STAR WARS
The Force is Strong (So Sleep When You're Dead)
Braving the Star Wars Marathon

star wars saga.jpg

For about three-fourths of the day, I’m awake. With the exception of about 3-4 hours, I’m working. That comes out to a work day that generally falls between twelve and fourteen hours. We’re talking about freelance writing work, stuff for Drunk Monkeys, material for Cultured Vultures, and contributions for Kleft Jaw. Once in a great while, I make time for other stuff. Occasionally, my body and mind have just about fucking had it, and I need to rest.

While I’m working, I like background noise. This noise is generally music. Depending on the work of the moment, it can also be a movie or TV show. The work has to be the kind of thing that doesn’t demand intense focus. The TV show/film usually has to be in English. As much as I love music, I prefer being able to run a movie or series. Doing so gives me the ability to keep up with things. The problem is that people seem to forget I work from home. So when I tell someone I breezed through ten seasons of Supernatural in about two months, assumptions follow. Apparently, I’m spending all of that time curled up in a ball on my bedroom floor, staring with broken, transfixed wonder at hour after relentless hour of programming.

That’s what I do on my day off.

For the most part, if I’ve watched four or five movies in one day, it was while I worked away at one project or another. I’m better at multi-tasking than you might think. I swear to god, I have a life. Sort of.

What does this have to do with Star Wars?

When The Force Awakens tickets went on sale, I thought I’d eventually go. I’ve always been a fairly casual fan of George Lucas’ slightly overrated vision. The franchise was now in the hands of Disney, who immediately made it clear that they were going to get their money’s worth out of the purchase from Lucas. I don’t know how many movies Disney has lined up for the next few years, but I know it will outnumber the number of current Star Wars releases in hardly any time at all. That’s fine. I can’t imagine feeling nerd desperation to see every single movie they put out, but a new chapter in the main storyline? Sure. I saw a couple of trailers, dug the new faces, and certainly thought I could get behind visiting the old faces once again.

What I didn’t know was when I would see the movie. I figured it would be at some point during Christmas. I would be in Long Island with my girlfriend Cara. Having already compelled her to see a 70mm print of The Hateful Eight on December 25th, I was pretty confident I could get her to see a new Star Wars movie, too. She wasn’t even a casual fan, but I figured she could get behind a NYE screening.

Then I found out about that goddamn marathon.

One of the more logical trends to emerge with movie theaters is the franchise marathon. You’re seeing more and more of these all the time. Some of them are pretty non-threatening. Die Hard or The Hobbit are pretty good examples of that. You’re talking about three, four movies. Other marathons are nightmare mode endurance tests, with sanity, dignity, and spirit being pushed into a limitless wasteland. That Marvel Cinematic Universe marathon that recent preceded Age of Ultron would fit the bill.

A Star Wars marathon, encompassing the six previous installments, and culminating in a 3D showing of The Force Awakens, would fall somewhere in the middle of all this insanity. When I found out marathons would be launched in a variety of locations, as a means for superfans to get even more jacked up for J.J. Abrams taking over the Star Wars directing reins from Lucas, I was surprisingly intrigued. I had always wanted to see the original trilogy on the big screen. I had always wanted to find out if any of the prequels could be significantly salvaged through a movie theater spectacle extravaganza. Finally, I’m almost always game for cultural participation. Even if I’m not really into something, or even if I’m on fairly laidback terms with a popular book/film/TV series, I can still find a weird, low-key entertainment in hanging around the hardcore devotion set. It’s not that I feel superior to anyone who might be just a little too invested in something. I just like the people watching. Whenever possible, I like to learn more about fandoms.

I believed my ability to watch several movies in a single day would suitably prepare me for a 7-movie marathon. Sure, sitting in a movie theater for all of those movies would be a little different, but I figured I could find the constitution to pay attention for such a long stretch of time.

Star Wars is one fandom I’ve never been able to fully appreciate. As much as I hate the argument, if you were nonetheless going to ask me to choose between Star Wars and Star Trek, I’d choose Star Trek. That’s just me. When I decided to purchase tickets for the marathon, I thought that it might be an opportunity to learn more about the diehard fans. People who might make the case for The Phantom Menace, or go on for an hour or two about why Return of the Jedi is so goddamned terrible (I don’t think it is, but people have made that argument to me before).

