Just when I think I'm out, they drag me back in.
Why else would I find myself sitting sweaty palmed, repeatedly hitting refresh on my computer, desperately trying to book cinema seats with all the urgency and stress normally associated with scoring Glastonbury tickets? Of course, Star Wars is back...again.
Star Wars has been part of my life, part of most our lives, since childhood. It's always just been there. Lurking in the background, popping up in countless references in TV and movies, it's become so much a part of our cultural fabric that it's hard to imagine a time when it didn't exist. JJ Abrams has dragged it front and centre again and with that he dragged me right back into it too. Star Wars is my geek weakness, one that I've tried to quit countless times but end up falling back into with the inevitability of a tragic drunk who swears that every drink is their last one.
My dad said he realised that I was going to find life nothing but a profound disappointment after he took me to see a double bill of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi back in 1983. I was five years old. When we took our seats in the darkened auditorium I leant over to him and asked "When are we getting changed into our costumes?" He didn't know how to answer that. I'd severely misunderstood how cinemas worked. My naïve young mind thought that I was actually going to be in the film itself, to pass through the veil of the screen and be physically transported to a galaxy far, far away where I'd adventure alongside Luke Skywalker and rescue Han Solo from the slimy clutches of Jabba the Hutt. He shattered my dreams as gently as he could but the realisation that I could only be a spectator hurt and still does if I'm really honest.
Trying my best to look fearsome as Darth Vader - The 80s
To my divvy young mind these weren't movies, they were more like documentaries. I'd almost worn out an old double sided Betamax tape of the first two movies from watching them over and over again - sometimes more than once in a day. As far as I was concerned all of it, every last character and situation was totally real. It was all too beautifully realised to be anything else. The worst part is that deep down there is a small kernel, some undeniable tiny little part of me which exists that still, no matter how irrationally, believes that to be the case. It's ridiculous and I know that but I'm sure a lot of people that grew up with those films feel exactly the same way.
What I couldn't have imagined then was that something that I was obsessed with as kid would continue to punctuate my existence deep into adulthood. Doing my A-levels I consumed more packets of Doritos then is medically advisable in order to complete a collection of Star Wars themed Tazos that were given away to mark the release of the Special Editions in 1997. What were Tazos? How were they meant to work? The answers to those questions have been lost in the mists of time but back then it seemed vitally important that I collect all of the plastic discs bearing pictures of my childhood heroes. I even sent away for the special album that held them all. That should've been a warning to me.
I didn't realise then that I'd been unconsciously seduced by the hype machine of Lucasfilm. I'd lain dormant, like a sleeper agent, from the mid eighties to the mid nineties, contenting myself on a diet of Back to the Future, Batman and other franchises that probably didn't begin with a letter B. I'd discovered girls, booze, britpop and all manner of other distractions but when Star Wars came calling again I was reactivated. I surrendered, opened my wallet, my heart and cried "Take it, take it all". One marketing campaign on a packet of crisps had dragged me right back to my childhood, slapped me about the face and said "This, this is who you are. Don't forget that again"
I searched for my old Star Wars toys and was dismayed to find most of them missing. I questioned my parents who reluctantly told me that they'd given them away to my cousin. They may as well have told me that I was adopted. Their admission was like a stinging betrayal, one that made me briefly research parental divorce law until I discovered that I myself was guilty of something far more disturbing. Looking through a box of junk I found my old Han Solo figure. His features were charred beyond recognition, an arm was almost entirely missing and a safety pin had been pushed through his head. A repressed memory surfaced of 'The Summer I Discovered Fire', a cruel time where scores of my toys had been given the Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru treatment courtesy of a box of kitchen matches and a can of WD40. I felt nothing but self loathing in that moment. What had I done? Where had this wanton violence come from towards something that I clearly loved? It was a crime equivalent to walking up to E.T, beautiful, pure hearted E.T, and punching him right in the face
Perhaps motivated by guilt, I felt compelled to buy action figures for the first time since I was a kid. Worryingly, I wasn't opening the packets. I smelt the cardboard, admired the mouldings and carefully stored them away like a geek squirrel getting ready for winter - anything but actually play with them. I began buying other bits of throwaway memorabilia as well, anything featuring Luke, Leia, Han or Vader. I hid them in boxes too. To this day I'm not sure to what end I did that. For all the good it did me I may as well have just stood on Waterloo Bridge enthusiastically shouting "Star Wars!" at passers by whilst throwing my money into the Thames. I began to read Expanded Universe novels, which were mostly awful, just to get a Star Wars fix until the first prequel was released.
Now, it has to be remembered that there was a time in the very late nineties when the words The Phantom Menace elicited a very different emotional response than they do now. Before we'd heard a single "Yippee!", met Jar Jar or had Darth Vader reduced to a pantomime villain with a single drawn out "Nooooooooooo!" - most fans were generally optimistic and genuinely excited to see more adventures in a universe they loved. I was one of them.
In that spirit of optimism I made a special pilgrimage all the way to New York to go and see The Phantom Menace - which, given the benefit of hindsight, is not one of my prouder boasts. If I say it out loud now to anyone it just sounds completely ridiculous and I feel a prickle of shame. The film was being released a couple of months earlier in the US than the UK and I'd been hyped to the point that if I didn't get to see it immediately on release I worried that my heart might explode. Incredibly, I somehow managed to mask that the trip was almost entirely Star Wars motivated from my then girlfriend who came with me (yes you read that right, Star Wars fans can have girlfriends, it's Star Trek fans that don't). She displayed the kind of patience not seen since Mother Theresa as she quietly endured watching it on two consecutive days and followed me about the city as I bought tons of plastic crap that ultimately left me with a hollow sense of shame that can only be compared to post-masturbatory anguish. Boarding the plane home at JFK I saw a man of about my age. He was clutching a box with a toy AT-AT in it. Walking ahead of him was his girlfriend. She looked tired, he looked vaguely ashamed of himself. We briefly made eye contact. It was a glance that acknowledged that we were no more than children hiding inside men suits.
As the rest of the prequels were released I felt my love for Star Wars slipping. I was still there for the earliest screenings I could get into but the over-reliance on CGI left the movies feeling more like elaborate screen savers which I had to try and convince myself I liked. Maybe I'll grow to love them, I thought. Perhaps the originals were this bad but viewing them through a frame of nostalgia elevated them to something more? The Rebel Alliance tattoo on my shoulder began to feel, dare I say, a bit silly and I thought to myself, perhaps this is time to let childish things go, time to grow up.
And that's how I stayed until I heard that another film was in the works. Then the old jitters started up again. With a depressing inevitability, my search history began to feature more Star Wars sites. I'd find myself in Forbidden Planet with no recollection of how I'd got there. The new Star Wars comics started appearing on my bookshelves even though I swore to myself that I wouldn't buy them. I've relapsed in a major way, Star Wars has it's claws in me again. Most tellingly perhaps, and I'm not too proud to admit this, is that the last trailer for The Force Awakens left me teary eyed. Seeing an aged Han Solo utter the line "It's true, all of it" in response to new character Rey asking about all the stories they've heard, produced an alarming, involuntary, sob-like intake of air from me of such depth that I can only assume it had been building up since 1983. It transported me back to that darkened room where I discovered you can't just step through the screen and into another galaxy and I was surprised to find that it still hurt.
I'm cautiously optimistic for the future of the franchise but godammit Star Wars, sometimes I wish I knew how to quit you.