November 14th, 2011

Star Wars - Fly away...

Drew McWeeny's "Nerd 2.0": how Star Wars can still blow minds

If there's such a thing as "the Star Wars generation," I'm in it. I was 4 when I saw the original 1977 film -- it was 1978 by the time I saw it, as it traveled around to theaters for a while, and also it was among the first handful of films I ever saw -- and I dove into that immersive, invented galaxy. The series has been part of my life ever since. I've played with Star Wars toys, I've imagined Star Wars stories, I even saw that blasted holiday special the one time it aired and managed still to stay a fan.

But, somehow, I've managed barely to write reviews of the series. I started reviewing in high school, eventually even was doing it semi-professionally, but of the Star Wars six feature films, all of which I've seen several times, I've reviewed exactly one. That was my mixed review of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in 1999. Sometimes I've considered doing a full re-watch and finally review all six, but I get hung up on one question: What new thing can I say about the series all these years later?

Which is why I admire how Hit Fix.Com writer Drew McWeeny, a critic I've read since he was posting as "Moriarty" at Ain't It Cool News, found a way. Like a lot of members of the Star Wars generation, he's now raising his own kids. When the Blu Ray editions of the films were about to come out, he decided to finally show the series to his sons Toshi and Allen, who knew Star Wars from the current Clone Wars animated series and from the toys that McWeeny has around the house. He made it a once-a-week event for six weeks: show them a film and see how they react and what they think about the experience.

He did one other different thing: he didn't show them in original release order, or in the George Lucas-preferred chronological order. After thinking about it, he decided on this order: the original 1977 film (now also called A New Hope), 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, then a jump back in Star Wars-time to The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005) before then jumping back to 1983's Return of the Jedi. In other words, Episodes 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, and 6. He did this to preserve Darth Vader's revelation moment so many of us remember from Empire -- a moment that plays much differently if you've seen Episodes 1 through 4 before that and know what happened to Anakin Skywalker -- and THEN, after that, show the kids Anakin when he himself was a kid, only a bit older than them. So they see some of what became of Anakin/Vader, see how he grew up, and only then see how Vader dealt with what he'd become in that climactic scene in Return of the Jedi. And the results, which played out in McWeeny's column over several weeks, were often...unexpected.

Here's where he started:

The greatest thing about watching [A New Hope] with them was seeing how intent they were on decoding what they were watching. The film's characters and dense vocabulary and barrage of vehicles and planets and aliens is a ton of information to process, and right away, it was obvious that they were determined to understand it all. Seeing Darth Vader in context, he went from being awesome to being genuinely scary to them. And seeing Chewbacca in context, he went from being scary to being genuinely awesome to them.

And that set them up to have THEIR MINDS BLOWN -- not for the last time -- when they saw Empire:

During lunch, I got peppered with questions about Lando's behavior. The boys were confused by the idea that someone's friend might betray them, and I could see that it just didn't compute. There's nothing duplicitous about a six-year-old or a three-year-old, and when they encounter adult behavior that they don't understand, they will quiz me on it incessantly. They need to understand why people do these things, and even after I explained that Lando was trying to protect the people who depended on him to run Cloud City, that didn't work for them. They still thought he was wrong to betray Han Solo, and even when we got back to the film later in the afternoon, they weren't ready to forgive Lando. Didn't matter that he ended up helping everyone else. They couldn't get past the betrayal, and they both decided that they don't like Lando at all.

That was nothing compared to their reaction to The Moment, though.

The Empire column, that's especially helpful to read, especially when a particular choice of Drew's has unexpected consequences. "Little pitchers have big ears," to quote John Prine, and that's all I'll say. It's a parenting moment that McWeeny explains well enough for even non-parent me to understand.

The Phantom Menace was next:

I have written before about the disconnect I feel from fandom because I don't get rabidly angry over the prequels and because I don't feel the burning desire to rant about George Lucas at the drop of a hat, and every time I talk about this, I get the same strident angry e-mails from people who demand that I have to feel the same way they do. It's almost scary how much venom some people are still able to muster about these films at any mention of them, especially when you watch them with an audience like the boys, where there's no sense of hype or the larger state of fandom. ...In just two movies, they've already fallen in love enough that they're happy simply to know they get to spend more time around Star Wars.

Then Attack of the Clones hit:

But amidst the fun, Clones introduces some darker notes regarding Anakin's fall, and I was surprised how much Toshi was invested in that particular story thread. Ever since The Moment in Empire, he's been troubled by the idea of a good guy who becomes a bad guy, and he's watching Anakin closely.

And then Revenge of the Sith blew their minds, again. If you decide only to read one of these six columns, please, please read this one. I won't quote it and potentially dilute its impact, but a lot of people I know and trust have said it's one of the most impactful pieces analyzing the impact of Star Wars that they've read in years.

And, since all things end, Drew McWeeny showed his children Jedi.

There was no event that took place during my vacation that equaled the impact of the screening I held for my sons Toshi and Allen of the final film in the "Star Wars" series, "Return of the Jedi."

And really, how could there be?

Read more to know why. But for all the odd choices George Lucas made throughout this huge, pop culture-shifting, often surprisingly weird movie series, as much as I could nitpick it to death, Star Wars still has that strength of story and imagery that makes people want to immerse themselves in that imagined galaxy still. And I admire Drew McWeeny for how he let his children take his first step into a larger world.