It also helped my decision that the marathon tickets were pretty cheap, all things considered. A little over fifty bucks got you into all seven movies. I’m almost always game to watch the original trilogy. I was willing to reappraise Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith (having recently seen Phantom Menace for the Drunk Monkeys Star Wars Retrospective). I was already planning to pay fourteen bucks for a Force Awakens ticket. Going the marathon route just seemed to make sense. The only thing that worried me was whether or not I could actively sit through seven movies of wildly varying quality. Three of them are mediocre-to-fucking-grotesque. The other three are pretty freaking amazing. The seventh would be the untested property. No guarantee that it was going to be a fun ride (although critics and mega-fans were already weighing in with good reviews).

Watching movies all day at work is one thing. It’s good practice. But seven movies in a movie theater? Minimal breaks? No smoking signs? This could turn brutal fast. I was also concerned about where I would be, if the crowd turned on The Force Awakens. Nerds can riot with the best of them. If the movie was anything less than flawless, the scene would put those sports assholes to shame.

Still, it was a unique opportunity. I purchased a ticket, made hotel arrangements, and resisted the urge to watch my DVD copies of the original trilogy. When I told Cara about my plans to go, she expressed an interest in tagging along. I was surprised. Again, we’re not talking about a big fan of the series. She wasn’t even sure she had seen all of them. Still, if you’re going to dive headfirst into a 20-or-so-hour marathon, it’s good to have someone to bring along. If it’s your significant other, even better. You may not come out of this thing alive. Why not spend your last few hours on earth with someone you love?

That’s a little dramatic, but I really didn’t know how my brain was going to deal with twenty straight hours of The Force. I’ve come out of single movies with a sense that the space between my body and reality is too vast for comfort. Seven straight epics depicting warfare, romance, space samurais, and intergalactic politics had the potential to rattle me like a weekend of acid trips. I had read about that poor bastard who had gone through the entire MCU catalog, leading up to Age of Ultron. The Star Wars marathon wasn’t going to be quite that bad. But it was still a reasonably monumental undertaking.

I bought my ticket for the Silver Spring MD Regal Cinemas Majestic 20 & IMAX. I chose Silver Spring on the off-chance that my numerous friends along the DC Metro would be interested in meeting for drinks. None of that happened, but that was okay. I’ve always liked Silver Spring. The downtown region alone has enough to keep me occupied for days. I reserved a room at a Travelodge that was a short fifteen minute walk to the theater. I had restaurants, liquor stores, public transportation, and everything else a lunatic with too much free time might require.

Certainly, it was pretty wonderful to have Cara along for the ride, as well. After discovering that my hotel room had a broken shower, broken outlets, and WiFi that didn’t work, so much as it implied that it really wanted to try to work, I grabbed a nap. Cara showed up around 5 that Wednesday night. We caught an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Pericles in DC, grabbed some dinner, and hit the hotel room for a three-hour nap. At three AM, we woke, packed snacks, water, airplane bottles of liquor (that was more my idea than hers), and blankets. We were off.

The only people in the theater were the fans ready for the marathon, and the brave Regal Cinemas souls who were working the shift. Still, even at quarter-to-four in the morning, the stage was nonetheless set for a surprising amount of bedlam. No one was half-asleep. Parents stood in line for snacks with their delirious, thrilled kids. Long-time fans adjusted their costumes. The entire theater reserved for the marathon was sold out. No one was looking ahead to a specific film. Everyone was ready for an experience. I suppose I was, too. We bought popcorn and soda, enticed by the Needful Things-themed promise of unlimited refills. I added bourbon to my coffee, and we found seats near the middle, right next to one of the aisles.

