JJ Abrams opens the box of my childhood
[This post contains spoilers of Star Wars, Inside Out, and your childhood.]
“Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view. ”
-Obi-Wan Kenobi, Return of the Jedi
When I was twelve, my family had been in America for seven years, and we could finally afford the American Dream. My parents sold our tiny, grimy duplex in exchange for a larger house in a much better school district.
But the deal on our dream house fell through because the sellers house wouldn’t budge the last $10,000 on the price.
We had walked through that house five to six times, had mentally started putting furniture in corners and planning parties and sleepovers, movie nights and weekend breakfasts. We were all devastated. But our old house still had a sold sign on it, so there was no way back. We also had no place to live.
We moved into an apartment complex located in my new school district while my parents kept saving money and kept searching.
Thanks to my parents’ hard work I had a fairly easy childhood, Polly Pocket aside. But, I grew up deep in the heart of flyover America, the part that hadn’t been exposed to anything foreign.
Growing up with weird foods, language, and cultural references to obscure Soviet rock bands no one had ever heard of, being an immigrant kid meant living in a default state of weird, where the closest thing to tvorog was cottage cheese that my mom hung in special surgery-grade cheesecloths, which dripped slowly into our kitchen sink over the course of several days before they hardened into a tvorog-like product.
If things weren’t bad enough with the vaguely medical-grade gauze constantly taking up our kitchen, I was an enormous introvert. Being an introvert when you’re a successful respected working adult married to another introvert adult who loves you is easy. Being a lonely glasses-wearing, braces-grinding, book-reading, immigrant-kid sixth-gade introvert with an extremely poor body image who is not sure if anyone will think she is an ok human being was hard.
I had made some friends at my old school who were used to how weird I was. Now I was alone in my strangeness again. And not only was I going to a new school, but I had to tell people that I had moved into an apartment from a house.
After having the run of my old house and backyard, living in a space that was 20 feet from my parents’ bedroom, to the kitchen, to the living room felt strange and embarrassing. As a kid in a middle class school district, it was mortifying to tell people you didn’t live in a house anymore. Only people who were getting divorced, went broke, or had some other serious freaky deviations from standard suburban life, lived in apartments, a fact that popular tv culture constantly reinforced by showing the embarrassed dad with the box o’stuff moving in his midlife crisis vehicle to some shady apartment across town.
Normal families lived in houses with 1.6 children, had golden retrievers and minivans, and ate pizza on Friday nights. I didn’t want to invite anyone over in the two tiny rooms, the narrow, windowless kitchen with that damned cheesecloth constantly dripping over the sink when the rest of my friends had backyards and swing sets and their own rooms with perfectly monogrammed towels from Land’s End hanging in their bathrooms.
Because of my constant insecurity and the newness of my school, the year we lived in Mountain View Village was the hardest of my pre-adolescence.
As a result, I spent a lot of 1997 at my local library.
I made my way through Judy Blume, then the Babysitters Club, and then after I ran out of books, I started browsing through the VHS rental stacks.
One day, I discovered the plastic packaging of the Star Wars trilogy on VHS, six tapes it was, I believe, held together with thick rubber bands.
I liked the heroic portrayal of the faces on the jacket, surrounded by the vastness of open space.
The heft of the three VHS tapes was what impressed me the most, though. The movies just seemed so substantial, definitive. They looked like it might be a good, long story.
I watched A New Hope on the tiny VCR/tv combo in my bedroom. I think it was on a weekend that my parents were out house-hunting. They always came back from these trips exhausted and dejected, and I mostly stayed reading or writing in my room.
To say that Star Wars moved me is an understatement.
The movie absolutely blew my mind.
It was completely different from anything I had ever seen in my entire life.
The inside of George Lucas’s mind expanded my pathetically small universe.
I watched N_ew Hope_ eleven times before I had to return it to the library the next week, savoring each detail, trying to will myself to hold back in watching the other two movies.
I desperately wanted to know what happened to Luke Skywalker, but I was also so afraid for the high to end.
