Long ago, in an east Midlands town not that far away, I announced in my diary, “I have gone mad on Star Wars.” It was Sunday 26 February 1978 and I was 12. A week later, on my 13th birthday, I listed my presents: “Star Wars poster, Star Wars action transfer, Star Wars book, Star Wars badges.”
In the tantalising weeks before Star Wars arrived in Northampton in 1978, I became completely entangled in the hype that had been building since the film opened in America. It had premiered in London at Christmas (with its queues featured heavily on the TV news) and rolled out to a dozen “major cities”, but not my home town. So I waited.
I analysed each frame of the first tie-in Star Wars Marvel comics and the full-length, accurate movie spoof “Star Roars” in the satirical US magazine Mad; I ate the bubble gum and the ice lollies. In March the junior TV magazine Look- in gave away Letraset transfers and a poster in a special issue. I declared in my diary, without a trace of irony, “I am now Han Solo.” (Solo, the raffish space pirate played by a then-unknown Harrison Ford, was already my favourite character.)
A page from Andrew Collins’ childhood diary
By the time I saw the film on 23 May at the local ABC, I could draw the characters by heart and knew the plot in detail – amid civil war in space, rebel princess sends distress call to extrasensory hermit who enlists orphaned farmboy, smuggler and massive dog to defeat evil empire using mind energy.
This was the first time in my life that I had known about a new film for a whole year before seeing it – a maiden experience for us in that prelapsarian pre-video, pre-internet paradise. Somehow, creator George Lucas’s mythic, Saturday-morning space fairy tale, with its goodies, baddies, knights and consorts, lived up to and beyond my vertiginous expectations. Seeing Star Wars was momentous.
Dad had always taken us to see the latest Bond or Disney, but this was different. This film was mine. This universe was mine. These were the droids I was looking for. Something generational was happening that I can’t have appreciated, aged 13, any more than I could have known that Star Wars was changing cinema, mass- media entertainment and marketing for ever. I do now.
Having come of age as a bubble-gum-card-carrying fan in the 70s and early 80s, I experienced dizzying highs and begrudging lows with the never-ending Star Wars saga, not least in 1999 when Lucas launched the “prequel trilogy”, Episodes I–III. Digitally seamless but notably talky, they challenged a lot of the new hope that greeted them.
Lucas had told Time magazine of his plans for these origins films back in 1983, promising “political intrigue and machiavellian plotting” and “only enough outward action to keep the plot moving”. He was true to his vision.
“Pathologically anticipated”, according to The New York Times, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (they all had rotten titles), was mainly about a little kid and introduced the embarrassing alien sidekick Jar Jar Binks. Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were better, and at least satisfactorily docked onto the beginning of the original trilogy, but for many of us the brand was tainted. Naturally, they still grossed $2.5 billion worldwide. (The first trilogy grossed a mere $1.7 billion.)
I haven’t seen the new film, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. As I write, nobody outside the circle of trust has. On the day I meet three of the British cast (John Boyega, Gwendoline Christie and Daisy Ridley) in a London hotel, they haven’t seen it, either.
Having experienced the analogue hype in 1977–78, which involved parting with pocket money for information and pics rather than googling for free, I regard today’s overwhelmingly instantaneous, viral hype with numerical fatigue. The first trailer was viewed 58.2 million times on YouTube in a week; the second clocked up 30.65 million in 24 hours… my head hurts. But hope comes in the form of JJ Abrams, the man who rebooted the Star Trek franchise (itself kick-started by Star Wars’ success), who has co-written Episode VII with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi scribe Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, and directed it.
Although Lucas will receive a consultancy credit on the current industrial revival, he’s essentially hands-off, as Lucasfilm and its back catalogue was sold to Disney in 2012 for $4.06 billion. The planned trilogy plus countless spin-offs may test fanboy/girl loyalty eventually, but at least the relaunch is in the hands of a fan. The 49-year-old Abrams is a first-generation Star Wars fan. I trust him.
Among the material and narrative hints dropped in the trailers, perhaps the subtlest is the tagline “Every generation has a story”. Though a direct reference to new protagonists – stormtrooper Finn and scavenger Rey – it also implies that the new film will play to every demographic: those old enough to have taken their kids to the original and their grand- children, sucked in by newer extensions like the animated Clone Wars and comics. As Lupita Nyong’o (space pirate Maz Kanata) intones in the trailer: “I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people.”
The cast remain obediently tight-lipped about the content of the film when I speak to them, but I’m more interested in their own formative experiences with the series.
“Apart from a Darth Maul action figure – I think it belonged to my sister – I didn’t know anything about Star Wars,” states John Boyega, 23, a personable and professional young man who became the production’s de facto representative on Earth via Twitter while shooting in Pinewood, Abu Dhabi and County Kerry. “I just knew this red-and-black guy was the villain in most of my scenarios with the action figures.” The first film he saw was The Phantom Menace (in which Maul features), after which he binged on the rest.
Daisy Ridley, also 23, is candid enough to admit she wasn’t “a huge fan” as a youngling, as the Jedis say. “At some stage in my childhood, I think I saw Episode III in the cinema, but the details are vague, because I just remember being absolutely terrified.”
Gwendoline Christie, 37, best known as the statuesque Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, plays stormtrooper Captain Phasma (“Star Wars’ first ever female villain”). A precise, measured speaker with an infectious cackle, she has described her upbringing elsewhere as “vaguely Victorian”, but remembers her parents showing her Episode IV on VHS when she was six.
“I was really excited by the way it looked,” Christie recalls. “And by Princess Leia – there was a woman who knew her own mind and was very strong. But also, it was funny. I adored R2-D2 and became concerned when he got into danger and I wanted him to survive.”
When RT catches up with Harrison Ford, in his mid-30s when he made A New Hope and 73 now, his prosaic attitude sits in stark but forgivable contrast to the vivacity of his young co-stars. What was it like to walk onto that set and see Han’s old ship the Millennium Falcon again?
“I’m not nostalgic,” he replies. “I’m doing the best job I can during the day and then going home. And, you know, it was nice to have the chance to work with people I knew… and some new people that I didn’t… But it’s just another day in the office in many ways.” He hasn’t seen the film, either, and he’s Han Solo.
He’s more effusive on the subject of Ridley, whom he calls “a delight” (despite the fact that she tells me, “When I first met Harrison I told him how much of a fan my mum was”). Ford describes her and Boyega as “correctly confident in their aspect. What was going on inside, I don’t know, but they were remarkable. The two of them are stunning from what I’ve seen of their work.”
There are people who don’t care about Star Wars, but millions do. The question, after 38 years, is why? When Lucas first conceived his space opera after failing to secure the rights to 30s serial Flash Gordon, he was swimming against the Hollywood tide. Nobody expected a sci-fi adventure to break box-office records, but it did, and it turned epic fantasy into a blockbusting proposition. Its appeal is broad – capturing the imaginations of cosplay kidults, Xbox thrill-seekers and pipe-and-slippers fans of classic westerns.
Lucas had a big story to tell, and its first iteration happened to coincide with economic uncertainty and political turmoil. Similar conditions persist today. The interim success of Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins underlines our need for escapism that takes us far, far away.
Even the sometimes ropey prequels had a magnetism charged by the prospect of seeing how the past joined up with the future. And now the future is back. The Hollywood Reporter calculated that The Force Awakens could earn up to $540 million worldwide in its opening weekend. One analyst thinks it could gross $2 billion, “if it’s really good”.