Image © Drew Struzan 

Image © Drew Struzan 

It’s essential to think about this whole marathon as a singular experience, even as you regard the individual merits of each film. That’s the only way I can fully accept over well over 100 people cheering for the introduction to The Phantom Menace. I can’t imagine this would ever happen under normal circumstances. Most of us understand that of all the movies in the Star Wars canon, Phantom is the most despised by a substantial margin. Unrealistically high expectations met with an astonishingly average film. The end result was the beginning of a trend that saw three prequels dilute the Star Wars universe, creating the notion that maybe, the galaxy far far away wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. On the big screen, The Phantom Menace turned out to be slightly more entertaining than any other time I’ve seen it. Part of that was the adrenaline of the marathon itself. Another part had to be from the recent discussion of the film I had participated in for Drunk Monkeys. It was a roundtable that left me with considerations to knock around, if I ever saw it again.

I still think Episode I is garbage. However, owing to certain factors, I had more fun than I ever would have guessed. I simply tuned out the parts I still despised, and focused on the moments in the movie that are pretty entertaining (the pod race, the final lightsaber battle). The groans and fits of laughter from the audience that greeted every stupid word that came out of Jar-Jar Binks’ stupid mouth made it easy to forget the character even existed. This was good momentum to establish. After all, we still had six more movies to get through.

Of all the movies in the prequel trilogy, the only one that stayed about the same for me was Attack of the Clones. Hayden Christensen remains a dreadful, flat, consistently unpleasant Anakin Skywalker. His scenes of trying to court Padmé could give Twilight’s Edward lessons for years on how to be as sexual-predator-creepy as humanly possible. His universally deplorable performance weakens the character who would later become Darth Vader. Cara agreed with me on this. We both wondered if Darth Vader would remain an imposing figure in the original trilogy, with the prequels so fresh in our minds. Not even the presence of Christopher Lee could save a movie that I remember liking slightly more than I did during this marathon.

In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I liked Episode I more than Episode II. If nothing else, Phantom Menace is goofy enough to mock. Attack of the Clones is so severe it’s depressing. And boring. My god, is Attack of the Clones a whole lot of waiting for something to fucking happen. It was the only film in the marathon in which I took a smoke break mid-picture. I just couldn’t take another moment of Anakin making all of us profoundly uncomfortable, every time he tried to convince Padme to love him back.

Only two things in Attack of the Clones entertained me. The first was the appearance of Lee’s genuinely menacing Count Dooku, which includes his lightsaber showdowns with Anakin, Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor never seemed to get completely comfortable in the role of Ben), and Yoda. The second was any crowd reaction to Anakin saying something wooden, creeptastic, or both of those things. As you can imagine, there was a hell of a lot of laughter going on.

In case you’re wondering, the audience was fairly well-behaved. Talking was kept to an absolute minimum during actual screenings. If anything drew a big reaction, it didn’t overrun too much dialog during the scene in question. It was a varied, diverse community of people who had nonetheless come to the screening for similar reasons. Everyone was there to have a good time. It was rare that this interfered with what someone else may have wanted.

By Episode III, it was still fairly early into the day. Neither Cara nor I had drifted off during the first two films. We were wide awake, going up for our third tin of popcorn, and our third massive cup of soda. As it would later turn out, eating several pounds of popcorn, combined with several gallons of soda, which I generally only ever drink with spirits, would punish my body and mind more than 20 hours of Star Wars ever could. I combined these things with the airplane bottles of Jack Daniels, energy supplements, 5-hour Energy drinks, and the strongest coffee available. It’s a safe bet that those things contributed a great deal to the hallucinatory effects that began to travel in style with the original trilogy. I started to feel strange towards the end of Revenge of the Sith, which turned out to be about as half-decent as it had been, the last time (and first time) I saw it in 2005. I was running on about 12 hours of sleep for that entire week. I was actively paying attention to one of the biggest industry-changing franchises in movie history. I needed to stay awake. Community enthusiasm and natural adrenaline can only carry you so far.

My caffeine/sugar consumption was already out of hand, by the time I remembered that Episode III is only slightly better than Episode II. Both films feature Natalie Portman struggling to remain animated, with a script that is fairly determined to go in the other direction. By Revenge of the Sith, she’s definitely ready to just cash the paycheck, and get as far away from the sinking prequel trilogy ship as possible. Her work in Revenge of the Sith is pretty awful. That’s not entirely her fault, and she’s not really in the movie a ton, but it is one of many less-than-stellar elements to a movie that could have been a whole lot better.

