A Long Time Ago: Elizabeth Bonesteel on Seeing Star Wars in Theaters


Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash

When I was a kid, going to the movies was always a production.

As a family, we never went to the local movie theater, which was small and outdated and had a perennially sticky floor. Instead we’d drive, sometimes half an hour or longer, to a theater with a better sound system, usually new and smelling strongly of carpet glue. We’d attempt thrift by smuggling in supermarket snacks instead of buying from the concession stand, which was fine except I always wished for popcorn.

And we were always absurdly early. I’d bring a book with me, sometimes two if the wait was going to be over an hour. My brother and I could only pick on each other for so long before it got boring or we got yelled at, so packing entertainment was critical. I read a lot as a kid waiting for movies to start.

If I’d been told anything about the film before we left the house that day in 1977, I didn’t remember. I asked my dad, shortly after we left, what the movie was. He said, “It’s called Star Wars,” and I sat back, grumpy, and thought, “Great, a war movie,” and was grateful for my books.

I was twelve years old.

Science fiction was a huge part of our household. In addition to reading, I soaked up All Things SF on TV: everything from “The Time Tunnel” to (oh, dear) “Space: 1999.” My dad and I had that in common: if it in any tangential way resembled SF, we’d give it a chance.

But I hadn’t had much luck with movies. I’d been hauled to “2001” in 1969, and it creeped the daylights out of me. We saw “Futureworld,” which was distinctly unmemorable, and “Logan’s Run,” that frightening time capsule of 1970s fashion. “Close Encounters” had a decent story, at least, but at twelve I found it a little slow, and there was definitely a dearth of aliens.

So I didn’t have high expectations for the war movie. We got tickets for the very first show – absurdly early, as usual – and I sat in the mostly empty theater and was grumpy and read.

After a while, I began to notice the theater was getting kind of crowded. And then I noticed it was getting kind of full. Eventually I put my book away and looked around: the place was packed. Hell of a lot of people for some dumb war movie.

The lights went down, and the music came up, and the introduction scrolled by. And then there were moons, and a planet, and a small ship, and then the star destroyer flew into the corner of the frame and grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger

I watched, dumbfounded and a little stunned, until Artoo and Threepio scurried across the hallway in the middle of a shootout and didn’t get hit. I laughed; the audience laughed; the movie had me.

In a way, “Star Wars” is only incidentally a science fiction movie. It’s an oft-told tale: naive kid + tragedy + cause bigger than himself = redemption and victory. The story is uncomplicated, and as forty years of fanwanking has demonstrated, it’s probably not worth deconstructing it too much. It was a beginning, a naive gesture toward the massive space opera it became. (Do read Lucas’s 1977 interview in Rolling Stone if you haven’t.)

But it’s the worldbuilding of the film that makes it work. “Star Trek” did a fine job building a universe on a budget, but it did so in part by leaning on contemporary cultural touchstones. The universe in Star Wars is unfamiliar, and it is massive. It was built not by harping on the “otherness,” but by throwing us into the story as if we already knew the place. Aliens were everywhere, unidentified and unremarkable. People conversed seamlessly in multiple languages without translators. Height or species or profession had nothing to do with whether you were a Good Guy or a Bad Guy. Everything, no matter how high-tech, was dented and filthy and required a good wallop to work properly. There’s an ordinariness to the otherness that makes the whole story immediately, palpably real, never mind the cheesy dialogue and occasionally clunky performances.

One can argue (and people often do) that later films undid some of the magic of the first, but I don’t think it’s possible for that magic to be undone. Star Wars stood on the shoulders of giants and seeded something into the public imagination that can’t be removed. One lackluster film (or three, or four depending on my mood) doesn’t change the fact that this galaxy far, far away, is alive and well in my head, and I still look forward to the stories yet to be told.

Over its numerous re-releases, I’ve paid to see Star Wars in the theater fourteen times. I have a (probably fried and brittle) VHS copy somewhere in a cardboard box. The reason we still have a laserdisc player is because Spouse has the original cuts on laserdisc. (Dear Disney: If you release the original versions on Blu-ray I will, indeed, throw more money in your direction. Love, Liz.) And when I watch it today, despite having committed it shot-by-shot to memory, I still remember how I felt in that crowded movie theater when I was twelve.

But please, don’t tell my dad he was right, because there’ll be no living with him.