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'Star Wars,' And The Force It Awakened In Me

Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, left, and Harrison Ford as Han Solo in the original 1977 "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope" film. The new film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," opens in U.S. theaters on Dec. 18, 2015. (AP/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)MoreCloseclosemore
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, left, and Harrison Ford as Han Solo in the original 1977 "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope" film. The new film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," opens in U.S. theaters on Dec. 18, 2015. (AP/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)

With the world-girdling arrival of the seventh episode in the Star Wars series, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which opens nationwide today, I wonder: What gives this franchise its appeal and staying power, beyond a chance for adults to reclaim a moment from their childhoods?

I was 10 in the summer of 1977 when my Mom took me, my sister and brother to see “Star Wars” at our local Cineplex. All I had heard about George Lucas’s movie was that it had something to do with spaceship dogfights in deep space.

My eyes were blasted open. And, like the Death Star at the end of the movie, my mind was blown away.

My eyes were blasted open. And, like the Death Star at the end of the movie, my mind was blown away.

What was this? A teenager, Luke Skywalker, stranded on another planet but with some mysterious destiny to fulfill and a light saber with which to duel? And he gets to hang out with robots, a smuggler, a sweet, gorilla-like monster and a princess wearing what look like cinnamon buns on her head?

Heady stuff for a small town kid with a penchant for dreaming about adventures in places far, far away. I remember staying up late after seeing “Star Wars,” feverishly trying to draw the X-wing and TIE Fighters still screaming through my mind.

“Star Wars” made me want to be a filmmaker, an animator, a storyteller. The epic saga was a portal to a universe into which any fan could immerse himself. The “Star Wars Fan Club” facilitated that process. I received stickers, iron-on patches, a 20” X 28” poster, a wallet-sized photo of Luke Skywalker, and the “Bantha Tracks” newsletter, which I still have.

Copies of the author's Bantha Tracks newsletters from the 1980s. (Ethan Gilsdorf/Courtesy)
Copies of the author's Bantha Tracks newsletters from the 1980s. (Ethan Gilsdorf/Courtesy)

“Star Wars” and its sequels were touchstones, mind-bending fantasy movie experiences into which I poured my longings for escape, creativity and adventure. I began to dream big, and those dreams have stayed with me. So have the series’ themes — empowerment fantasies are powerful for a reason. Like Luke, I felt like an orphan, with a father who wasn’t around much and a mother who, owing to illness, would soon be lost to me. If Luke can redeem Darth Vader, I believed, forgiveness in my own life needn’t be a galaxy away.

More broadly, in the post-Vietnam 1970s, the nation needed a rousing time at the movies, with clear good and evil, to reset its moral compass. "Kids today don't have any fantasy life the way we had,” Lucas told an interviewer in 1977. “They don't have Westerns; they don't have pirate movies; they don't have that stupid serial fantasy life that we used to believe in."

So Lucas created one.

In post-Nixon America, the wise souls of “Star Wars” — Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, in particular — were a balm. Their lessons about spirituality, courage and friendship spoke to me. “Do. Or do not. There is no try,” Yoda said, and I still abide it. "Who's the more foolish? The fool, or the fool who follows him?" Obi-Wan asked. “Never tell me the odds,” Han Solo said.

'Do. Or do not. There is no try,' Yoda said, and I still abide it.

If Han Solo’s quip emboldened me, the Force gave me something akin to a religious path, which I lacked. “Star Wars” offered a plausible way of looking at the universe, asking us to believe in what we cannot see.

Above all, it’s the full title of the original movie, “Star Wars: A New Hope,” that sums up the franchise’s impact. These movies embodied our yearning for a new start. In an era of jaded hope and skepticism about institutions like religion and government, “Star Wars” transported us to another place and time in which truth and faith reigned.

We still live in complicated times. If “The Force Awakens” feels like a retread and hits many of the same notes of previous films in the series, so be it. Perhaps now is the time to hear – and heed — the music of those notes again.

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Ethan Gilsdorf Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Ethan Gilsdorf is a writer, critic and author of "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks."

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