Allow me to indulge my nerdiest impulses here for a moment, if you please…
Drew McWeeny’s Nerd 2.0 columns have forcibly reminded me of what’s really special about all of the Star Wars films.
I began reading these columns with a feeling bordering on disdain for the overt sentimentality on display. But Mr. McWeeny eventually wore down my defenses in his highly affecting portraits of the unfettered enthusiasm of his small boys for George Lucas’ universe. I finished his last Star Wars blu-ray column with tears in my eyes.
I’ve long been an apologist for the Star Wars prequel films, based largely on my own experiences watching the films with my young (at the time) son. He was maybe 7 or 8 when I started showing him the prequel films and a little older when I introduced the originals. (In hindsight, I wish I had followed Mr. McWeeny’s viewing order.) My apologias all revolve around the same basic theme: however much we may still enjoy the Star Wars products as adults, these are really children’s entertainments.
Many of those who will protest, loudly, that the prequel films are equally disappointing as kid-fare have never really watched them with kids.
Here’s the thing: Star Wars (I still refuse to call it A New Hope) was revelatory to us as children. I saw Star Wars at the drive-in the year it was released, 1977. I was eight-years-old. I can remember vividly for months afterward creating little cardboard spaceships out of Kleenex boxes, paper towel rolls and scotch tape for my action figures. My cousin Barry and I fought mock space battles and lightsaber duels and stomped around the house singing the John Williams themes for what seems like years. I loved many entertainments as a child—Planet of the Apes, Spider Man, 101 Dalmatians, The Wild Wild West, Space 1999, Doctor Who, The Hobbit—but no other book, comic, television show or movie that I experienced as a child made me want to inhabit that universe like Star Wars.
When I first went to see The Phantom Menace in the theater, I had many of the same reactions as the most troll-like online enemy of Lucas: the plot was overly complicated yet dry in places, the dialogue was stilted, there was too much indiscriminate use of CG, it was too busy and oddly structured, some of the aliens seemed to border on racist caricatures—sure, all true—but the overwhelming feeling I had sitting in that dark theater was the thrill of being eight again. Was that feeling entirely nostalgic? Hell no.
Here’s a brief list of everything The Phantom Menace does right: Ewan McGregor, Watto, the designs for the new fighters and cruisers and robots and guns and pretty much everything, the pod race, the final lightsaber duel (one of the best in all of the films)…and does anyone deny the inherent coolness of Darth Maul?
For months after seeing The Phantom Menace my son created large, complicated scenes of battling droids and aliens and Jedis on the floor of my apartment with action figures and toys from other sources and bits of homemade gear. For years after seeing the rest of the films, he continued to stage elaborate imaginary scenes and battle with plastic light-sabers and draw scenes from the movies and dream of that galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars is highly derivative of many ostensibly better sources, but the relative quality of a given work of art is not the only measure of its worth. As I write this, kids all over the world are wacking each other with makeshift lightsabers—no one is pretending to be Joseph Campbell.
All of the Star Wars films work beautifully for kids and for adults who are still capable of channelling a little of the innocence required to suspend disbelief long enough to let Star Wars, the universe, wash over you. What George Lucas understands, as Mr. McWeeny noted in his last column on the subject, is that a dense level of detail is required for kids to get truly lost in something. Star Wars appeals to kids whose imaginations begin to create their own fanfic as eight-year-olds—writing themselves into that world.
It still appeals to me, because experiencing it with my son let me revisit that eight-year-old me in such a visceral way. I could see so much of myself in his reaction to Star Wars and I can still get lost in all the sometimes silly details myself. I am eight-years-old when I watch any of the movies now.
Critiquing the Star Wars films like other movies is really beside the point for me personally, but I can see why people still do it. I’m not oblivious to the validity of some of these critiques, but I have no patience left for them.
Star Wars is a grand toolbox for the imaginative, not static works of cinema.