The Top Ten returns this week, recharged after a long unplanned break, and less objective and more personal than ever. How could any self-respecting lover of science fiction be anything less when it comes to Star Wars? I'm prompted by two films I saw at SXSW last month: a raucous, opening night screening of post-modern action-comedy Kick-Ass, which threatens to poison the minds of young people everywhere this weekend, and an enthusiastic afternoon viewing of The People vs. George Lucas, a documentary by Alexandre Phillipe. Our own John Gholson concluded of the doc: "For disillusioned fans like myself, it's a[n] unnecessary reminder of the things you hate about a thing you used to love."
Kick-Ass reminded me how much fun it is to share a movie with hundreds of strangers, and the documentary brought back to mind precious moments of joy and sorrow when watching the Star Wars films in theaters. You may hate what Lucas did to his creations, but I bet you have strong memories of your first, second, third -- or 93rd -- viewing, just like me.
1. Return of the Jedi, Cinerama Dome, Hollywood, California, May 25, 1983
Even though I had problems with the movie itself -- they're trying to blow the Death Star up again? Leia always knew she had a brother and still kissed him on the lips (twice)? -- the experience of watching it with a frenzied crowd on opening night will never be topped. On a whim, I waited in line for four hours and barely made it into the 3:00 a.m. screening. The tremendous applause and cheering that greeted the opening credits still raises goosebumps, but that was nothing compared to the full-throated reaction to Darth Vader choosing between Luke and the Emperor.
2. Star Wars, Avco Center Cinemas, Westwood, California, May 28, 1977
One of my friends skipped school to go on opening day, and reported that the ending was very disappointing "unless they make a sequel" because the fate of a certain black-clad character was left unresolved. My friend Steven and I took a very long bus trip and waited in line for hours -- was it just three hours? -- and barely made it into the back row of the theater. We looked wide-eyed at each other during the opening scene -- OMG, that space ship looks huge! -- and then never took our eyes off the screen. (It was presented in 70mm, by the way.) We cheered at the first jump into hyperspace! It made the long bus ride home, and the big ticket expense (a new record of $3.50) all worthwhile.
3. The Empire Strikes Back, Egyptian Theater, Hollywood, California, June 7, 1980
For some reason I was feeling mature and lofty and no longer in need of childish sci-fi space movies, so I waited two weeks before agreeing to see the movie with my younger sister and her friend. And, of course, I was quickly enthralled and entirely wrapped up in the characters within moments and throughout the movie. As the movie drew to a close, I was trying to figure out how Lucas would wrap things up while setting the stage for the promised next episode, and then I realized: he's going to leave everything dangling! "NOOOOOOOO!" I screamed. On the drive home, I got into an argument with my sister's friend; she was convinced that the ending was a cold, calculated, commercial move to extract more money from hapless viewers, while I argued for the integrity of Lucas' artistic vision.
4. Return of the Jedi, Egyptian Theater, Hollywood, California, May 26, 1983
The original trilogy was such an important element in my development as a movie lover that I had to see Jedi again, just to absorb it more fully. And it gave me an opportunity to take my sister back to the scene of the crime, to try and make up for being such an unpleasant jerk when I argued in front of her after the previous installment. The movie was showing 24 hours straight at certain theaters, and crowds were insane, so we decided to arrive two hours early for the 6:00 a.m. showing on Thursday morning -- and found ourselves alone! Only a handful of people filed into the theater, but we had a good time bonding, and I loved anticipating and hearing her reaction to the high and low points.
5. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Special Edition), Ziegfeld Theatre, Manhattan, New York, July 1997
I was excited to introduce the film to a young friend in my favorite Manhattan theatre, but the new special effects left me flat, and the magic wasn't quite there. Still a very enjoyable experience, even as I felt vaguely let down. You mean you can't go home again?
6. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Galleria, Sherman Oaks, California, May 19, 2005
My friend Larry convinced me join his group, and then I couldn't find them and watched it alone at midnight. By "alone," of course, I mean jammed into a sold-out auditorium, one of at least half a dozen playing the movie at the multiplex at the same time, as thousands of people couldn't wait any longer. Naturally, my theater had projection problems during the climactic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker, and I left severely underwhelmed.
7. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, California, May 20, 2005
As a measure of my friendship with Larry, when he called the next night and asked me to accompany him to see that huge, huge disappointment again, I agreed. Was it nerves about an impending new job across the country (back in Texas), was it Larry's good vibes, was it a psychotic drug in the air? I don't know, but somehow I tripped out and spun 180 degrees in my feelings about the film, somehow convinced that Sith was amazingly good, and that Lucas had made a timeless tragedy about a man who really didn't want to be evil. I haven't seen it since.
8. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Grapevine Mills 30, Grapevine, Texas, May 19, 1999
High hopes were dashed and I questioned my place in the universe. I came home to my tiny, one-room apartment and stayed up all night on my computer, reading Anthony Lane's dismissive review in The New Yorker and slogging through hundreds of comments at Ain't It Cool News, trying to reconcile what I'd seen that night with what I wanted to see.
9. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Grapevine Mills 30, Grapevine, Texas, May 16, 2002
I was about to move back to California, and wasn't in a great mood, and the screening cemented my feeling that George Lucas was the devil, and Hayden Christensen was his torture instrument of choice. At least I had a group of friends at the time who didn't really care about Star Wars one way or the other, and that cheered me up.
10. Star Wars, some crummy multiplex, San Fernando Valley, California, August 1978
After playing in theaters for more than a year, the Star Wars express was finally running out of gas, and I decided to see it again before it disappeared forever. (Remember, this was before VCRs.) It was a ghastly, crushing screening, with a battered print and terrible sound and a disrespectful, noisy audience of kids. It sullied my feelings about the film, at least for a while.