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<   No. 3213   2012-02-05   >

Comic #3213

1 {photo of a model of an X-wing fighter in a museum display case, with people behind it}
1 Caption: A long time ago in a glaxy far, far away....

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Fluent in over six million forms of communication.
I don't remember seeing Star Wars in the cinema in 1977, although I know I did see it. My memories of that heady year consist mostly of collecting the Kenner action figures and playing the Escape From Death Star board game with friends from school. I had the Hammerhead action figure, and "Walrus Man" (I don't know if he'd been given the name Ponda Baba yet - he was called "Walrus Man" on the packaging[1]), and Greedo. I seem to recall having Obi-Wan Kenobi at one point too, but mostly I had the minor characters, because the major ones like Luke and Darth Vader were virtually impossible to find in the toy stores.

Star Wars, the movie, vanished for three whole years. These were the days before home video, and the movie wasn't shown on TV in Australia until 1980. But the buzz didn't die, because there was the Star Wars Holiday Special. It's reviled as dreck now, but it was enough to keep a ten-year-old kid excited and hooked into this fantastic galaxy far, far away. Luke and the droids showed up on The Muppet Show, one of my favourite TV shows. Star Wars wasn't just a movie, it represented something new: a whole world, a whole universe to explore and learn about.

The Empire struck back in 1980. We learnt about the Force with Yoda. We all wanted to be Luke, gaining these mystical, magical abilities, becoming the ultimate hero. We saw brand new worlds, marvellous and dangerous and beautiful places with names like Hoth, Dagobah, and Bespin. I thought Cloud City was the most beautiful city ever. I wanted to live there, floating in the clouds. But there was also the Revelation, the stab through the heart.

Snow Walker
Echo station 3-T-8, we have spotted Imperial walkers.
Was Darth Vader really Luke's father? Or was he making it up? At the time, in those years before Return of the Jedi, this was perhaps the greatest mystery in the popular consciousness. It may seem difficult to imagine now, but back then, nobody knew for sure. People debated and argued about it. Many people were convinced it just couldn't be true, that it was too horrible to be true. We didn't know. We had to wait.

It was reminiscent of another big mystery from three years earlier, which has been all but forgotten now. Did Darth Vader die at the end of Star Wars, or did he somehow survive? I don't recall seeing the movie, but I do remember being absolutely convinced that Vader had died. I saw older kids, teenagers, walking around with T-shirts saying "Darth Vader lives!" I thought they were deluding themselves. The bad guy couldn't have survived the ending of the movie. I was in for a shock when I saw The Empire Strikes Back for the first time.

But then there was the agonising wait for another three years. Three whole years we had to ponder the question of whether Vader was really Luke's father or not. It gnawed at us. And would Han be rescued? Again, the buzz never died down.

In 1983 I was old enough to go to the movies without my parents, with a group of friends from school. We organised a session to go see Return of the Jedi. It was the most exciting thing ever. I can recall the exact moment the Fox logo vanished, the words "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." faded from the screen, and the opening crash of the orchestra pulsed through the cinema. No moment in a cinema ever matched that thrill.

Star Destroyer
Engage those Star Destroyers at point blank range!
We saw the daring and surprising rescue of Han Solo. We learnt from Yoda that Vader really was Luke's father. We saw an amazing triple battle in the picturesque forest, in space, and in the Emperor's new Death Star. We didn't know how the story was going to turn out. The greatest movie hero of our time was fighting the most despicable villain ever. Then Vader threatened to recruit Leia, Luke attacked him with fury and abandon, and one of the girls in our watching group of friends actually stood up and yelled, "Kill him! Kill him!!"

But Luke didn't kill him. He gave Vader the chance to redeem himself. I don't think I quite understood that part. You can't just say sorry for murdering millions of people and then everything's all right again. But anyway, the emotional roller coaster ride was unsurpassed and I had no hesitation at all in declaring it the best movie ever and going back to see it another two or three times before Star Wars left our screens again.

The years passed, and 1986 rolled around. It had been three years between Star Wars and Empire, then three years between Empire and Jedi. Here we were three years further on, and it was time for another Star Wars movie! These were the days before the Internet, where it wasn't possible to keep abreast of what movie studios were planning (unless you bought things like Variety magazine, which I didn't). The only thing I had to go on was that nice, predictable three-year interval. I recall vividly thinking throughout the first several months of 1986 that soon there would be announcements of the name of the next Star Wars film. The posters would go up in the cinemas. The TV ads would start showing us snippets of the most anticipated event of the past three years. Soon. Maybe next month. Maybe next week. Any day now...

Millennium Falcon
You came in that thing? You're braver than I thought.
Of course, it didn't happen. Maybe they were running a bit late, I thought. Maybe it'll come out in 1987. It didn't.

Slowly, painfully, I realised there weren't going to be any more Star Wars films. But home video came along and we could watch the movies any time we wanted. And there were books, comics, games, and other material set in the Star Wars universe. The setting never went away.

This was different to everything else. Other movies came and went and there might be a sequel or two, but there wasn't this ongoing presence in our lives and our culture. Star Wars changed the world. Sure, it's a cultural phenomenon, and not something as world-shaking as politics or war or technology. But we live in a world of culture. The shared experiences of our fellow human beings give us a means to communicate and to interact with an all-important common ground.