I watched Empire Strikes Back and then waited a whole three days before breaking down seeing Jedi. When I found out Darth Vader was Luke’s father, I don’t remember how I felt, but I imagine my reaction was pretty similar to this:
This is why you shouldn’t show your kids the Star Wars saga in story order. Do release order. My daughter last night pic.twitter.com/J4LCxdHj1X
— Jon Miller (@HawkeyeNation) December 22, 2015
Once I finished Jedi, I was gutted. I had gone with Luke on the entirety of his journey. The train got off here. I could only watch each of the movies so many times (20, 8, and 4, respectively.) At some point,
That’s when I hit the internet. 1997 was still the dog days of dial-up, and, being that I was an only child and my parents were usually busy, I was constantly on it, trying to max out the time before I got kicked off AOL to the phone ringing.
I discovered that there was a whole culture, an ecosystem associated with people trying to extend the Star Wars universe as much as I hadn’t wanted it to end. I discovered there were novels, fan fiction, whole sites dedicated to trivia. I printed reams and reams of paper references, jokes, fan photos with hundreds of pages of color ink. I taped them up all on my apartment walls with removable tape. Luke Skywalker was my favorite. I both had a huge crush on him and wanted to be him so bad my skin hurt sometimes.
I read all of the novels, the Kevin Anderson Jedi Academy, the Callista Trilogy (which was super weird and too dark for me), the Heir to the Empire trilogy by Timothy Zahn (still my personal favorite. ) I couldn’t find one of the Zahn books at the library so I begged my parents to take me to the bookstore. I still remember the huge fight that ensued over purchasing a brand-new book (“You’ll only read it once! You don’t need it!”), but the minute I smelled the newness of the cover and realized there was more Star Wars and Luke in there, I knew it was worth it.
But I was like the evangelical convert. All of the kids I knew had already seen it when they were little, but there was no one in my extended Russian family that could have introduced me to it. I came into the Star Wars religion on my own and I wanted everyone to know about it.
I became what I see as now very obnoxious, bordering on aggressive. I tried to make my mom, no doubt exhausted from work, the house situation, and the dog I had begged her to buy, watch it, but halfway through the part where the Jawas take R2-D2, she said, “I’m not into science fiction.”
“But it’s not science fiction,” I begged her, because to me, it wasn’t. Science fiction was boring and full of science and weapons. Star Wars was just an amazing story, simple as that.
I recruited my old friends to reshoot Star Wars on our home video camcorder, with a script improvised by yours truly. That still exists somewhere. I wrote a parody called Car Doors on our computer, featuring really bad late 1990s clip art. I wrote words to the theme song and made my parents listen as I played it with one finger on my electric piano.
I wrote this thing, which I still have, unfortunately:
At some point, I probably was single-handedly supporting George Lucas through merchandising and creating massive amounts of copyright infringement.
I loved everything about the movies, everything that everyone always loves. But what I loved most was the idea of the Force and that someone, a single person, could manipulate it through hard work. I knew it wasn’t real, but the idea that the Force maybe at some point had existed out there comforted me, and I found myself, like everyone in my generation probably, seated at the dinner table, reaching out to the silverware drawer with my eyes closed, trying to will a stray fork into my hand from 30 feet away.
The idea of the Force out there existing anchored me. Whenever I was having a shitty day at school, I would look up at the sky as I got off the school bus, and pretend that I was Luke Skywalker and I could kick ass if I wanted to. I pretended my X-wing was just past the open field behind the apartment complex and I could go to it any time I wanted to.
At night, if I felt like I was close to crying, I closed my eyes and visualized the second before a ship goes into light speed, the quiet anticipation, the pregnant pause before the adventure.
The thought of the moment before a starship takes off somehow was so serious to me that I calmed down and became serious myself, and fell asleep. I still use this technique today.
Star Wars saved my childhood. It made me who I am today.
But, like all childhood obsessions, it smoldered for a while before quietly beginning to pass.
