures with a fierce, narrow-eyed passion that I've never really matched since, and the cool ones like the Stormtrooper or Boba Fett never got down to my town, down on the arse end of the world, but I still snapped up every Hoth Soldier #2 and Captain Fabulous, the Big Gay Bespin Pilot I could find.
I still have some of them today, but most of them have had their arms and legs snapped off. The ones that are in the best condition are the Princess Leia figures, because I didn't play them to death like the cool C-3P0 and Darth Vader figures. They were girl's toys and I was a little boy, and little boys are sexist little shits who never want to play with girls' toys.
The Return of the Jedi bubblegum card set was the first major collection I ever put together and actually completed, and it taught me valuable life lessons about negotiation and compromise that all kids should learn. I read every issue of the Marvel Comics series I could find, and even though my critical facilities were still working themselves out, I knew the comic reached a peak with those Goodwin/Williamson issues that it would never match again.
I got the Star Wars calenders every year, and seared the storybook adaptations – the ones with the lavish photos - into my brain. I had an Empire Strikes Back cap that I wouldn't take off my head for two years, until it literally fell apart. I read every magazine article about future plans for the movies, and believed every word I read about the 18-part plan, and that Boba Fett was really Leia's mum.
And all my friends and schoolmates were as obsessed as I was. We were all Star Wars kids. Everyone was.
Because those movies – those first three films released between 1977 and 1983 – were sheer bloody perfection.
I eventually had all three films on lovely, lovely video tape, and I ended up taking them for granted for so many years. I just watched them this week for the first time in years, and they're still so beautiful.
There is a tactile reality to these films - the crazy creatures and impossible technology and awesome architecture were grounded in worlds of dust, ruffled hair, scuffed boots and hurt feelings. The Star Wars films were based around some goofy concepts, but they were always taken dead seriously – a beguiling mix that has also proved successful for Marvel movies in the past decade.
They were all George Lucas' vision, but they were brought to life by a small army of extremely talented trades and craftspeople, with a large number of essential collaborators, including Ben Burtt and his marvellous sound team, John Williams and his ear for thrilling bombast, and Ralph Mcquarrie and the blazing alchemy he poured into his paintings.
They all created this world of pure excitement, and unmatched thrills. A universe of charming rogues and fast-paced action, with some of the sharpest action editing ever attempted in film, changing the whole grammar of the blockbuster film.
And they changed everything, and were so addictive, because they were so much fun. There were parts that were so incredibly exciting it was almost unbearable – the moment in the first film where Han Solo and Chewbacca fly in out of the sun to save Luke at the end of all things is still ridiculously powerful, the speeder bike chase in the Jedi is still too fast to quite follow, and there is some real energetic brutality in the final moments of the fight between Luke and Vader on Cloud City.
All that backstory was fascinating, and I had my own ideas about what the Clone Wars were all about, just like everybody else. And the characters were drawn in such broad strokes that it was impossible to resist falling into their trials and tribulations.
But Star Wars was infinitely re-watchable because of those great set-pieces – I could never get sick of the sphincter tightening flight through the asteroid field in Empire, the leap across the chasm in the first film is a fantastic bit of daredeviling and I'm never quite certain that Lando and the Falcon crew are getting out of that exploding Death Star in time.
So that was it – I never got over how much I loved those films. I might not need to watch them every day anymore, and I might have even gone a couple of years without watching them, but that fondness never died.
I still followed the saga into comics and novels, although I bailed out of the Expanded Universe after half a dozen books, and lost all interest in the comics once Cam Kennedy finished up. I saw all of the re-released movies at the cinema in the late nineties, and that was during my biggest drinking days, and I was drunk as fuck when I saw the horrible new effects, so I didn't mind their intrusion that much.
And then the prequels came along, and I enjoyed every single one of them, because there was always the odd set-piece or scene that still shined – the podrace in the Phantom Menace is a masterclass in editing, and the various lightsaber battles were terrifically thrilling.
But the stories were hampered by tedious plots and grating comedic relief, and were often over-busy and over-thought. I lost most of my faith in the Star Wars story sometime around the asteroid belt scene in Attack In The Clones, a replication of the Empire chase scene, with none of the thrills, just busy visuals and a grating score.
There is still the odd spark of genius in the past ten years of Star Wars, especially in Genndy Tartakovsky's fantastic Clone Wars shorts, and the new films are sparking some interest again, but the fondness shows no sign of blossoming into a proper obsession again.
Still, I'll always be a Wars Boy. I also like Star Trek, but it's a Beatles and the Stones thing – you can love both but if you really had to choose, there should only be one answer. Trek is sexy and optimistic, but Wars is always the first choice.
Star Wars has always been the first choice.