Feeling The Force - What 'Star Wars' Means to Me - Chris at the Pictures

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Feeling The Force - What 'Star Wars' Means to Me

“This’ll make you feel old…”

It’s a statement I direct at my parents quite a lot these days whenever a certain celebrity, family member or piece of media survives another decade. It’s not something I have levelled at myself very much (with the slight exception being two years back, when Toy Story – a film I consider to be the first cultural landmark of my life – turned twenty), but seeing that swish 40th anniversary logo plastered across various hoarding and merchandise at last month’s Star Wars Celebration event in Orlando, Florida, somehow caught me off guard.

[Image: starwars.com]

Being just shy of 22 years old, I've barely witnessed half of what constitutes four decades of Star Wars’ cultural impact, but the simple fact that I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t know what Star Wars was probably speaks for itself. I wasn’t there for the original release, nor Empire, nor Jedi. Heck, I was still in nappies when the Special Edition came around! My first clear memory of Star Wars is, tellingly, my first clear memory of childhood (to any family or friends reading this who’ve heard this story a million times before, feel free to skip ahead a paragraph or two).

My Dad and I are sat in the Warner Village cinema, Cambridge (now a rather swanky VUE – other cinema chains are available, etc.), and I need the toilet. Being a four-year-old, I’ve chosen the most inconvenient possible time to announce this, and Dad rushes us both to the gents with the urgency and efficiency of a well-practiced fire drill. It’s my first visit to the pictures, (a special occasion all by itself) but, more importantly, we’re seeing a Star Wars film. Being an observant reader who’s done the math, you’ll realise by now that the Star Wars film in question was Episode I – The Phantom Menace. We make it back to our seats with moments to spare, as ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ fades from the screen. Three seconds of total, unbelievable silence pass. Then…

WHAM! Two gigantic words emblazoned in fiery yellow and backed by a roaring orchestra fly into the vacuum. In that moment, nothing else in the world mattered. I was there. I was in the screen. I was in the film. And the rest, as they say, is history.

[Cambridge VUE, as it currently stands]

I still don’t know how to really explain that feeling. I don’t know if I ever will. It’s this…oomph in my chest that only those 8 (soon to be 9) films can create. Once again, I still can’t muster the right words to explain why it’s more than just a favourite film – everyone has a favourite film, but there’s a difference between having a favourite film and a cinematic experience that comes to form your future. The only explanation I’ve found that even comes close to what I’m trying to express is Mark Kermode’s description of his first time watching The Exorcist – “my imagination took flight, my soul did somersaults, and the physical world melted away into nothingness around me.”

Obviously, there’s a vast difference in the perceived cinematic quality of The Exorcist compared to The Phantom Menace, compared even to the Star Wars series in general. To some, it’s a dumb throwback space opera that got too big for its boots, signalling somewhat of a death knell for the serious American cinema of the seventies. To others it’s a benchmark for storytelling, reaching that perfect balance between screenplay and special effects to which many strive, but few accomplish. To me, it’s that feeling I have watching X-wings swoop into the Death Star trench, of being pinned back in my seat as podracer engines shoot across Tatooine and feeling the room vibrate as Rey and Kylo Ren’s lightsabers clash.

It’s not always had the most positive impact, mind. My obsession often drove others to bully me at school or meant I was often fixated on happenings in a galaxy far, far away when I probably should have been concentrating on schoolwork, friendships, relationships, future planning etc. Not to mention the trivia, which likely composes half of my brain. I joke in my Twitter bio that I’m not really a person but just the Wookieepedia database disguised as one, but it’s not a million miles from the truth: for instance, I can’t drive a car or tell you how the off-side rule works, but I can attempt a detailed drawing of what’s inside a lightsaber and explain the difference between the Millennium Falcon’s proximity and deflector shield alarms, respectively (in case you’re interested, one’s a ‘boo-doo-boo-doo-boo-doo’ sort of noise and the other’s more a ‘weeweeweeweeweewee’). Oh, and I once won a Chewbacca impression competition by Yoda quote tiebreaker. And by once, I mean last year. Drunk.

But for better or worse, it’s still been there for me during every stage of my life. The originals fuelled my imagination as a child. The prequels were the films I grew up with. The Clone Wars served as inspiration for the stop-motion films I made between 2008 and 2012, when I didn’t have many friends. The build-up and release of The Force Awakens was a constant source of excitement throughout university (more on that here), and the release of Rogue One came at a crucial time in my struggle with depression.

Even now, the fleeting glimpses we’ve had of The Last Jedi have stoked the fire all over again, because seeing new Star Wars isn’t like seeing other films for the first time. Other films may intrigue, entertain, confuse, annoy or astound me, but trying to take in a new Star Wars film for the first time is like making a new friend: even if I’m unsure about them at first, once they’ve made me smile and gasp and cry, they’ll always be there.

So why did that big ‘40’ make me, a recent graduate still struggling to amass the smallest amount of facial hair, feel old? Because I'm now the age of Star Wars' heroes: Luke, Anakin and Rey finally faced their destinies and confronted great challenge at the onset of their twenties. The tests I face - escaping my hellish retail job, pursuing a career I'm often told is dying out, finding a new place to call home while conquering lingering low moods and ever-present social anxiety - may seem rather minimal compared to destroying the Death Star, turning the galaxy on its head or gathering the courage to summon a legendary weapon...but not to me. 

...I kinda hope it's closer to blowing up the Death Star, though; big medal ceremony and all that jazz. Plus, if I can survive that, I get The Empire Strikes Back immediately afterwards, which is pretty great. Although it is the one where the bad guys win. This analogy's falling apart. I'm going to stop now. May the 4th be with you.

[Awkward nerd bothers droid at Star Wars Celebration, 2016]