The world is a fucked up place right now. It's scary out there. If you've been following the Trump campaign - which has been turning into a white power nationalist movement - or the extreme weather caused by global warming or the mounting Syrian refugee crisis that has hit Europe like no other since WWII you know how scary it is.
The world was pretty fucked up in 1977 as well. The recession was in full swing, the energy crisis was rolling through the decade and the Cold War was simmering, hanging the threat of nuclear annihilation over our heads.
It was into this screwed up, unhappy world that Star Wars burst. It became an enormous phenomenon, unlike any we had seen before and maybe unlike any that will ever happen again. I mean, I don't have to tell you this - it's 2015 and you're on the internet, you know Star Wars is huge. But what's important to remember is that at least part of the hugeness of Star Wars came from the hopeful, triumphant nature of the story, the fact that a ragtag group of little guys stuck it to The Man. After a lot of miserable years of reality in the 70s and quite a few years of hard-edged New Hollywood unhappiness on screen, the almost childlike way good conquered evil in Star Wars felt fresh and exciting and energizing for a nation that needed some reassurance.
If you asked me why I like the original trilogy more than the prequels, this is part of the answer. I like the story of underdogs taking on impossible odds and somehow winning more than the story of a society rotting from within and falling into fascism. Like, I can watch Fox News, man. There's always a time and a place for gritty political realism and nihilism, but Star Wars, frankly, isn't the place.
The last year has been a journey for me, one where I returned to being not just interested in but excited about Star Wars after a long time away. The new blood at Lucasfilm, the stuff that we've seen from The Force Awakens, the talent getting involved in the new trilogy and the spin-offs have all brought me back to optimism. But what has really gotten me excited is a sense that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is going to get back to Star Wars basics and be about scrappy underdogs taking on something bigger than themselves and - while they may occasionally have terrible setbacks along the way - proving that goodness and decency will win out in the end. The journey might be murkier this time - JJ Abrams seems interested in exploring a grey area between the Light and Dark Sides of the Force - but we've seen a lot of imagery that indicates to us that this isn't a story about the fall of the New Republic but about a new hope coming.
I won't lie: I need that. I look at the state of the world and I want epic, well-told stories that celebrate hope and that remind me good people can make a difference. There are a lot of reasons why stories matter - they can teach us empathy, they can help us see the world in new ways, they can create a shared experience - but one of the more valuable things stories can do is give us hope. That's cheesy, I know, but it's true. All film nerds have, at one point or another, looked to a favorite movie or character or scene for strength in a trying moment, for happiness in a dark time. And I'm not talking comfort viewing here, I'm talking about the kinds of movies that break through the ugliness of the world and touch you and make you want to get up and face life once again.
For a lot of people that's Star Wars. I look at the new diversity on display in The Force Awakens and I know that for a lot of people this movie will be the same powerful experience for people. I'm excited for that. I'm hopeful for that.
And then I see Force Friday. I see an 18 hour series of live unboxing videos of Star Wars toys and junk. I see people standing in line for hours and hours to be the first in the door to buy Star Wars toys and junk that are surely not in any way, shape or form limited. I see an orgy of merchandising and marketing.
I don't see the story.
Like I said, it's been a long journey for me to return to the excitement of Star Wars, and this week, with is focus on crass commercialism, has really tested that excitement. Obviously merch has always been a part of the Star Wars experience - it's possible that George Lucas' greatest masterstroke on Star Wars was retaining the toy rights - but the glut of Product on Force Friday feels more like the callous corporate glurges that surrounded the prequels than the (in retrospect) charming scattershot release of original trilogy trash. I see people lining up to get into a Toys 'R Us and I feel like the whole thing has gone wrong - this isn't what it's supposed to be about, grown men spending hundreds of dollars on ephemeral crap.
I could go on a whole sociohistoric rant about why it's like this, about the way nerd culture developed in an environment that didn't offer us much in the way of merch and we've kind of overcompensated for it, or about the way nerd culture is on some level about obsessive ownership and collecting, but that's not the point of this essay. Whatever the reason, this is where we are, at a place where people stand in line for hours and hours to buy toys on a day determined by the marketing arm of one of the greatest corporations on earth to be optimal for their ledgers. Star Wars, in 2015, is at least partially defined as a consumerist phenomenon. That's how it is.
So what is the point of this essay? I guess I'm trying to talk to people who feel like I do, who spent this whole week saying to themselves, "Wait, was I wrong to be excited about Star Wars again?" People who felt deflated as the joy at the build up to the new story faded away in the face of a feeding frenzy of licensed goods. People who maybe felt like they had been gotten, that they had been roped in by a big corporation who only gives a shit about selling us stuff, not about telling great stories.
But I need hope more than I need toys. I'm going to retain my hope in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the movies that come after, retain my hope that they will recapture the pluck and heroism of the original movies and for a few hours take me out of the world of droughts and hurricanes and police violence and drowning Syrian refugees and bring me to a galaxy far, far away and then return me with a bit of the strength and happiness I need to keep pushing forward. That's what the best stories do, and the original Star Wars was one of the best stories. I'm not going to get sidetracked by soap dispensers and Black Series collectibles, I'm going to focus on the movie and the story.
I look at the state of the world today - including people lining up for hours to buy junk - and realize I really need more Star Wars more than ever.