There are many experiences that we don't share. I was chatting with some people on the net just this morning. They were complaining about the snow. Talking about different types of snow, and how they behave. How some types of snow are horrible and annoying, how other types are beautiful and great for skiing. How they all hated shovelling it off driveways or whatever. I've never shovelled snow. It's never snowed where I live. I have seen snow, but only ever on the ground, when it resembled little crunchy grains of ice, like you get in a snowcone. I thought that's what snow was like. But apparently there are types of snow that are dry and fluffy. That actually look like those "snowflake" shapes. Who'd have thought?

Luke on Tauntaun
There isn't enough life on this ice cube to fill a space cruiser.
I spent many of the Sundays in my youth at one of the football grounds scattered around Sydney, watching a rugby league game. I've spent many a day at the Sydney Cricket Ground watching cricket matches. While some of you reading this may have done similar, I'd bet most of you have never seen either of these sports. Our lives are different. Our local cultures are different.

It's only in the last 30 years or so that a global culture has begun to emerge. It's rapidly picking up pace. We can now exchange in-jokes with people halfway around the world, because we have so much shared experience. Star Wars is a big part of that pool of reference. The movies are a piece of well-defined, self-contained fiction that became mainstream. Shared knowledge with nearly everyone we ever interact with. Your taxi driver, your barber, all the people sitting on the bus or the train with you - most of them have never heard of Dungeons & Dragons, or webcomics, or Les Misérables, or Shostakovich, or the Library of Alexandria, or Cthulhu, or Nicolaus Copernicus, or matrix multiplication, or capybaras, or King Menelaus. But they all know Star Wars.

For decades there has been nothing in the world of fiction like it, until the recent juggernaut of Harry Potter hit the streets. Kids in the past few years have been growing up with what may turn into the second truly groundbreaking global cultural reference point. It's an exciting time, because I remember what it was like when I was a kid, growing up with Star Wars.

Moving to the late 1990s, the excitement began to build again, as Lucasfilm announced a new Star Wars film. I had a job then, working for IBM. I was grown up. When the first trailer for The Phantom Menace came out, people around the world were paying to get into movies they had no interest in, just to see the Phantom Menace trailer, and then leave the cinema. Tens of thousands of people did this. They were like me - kids who'd grown up with Star Wars. A bit later, the trailer was released on the primitive Internet. We downloaded it at work (it took several minutes over the network speeds of the day), and played it on the huge projection screen in the audiovisual lab. About twenty people around my age—who also grew up with Star Wars—were crowded into that small room. We watched that 2-minute trailer, and we cheered. Then we watched it again. I don't think any of us did any work for the rest of that afternoon.

Anakin's hand
He's more machine now than man.
Some of you reading this now are probably thinking that this is building up to some sort of huge disappointment when I actually saw the movie. But honestly it wasn't like that. I went into the cinema in 1999 as wide-eyed and excited as when I was a kid. Twenty years later, that same excitement had returned. The expectation and the tension were palpable. This wasn't just a movie, it was an event. The lights dimmed, the Fox logo appeared, those immortal words appeared on the screen, and the crash of the orchestra signalled the start of something magical.

Jar Jar was a little annoying. It wasn't as enthralling or as deep as the first three movies that we'd had nearly twenty years to dissect and analyse and uncover complex meanings and nuances in. How could it ever possibly live up to what thrilled me as a kid? What had since moved into cultural legend? What had become quoted and lovingly parodied, and turned into a philosophy of life and the struggle of good versus evil? I was older, a different person. It was a kid's film, and I wasn't a kid any more. The first three films had been kid's films too, and I'd been a kid at the time. That's the difference. For two hours, I regressed to my wide-eyed, uncriticising childhood.

It wasn't as good as the first three films, but I still loved it. I went back and saw it again in the cinema. Because, damnit, I wanted to experience Star Wars in the cinema again. And I enjoyed it all over again.

Vader contemplates
The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.
In the cold light of day, I recognise the flaws in The Phantom Menace. I don't think it's as good as any of the original trilogy. I also see flaws in the original trilogy, though they are papered over better by the naïve wide-eyed reverence I had for the films as a kid. There are many things I wish had been done differently, that I think could have been better. Better stories, better acting, better scripting, better dialogue. But despite the flaws in all of the films, I still enjoy them.

I relived the excitement again in 2002, and again in 2005 - the three-year intervals were back, for a while. Attack of the Clones is my least favourite of all six films, Revenge of the Sith my favoured among the prequels, but not as highly as any of the originals. I was happy to go into the cinema again each time, willing to let go of my critical adult mind and become a child again. To let the images and the characters and the music—my god, the music—wash over me. When I'm watching Star Wars, I don't need to judge or to sneer. I need to soak it in.

That's why this week I'll be going to see The Phantom Menace when it opens in 3D for the first time. Not because it's in 3D (I'm still not convinced 3D is a good thing). Not because it's a great film (it isn't).

But because when the lights go down, those logos appear, and the thunder of the London Symphony Orchestra shatters the silence, I'll be a kid again for a couple of hours.

[1] And apparently Hammerhead's name is actually Momaw Nadon. The things you learn when researching to write about stuff.

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