One evening in 1977 I stood in a long line with my parents at Grauman's Chinese Theater. I was utterly oblivious to what I was waiting for; 1977 marketing campaigns look quaint compared to the barrage we endure now. I had no precedent. The trip was out of character for my parents, who weren't science fiction fans or movie buffs. Despite the lack of preparation, the experience of seeing Star Wars that night was transformative. I had enjoyed the normal run of eight-year-old-boy obsessions — sharks and dinosaurs and the Six Million Dollar Man — but those were nothing compared to the immersive imaginative leap the movie inspired. The fascination was a community experience. Star Wars was the lingua franca of kids my age, providing common ground to boys and girls, jocks and nerds, bullies and the bullied, kids of every ethnicity and neighborhood. Everyone was running around the playground like an idiot pretending to be an X-wing, and our relentless hunger for action figures made George Lucas filthy rich.
Three years later I was watching The Empire Strikes Back at a run-down drive-in movie theater somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley with my father. He viewed the movies as silly, but recognized that nothing would make me happier than seeing the movie immediately, and so found the one place we could find tickets. We ate dangerously revolting drive-in cheeseburgers and listened to the crackling audio and once again I was transported. I was old enough, at 10, to follow everything, and still young enough to appreciate everything.
Three years later Dad got tickets to a charity premiere that allowed us to see Return of the Jedi a day early. It made me very happy, as he knew it would, but somehow not quite as happy as I was at the first two movies. Surely part of that was that Return of the Jedi isn't as good of a movie as the first two, even by space-opera popcorn-flick standards. But it was also because I was 13, and no longer uncritically delighted at anything. The gravitational tug of adolescence and eventual adulthood, with their cares and worries and self-consciousness, had a hold of me.
So what was it like, more than 32 years later, to watch the latest Star Wars movie with my wife and kids?
It was different. But not, I've concluded, a bad different.
First: the movie. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was thoroughly enjoyable. The newcomers in the lead roles have charisma and great chemistry. Oscar Isaac was underused as ace pilot Poe Dameron — hopefully he'll get more attention in the sequels — but Daisy Ridley and John Boyega deserve the career they're going to have now. Harrison Ford could have just lounged around being iconic but instead delivered a top performance, showing flashes of both his character's original flair and the weight of the years since. The bad guy is three-dimensional and compelling — J.J. Abrams understands that notes of humanity make a villain more terrifying, not less. The special effects are skillfully mustered to enhance the story, not substitute for it. The dialogue was slightly clunky at worst and quite funny at best. The plot? Of course there are holes. How could there not be? And sometimes the echoes of earlier movies were a bit too loud. But what flaws the movie had never took me out of it. I never winced or groaned. The prequels made me think I can't be enthralled by a movie any more like I could when I was 10; this didn't. The nostalgia was positive, not rueful. My hopes and expectations — kept carefully at bay with the reins of bitter experience — were exceeded. Did it make me as happy as, say, Fellowship of the Ring? No. But it made me very happy.
But it didn't feel like watching The Empire Strikes Back with Dad at a drive-in in 1980. How could it? I haven't been 10 for a third of a century. I have the preoccupations of an adult. I have cares that make it hard to be fully present in any moment, let alone moments of heedless fantasy. Never again will I race around the back yard with friends, tumbling into the bushes and shoving each other off of hills pretending to fight Stormtroopers, furiously shouting "I hit you! I hit you! It's a BLASTER! You're DEAD!" Never again will I go to bed dreaming of nothing more but the carefree pleasures of the next day.
Fortunately life has a way of replacing one pleasure with another. I walked out of the theater holding my wife's hand, smiling and talking about our memories of childhood. My older two kids skipped ahead of us, excitedly talking about heroes and villains and squabbling over details. My youngest held my other hand, loudly claiming that she was FINISHED with such things and would see NO MORE STAR WARS OF ANY KIND WHATSOEVER. She had spent a substantial part of the movie curled up in the chair with me, head against my chest. It was a bit noisy for her tastes, though the normally prohibited Skittles were some consolation.
The warmth I felt wasn't just nostalgia, or hopes and expectations mostly rewarded. It was the ineffable pleasure of experiencing the happiness of the people I love. Even if I can't access what it's like to be 10 any more, my kids can, and it turns out that watching them do it is somehow better than doing it myself. For years I felt sorry that the price of my great pleasure in 1980 was my Dad enduring bad cheeseburgers at a distant drive-in with a movie he didn't care about. Now I know how happy my joy must have made him. Now I can help make those moments for my kids.