Commentary: From Luke to Anakin: Growing Up with Star Wars

The excitement over Revenge of the Sith's release recalls standing in line to see the original Star Wars when it opened in 1977. My parents enjoyed taking the family to the movies, which offered personal, low-cost entertainment. We could hardly wait to see The Sting in 1973 and The Towering Inferno a year later. The following year, my sister and I defied our mother to see Jaws, which Mom was convinced was a horror movie.

Mom was right, but we just had to see it. We took a bus to see Steven Spielberg's forbidden fish tale at a mall in Skokie, Illinois, which would have been a brilliant scheme had we bothered to check the return bus schedule. Nothing like being stranded in Skokie and having to call Mom to pick us up from a movie we'd been prohibited from seeing. Being caught did not teach us to avoid being caught up in Hollywood hype. Not then and not two years later, when Dad piled us into the station wagon to stand in line for something called Star Wars.

With its simple title in smooth letters outlined against black space, Star Wars was different sight unseen. Unlike today's pre-release, multi-media mania, newspaper ads were composed of words printed in black and white, teasing, "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…" What images there were emphasized Luke Skywalker—not Darth Vader. That's what got us into the seats: the promise of a heroic adventure—of watching good fight evil and win.

That raises the cultural context, which was the war in Vietnam, initiated by communists and bungled by politicians, and the Watergate scandal, which magnified the minutiae just when America needed to get serious about its philosophy.

But America was in the grip of the hippies, who held American values in contempt, and they were having an impact in Hollywood. Fiery Katharine Hepburn and sunny Doris Day had all but departed from pictures, versatile Sidney Poitier had been vilified in his prime for being an Uncle Tom, and classy Cary Grant and upright Gary Cooper had given way to sniveling, squinting anti-heroes. The hum of a light saber firing up was a pleasant change from the sound of shrill hippies and their cinematic counterparts screaming in our faces.

Star Wars delivered a tonic for the time: sweeping music, opening scroll and a heap of hokey dialog set to purposeful action with enough optimism to cleanse the stink of Woodstock for a long time.

Bringing self-confident heroes back to life, Star Wars engaged them in vital pursuits and its catch phrase—"May the Force Be With You"—was an affirmative 'chin-up' for a nation deluged by the drug culture. The intellectuals gave us Annie Hall; the middle class—a guy from Modesto—gave us Star Wars. It was a choice between cocaine and the Millennium Falcon. It was not a tough call.

The series has since faded to the grey area it seemed to stand against, morphing into a Matrix-like state of malevolence, with Revenge of the Sith's Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) insisting that his young apprentice was supposed to be the One. Turns out it was dreary Anakin's—not bright Luke's—story and Darth Vader wasn't such a bad guy after all. Like Vader, the saga became more mechanical than human, and the moral relativism contaminating the culture affected Star Wars too. Those looking for heroism had to be satisfied with Yoda twirling a saber.

Today's fans appear less interested in the story than in the spectacle; during a recent screening, they hooted at random in recognition of the most trivial characters. Drowning out entire scenes, it seemed like at any moment Artoo Detoo could have belted out a bleeping version of Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life" and they would have grunted like monkeys.

But the grunting started with the murmur of Boomers and Xers, so hungry for heroes we did not bother to notice the creep toward pointless action, and we were first to suspend belief over the baloney about the Force. The blockbusting arc of a dark father and his bold son—depicted according to the wishes of its creator, itself an exceptional achievement—is about to roll its closing credits. 28 years after standing in line, it's not that Star Wars is not fun. It was something good to cheer for in an era of defeatism. But, like sneaking out to see Jaws, it is less remembered for what it was than for what it might have been.

Originally posted on Box Office Mojo on May 18, 2005.

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