The recent Disney movie Inside Out, about a girl, Riley, whose family moves to San Francisco, features a similar concept. Riley has an imaginary friend, Bing Bong, who she used to play with all the time when she was little. He’s part elephant and all fun.
Bing Bong used to be Riley’s favorite. They went to the moon every day on a rocket ship that was really Riley’s Radio Flyer. When we meet him, Bing Bong is still living inside Riley’s mind, but is no longer a part of her everyday thoughts. Eventually, Riley forgets him entirely, and he fades into they gray soft oblivion where all dying memories live, evaporating in a colored cloud of imagination.
It’s a bittersweet moment, and until I watched Inside Out, I didn’t realize that that’s what happened to me, as well. Our horrible apartment year ended, and we bought a beautiful new house. Slowly, I started to make friends, and, just as slowly, all of my Star Wars pictures started to come down from the walls. Luke Skywalker was the last to leave, replaced by an ever-growing number of Backstreet Boys posters.
But, like the banked memories in Inside Out, Star Wars didn’t leave entirely. A little part of it is constantly in the back of my mind. It’s a set of fragile, beautiful glass stained glass orbs, wrapped in layers of thick old newspaper, kept safe by a miasma of nostalgia and a sprinkling of magic.
When Star Wars comes up these days in the media, which is pretty often, it’s in the context of these memories, of what it meant to me as I looked at my ceiling in the dark when I was twelve and wished with all my might that I was a solitary, graceful hero in an X-wing flying far, far, far away from my awkward life.
All of this is to say, I was terrified to see The Force Awakens. I purposely didn’t read anything about the development of the movie, and I watched the trailer with a ginger hesitation, because J.J. Abrams was deliberately taking out every single piece of glass from that box in my mind, unwrapping it, touching it, squinting at it in the sunlight.
And I think he knew that. He certainly talked about being a fan with a great deal responsibility for a long time. Which is why he tried to hard to capture the flavor of the original movies, and why so many other people, including many people that I personally know and whose opinion I trust, loved The Force Awakens. $1 billion on opening weekend can’t be wrong, right?
But the minute the scroll came up on the screen in those first opening minutes, I knew he had failed, because the Star Wars that JJ Abrams has made is a cardboard cutout of the luminous energy of the original.
The big ideas are the same. A rebel pilot is captured and tortured. The new Empire is after him. The pilot is delivering a droid that has plans in its system (doesn’t anyone text or send encrypted emails in the Star Wars of the future?). The droid lands on a desert planet. There it all was, again, only now, it was in CG: Jakku as Tattooine, Maz Kanata as Yoda, Rey as Luke Skywalker, BB-8 as R2D2, Finn as, possibly the new Han. The villain in the mask, once again. The heroes in the orange jumpsuits, with the rebel insignia. Is there anything fresh, gasp-worthy?
Luke familiar? (HAAAAAA.)
It’s true that, with all great stories, nothing is new. After all, Lucas didn’t take the ideas from a vacuum, but from the monomyth, and from Kurosawa, and Flash Gordon, and Edgar Rice Burroughs before that. But Star Wars took all of these key ideas about how human life plays out, and combined them into something completely fresh. Great artists steal.
In this new version of Star Wars, though, the elements are not blended so much as photocopied at 400% resolution. The story is the same, mostly derivative, and the old characters are reliably trotted out, seemingly not to any purpose other than to mine nostalgia.
I had to look away during most scenes. The actors don’t look wiser or illuminated, as cameos are meant to make them appear. They just looked…tired. And ready to make some bank. Harrison Ford alone was reported to make $34 million. Carrie Fisher explicitly said it was about the money for her, and also because, essentially, no one else is hiring.
These retreads should have been familiar, comforting, like a warm blanket on a cold day, like dipping back into a familiar novel and finding all of your same favorite characters. Only, instead of re-entering the universe I knew and loved and was comforted by, I was now in into a Potemkin village, where the facade was all there, covering shoddy plot holes and flimsy characters who couldn’t be saved by novice actors not confident enough to take the reins.
