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Jim Bennett: How 'Star Wars' changed the world

Published: Thursday, Feb. 7 2013 4:15 p.m. MST

It’s official. J.J. Abrams is the man to lead the Star Wars saga beyond "Return of the Jedi."

Reactions are mixed, as many of my fellow geeks are wary of any one guy getting the keys to both Star Wars and Star Trek. What’s next? Spock with a lightsaber? Yoda hailing Scotty and crying, “Up, beam me?” Can you live long and prosper and still have the Force be with you at the same time?

Still, I find reasons to be encouraged by the Abrams choice. In a recent interview, he described his original experience with Star Wars in terms that sounded strikingly familiar.

“'Star Wars' was the first movie that blew my mind,” he said. “It was funny and romantic and scary and compelling and the visual effects just served the characters and story. It galvanized for me; not for what was exciting about how movies were made, but rather for what movies were capable of.”

It did the same thing for me, too.

That’s not to say that JJ and I were the only ones. Fact is, I can’t think of anyone of my generation that didn’t have their mind blown the first time they visited that galaxy far, far away. People can recall the details of when and where they got their first taste of "Star Wars."

I was 9 years old. It was a Monday night, and our family went to the Topanga Theatre in Woodland Hills, Calif. We got there late — we missed the opening crawl and the panoramic shot of the star destroyer pursuing the rebel ship, but we took our seats just as the stormtroopers blew the hull and Darth Vader, dripping with menace, emerged from a cloud of smoke, lifted a man up by the neck and asked, “Where are those transmissions you intercepted?!”

I was hooked. We all were.

But with "Star Wars," it was more than just compelling entertainment. It was an unprecedented phenomenon that generated a creative spark, illuminating possibilities that hadn’t been there before. That was when some of my friends made their first stop-motion animated film using Star Wars action figures. To simulate laser gunfire, they drew lines on the film’s negative, which, incidentally, doesn’t work very well in the final cut.

Another friend of mine wrote an entire "Star Wars" ripoff script called “Space Attack,” only Han Solo’s new name was Isleam Rotoff, and his sidekick was a non-Chewbacca alien named Ronkal that spoke entirely in nonsense words. So a line like “where are those transmissions you intercepted” could be translated as something like “neener narner noo noo,” which is silly, yes, but no sillier than, say, “Gangnam Style.”

“Space Attack” opened with Isleam running to his spaceship to escape an impending apocalypse, lamenting the folly of a nuclear war in an age of lasers. He then helpfully explains, in the middle of the end of the world, that “laser” is actually an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” (Because, you know, it is.) This masterpiece was actually filmed, sans sound, by a Super 8 camera in my friend’s living room.

We didn’t have the budget for any sequels, but we wrote a whole bunch of them on reams of notebook paper and read them to each other late at night over the phone. So, while neither of us went on to become Spielbergs or Abramses, "Star Wars" provided a catalyst for our two lifetimes of creativity.

How many other movies have done that? How many others even try?

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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