30th anniversary

Thirty years ago today, the Science Fiction Club of Concord Carlisle Regional High School went on an afternoon field trip. Actually, it was just me and Mike Saler who went on the field trip, because the other two members of the club couldn’t make it that afternoon. Mike and I stood at the entrance to the high school grounds waiting for our ride to pick us up (but I can’t remember if our faculty advisor, Mr. Williams, gave us a ride, or if Mike’s mom did). We engaged in typical science-fiction-fan behavior — Mike found a basketball-sized rock, captured it, and tied a scrap of clothesline around it as a leash.

“His name is Spot,” said Mike, “and he’s coming with us.” Mike dragged Spot by his leash, until the clothesline broke. “He’s escaping!” cried Mike, and we both started laughing.

We got to the movie theatre in Boston and bought our tickets to the new science fiction movie, “Star Wars” by a young director named George Lucas. “His first film, THX-1138, was really good,” said Mike, who was already a member of NESFA (the New England Science Fiction Association), and a contributor to at least one science fiction fanzine. “They showed THX-1138 at the last Boskone.”

“This film is better,” said a guy standing near us. He said he had already seen “Star Wars” twice that day, and he was going back in to see it a third time. He was a little strange.

We got into the theatre just after the film had started. The scrolling text that told the background story had just about finished scrolling its way up the screen. We made our way into the dark and crowded theater. “Half these people are NESFA members,” Mike whispered.

We loved the movie. It was a real science fiction fan’s movie. At the beginning, as the characters make their way across the desert planet of Tatooine, they pass what looks like a huge dead worm. “Sandworm!” Mike and I whispered to each other, and we could hear other science fiction fans in the audience whispering the same thing. Lucas had obviously included it as an homage to the novel Dune. We loved the bar scene — “Better than Spider Robinson!” whispered Mike to me, and that was saying a lot, since Mike was a big fan of Spider Robinson’s bar stories.

But then the character Han Solo said, “Fast?! The Millennium Falcon can do three parsecs!” You could almost hear all the science fiction fans thinking for just an instant — “‘Three parsecs’… waitaminute, a parsec is a unit of distance, not velocity” — and then everyone hissed.

That was really the only sour note. Aside from that, it was the perfect movie for us science fiction fans, obviously made by a fellow science fiction fan. Even the ending, where you find out that the evil bad guy, Darth Vader, wasn’t really dead, was perfect. It harked back to the old Flash Gordon movie serials — they still showed old, scratched copies of the Flash Gordon serials at science fiction conventions — where there’s one last scene showing that the evil bad guy actually survived, so you know there will be another episode.

We made our way out of the movie theatre. Thinking of Flash Gordon, I asked Mike, “Do you think they’ll make another movie?”

“Nah, it’s too much of an insider film,” Mike said. “No one except science fiction fans will get all the jokes.”

I had to agree. This just wasn’t going to be a successful movie. As we were going out the door, they offered us buttons that said “May The Force Be With You!” Neither Mike nor I bothered to take one. After all, the movie was just going to disappear, only to reappear year after year at science fiction conventions, with more and more scratches appearing every year.

How very wrong we were. Within two years, I noticed that at the summer camp where I was a counselor, all the little kids were playing with Star Wars action figures. “Stah Wahs! Stah Wahs!” they’d say, in their diminutive Boston accents. I couldn’t figure out why little kids liked a movie that made so many references to science fiction books that they had never read.

I still don’t get it. “Star Wars” is not a particularly good movie, it’s just a fan-boy movie, and it should have faded into obscurity. Unfortunately it became wildly successful, which completely derailed George Lucas from what could have been a wonderfully creative career as a film writer and director.

In some alternate universe, “Star Wars” didn’t achieve undeserved success. It made enough money so that the movie studios were willing to give Lucas another shot, as long as he stayed away from science fiction in his next films. Instead, he goes back to his 1966 short film “Freheit” and picks up on the idea of freedom, goes back to his big hit “American Grafitti” and the characters of middle America, and makes a powerful film about a young white man in a midwestern town who finds his way to intellectual freedom through his friendship with a young black man. In that alternate universe, Lucas builds on that success to make an updated versions of “Hamlet,” and spends the rest of his career making a wide variety of films that continue his exploration of freedom and individuality and response to authoritarian power.

In that alternate universe, George Lucas is compared to Stanley Kubrick instead of to the anonymous makers of the Flash Gordon serials. I would prefer the George Lucas of that alternate universe to the the sterile and unintelligent George Lucas that has evolved in this universe.

No wonder Mike repudiated science fiction, and now leads a mundane life as a history professor who is occasionally interviewed on NPR and writes popular articles about John Le Carre’s spy thrillers. As for me, I have remained a science fiction fan, somewhat to my regret, and thus toil in obscurity as the 21st C. American version of a provincial English curate. And George Lucas is laughing all the way to the bank. Tanj.

5 thoughts on “30th anniversary

  1. will shetterly

    Have you had a chance to see the original again? The dialogue may not be as good as the second, but the structure is surprisingly sound. I say the original, because Han loses a very satisfing character arc in the versions where he doesn’t shoot first.

    Rumor has it that Alan Ladd Jr., the producer, forced him to go over and over that script until it was in good shape. The original version looked kind of like the mess of the prequels.

    No, it’s not a great movie. But it’s, well, a surprisingly solid good movie.

  2. Jean

    I just came across my old yearbook recently and there was a picture of you and the other Sci Fi club guys. About a page or so away from my picture in the ballet club. Both club pictures were positioned in the yearbook very very very far away from the pictures of the cool clubs and the cool sports — yearbook, cheerleaders, student government and all that stuff. Talk about your alternate universes…

  3. Rebecca

    Star Wars wasn’t successful because it was a good movie, it was successful because it was mythic in a time that needed more myths.

  4. Administrator

    Will — Yes, it’s a decent movie, and it holds up pretty well. But I still say it’s not as good THX-1138 and American Graffitti. Interesting that the producer made him go over and over the script. Makes me think of Steven King’s early books, which were pretty good — until he got so popular that he no longer had to listen to his editors.

    Jean — I’m surprised they even printed those club pictures.

    Rebecca — Mythic? I suppose. We were haunted by memories of Watergate, and the Arab oil embargo, and stagflation, and Vietnam, and Mutual Assured Destruction. I suppose we did want a myth like Star Wars, or a myth like Ronald Reagan. Trouble is, neither of those myths did much aside from serving as escapism.

  5. jinnis

    Thanks for your account of seeing the movie. All I remember is sitting in the dark theater with my grandparents – but the movie itself stuck fast in me. The idea of the Force was one of the first spiritual perspectives I absorbed. At the very least, the basic premise of the Force as energy moving through everything casts its essence on Unitarian Universalism for me.

    And I really like the mythic content.

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