In the original Star Wars, there is magnetism and humor, both intentional and not. The viewer is assumed to be competent from the beginning. What other movie today would be ballsy enough to put a scrolling block of text that viewers had to read and understand before jumping into a complicated mix of characters and events?
In Disney’s Star Wars, as in many other movies today, the audience is assumed to be stupid. The constant winks to the old trilogy as not homages, but desperate attempts to make the new trilogy seem legitimate, desperate to make the bridge and make the money flow. Finn’s overwrought mannerisms looks embarrassing compared to Han Solo’s original wry humor.
The dismantling of the heart of Star Wars by MBAs eager to cash in on the $4 billion merchandising machine that is, at its core, a genuine human story of fragile triumph, is a horrible thing to watch. Because it is so antithetical to the original nature of what Lucas intended.
“I’ve never been that much of a money guy,” he says in an interview about the sale. “I’m more of a film guy, and most of the money I’ve made is in defense of trying to keep creative control of my movies.”
Granted, most of his creative choices are questionable. He rewrote the script to A New Hope at least four times and solicited help (much of which he ignored) for the dialogue, which he was terrible at. He messed with the resulting movies so much that the current editions for sale on the market are unwatchable and unrecognizable.
But it’s obvious that the original movies, are made, at their core, of passion, ingenuity, and love. That there is a dedication to the characters (especially from Harrison Ford, who rewrote most of his own lines,) and a respect for the rules of the universe, and especially the Force.
This current Star Wars is undoubtedly about mining that genuine trail of goodwill and simply turning it into money. There are Star Wars oranges, for God’s sake.
I walked out of the movie theater feeling like Abrams had failed. And, like the prequels before him, he had left smudge prints all over my beautiful silverware, my vases, my Waterford crystal. Why wasn’t I consulted?
The more I think about the changing nature of the entertainment industry and the constant need for monetization and profits in the face of an industry that is leaking money as consumer choices open up, the more amazed I am that anything good gets made at all anymore.
Why can’t it be like in the good old days of 1977, I thought as I researched this article and people’s original reactions to the movies. But, as I read more and more, I became confused, and scared.
I’m scared that, if I had seen the original movies at age 30, if I would not have liked them. The original, archival NPR review pegs the movie as fluff and wonderful entertainment that “kids can take their parents to.” Multiple reviews allude to it as “corny.” I mean, just look at this original poster. Jesus.
I’m scared that maybe what had changed was not Star Wars, but me. Maybe the problem was that, since I was 12, I’ve gotten cynical. I’ve been rejected from multiple jobs, kicked around in the real world, and found out how online advertising works and that the NSA exists. I understand motivations. I understand money, and I understand that no one is doing this movie out of the goodness of their hearts. Almost nothing in this world is pure for me anymore.
So maybe, the terrifying part is that I am too old for unadulterated, unbridled joy and belief of the kind I felt when I watched Luke draw his lightsaber for the first time, and maybe it’s that this movie isn’t for me. Maybe, behind all the machinations and Bob Iger and Kathleen Kennedy sitting anxiously on their piles of money, there is some idea that the old magic is back.
But, I did one last test for whether this movie is the real deal. I listened to the kids at the movie theater, for the same kind of reactions as the girl gasping with disbelief at Darth Vader being Annakin Skywalker, to shrieks of delight of the kind when Leia and Luke escaped the stormtroopers by swinging across that chasm, of kids making lightsaber noises.
And sadly, I heard nothing for Finn or Poe or Rey or any of the rest of the actors now tasked with carrying forward this enormous legacy into an endless, exhausting loop of theme park rides, voiceovers, magazine covers, and talk show appearances.
The loudest clapping I heard was when Chewie and Han Solo appeared, old and gray, tired of blasters and escapades, and the loudest shriek when Kylo Ren pierced Han through, destroying the last of the memories of our collective hero, Harrison Ford falling into the chasm of oblivion, checking out with his money, leaving the rest of the heroes screaming into the darkness, trying to fill the void of the greatness that was my first love.