Still, Episode III isn’t all bad. It’s certainly still a much better trip to the galaxy than Attack of the Clones. Revenge of the Sith gives us some impressive, bleak moments. It also manages one of my favorite lightsaber battles of the entire saga. In terms of the marathon, I don’t think it helps Episode III that by the midway point, everyone’s pretty much ready for the original trilogy. I know I was.

At the end of each movie, there was a little break. I used the time to stagger into the various forms of grey skies/minimal daylight to smoke, while trying to make sense of the real world. There was no question that the movies were starting to mess with my head a little. The other smokers in attendance seemed to feel the same way. We mostly just talked to each other, feeding off excitement for the fact that after three prequels, there was nowhere to go but up. When Cara and I did venture beyond the theater itself, it was to either get tea/coffee to sneak back into the theater, or to get chicken sandwiches to sneak back into the theater.

As it turned out, neither Cara nor myself really did that all too much. Beyond tea, coffee, and chicken sandwiches, we pretty much lived on popcorn and soda. We also noticed the crowds that were starting to form for the regular showings of The Force Awakens. These groups began to appear around noon. By late-afternoon, they combined with the rest of the attendees to create a situation that became increasingly dangerous, every time I went to use the bathroom, smoke, or get more popcorn.

Image © Drew Struzan 

Image © Drew Struzan 

Naturally, one of the biggest cheers from the crowd for the marathon was the prologue crawl for A New Hope. No one seemed to even care that these were the remastered editions, featuring all of those delightful little edits that Lucas made after the fact. Never mind that no one ever really asked him to do that in the first place. The good of A New Hope is still enough to get you over any irritations you might feel with those changes, unless you belong to the particularly cranky, entitled portion of the fandom. A lot of the changes Lucas made to the original trilogy suck. Some of them are quite frankly baffling. Overall, at least, as far as I’m concerned, they’re not worth getting too upset about.

A New Hope remains a clumsy, imperfect, beautiful experience. For all its weird touches and flaws, it’s a movie that I never get tired of. As the film ended, I tried to understand why people are so quick to forgive/overlook the very obvious problems that exist within the original trilogy. Is nostalgia really that powerful? My theory combines cast with story. Star Wars works best with a good cast, set against a story that can break off and branch out, but never stray too terribly far from the main thread. The prequels were dismal exercises in cinematic bloat. Poor casting, narrative-heavy stories, and a level of special effects that became too unreal to be truly immersive, ultimately created a series of disappointing films. I’m not going to pretend the original trilogy is somehow beyond reproach. At the same time, they seem to benefit from better casting, more charm, simpler stories, and a combination of digital and practical effects. Muppet Yoda might be more limited than CGI Yoda, in terms of what you can make the character do. Somehow, something about Muppet Yoda just strikes me as more human. That’s silly, but it was a thought I couldn’t shake, as we made our way into The Empire Strikes Back.

And for my money, Empire is still the best of the saga (so far). I’m pretty sure I still like it more than The Force Awakens. It has some of the best storytelling aspects of anything George Lucas has ever done. It finds an impressive balance between narrative and action, one which Lucas would forever struggle to create with subsequent projects. The grim, unhappy ending is easily the strongest of all seven films. The performances are pitch-perfect. The film’s potent atmosphere of doom never lets up for a second. It will be very difficult for J.J Abrams or anyone else to create something in this universe as good as Empire. Cara agreed with me on all of that, and it was the most eagerly discussed of the first six films, as the smokers and others waited for Return of the Jedi to get started.

By the time Jedi got rolling, the eerily calm frenzy was evident. I had a hard time remembering that there was a world beyond Regal Majestic 20 and these films. The lasers and explosions flickered behind my eyes, even if I wasn’t actually watching one of the movies. My body was tired, and rapidly working to reject the diet of popcorn, soda, alcohol, coffee, and that lone chicken sandwich. The fucking soundtrack pummeled my brain relentlessly, intruding on anything I tried to think about that had nothing to do with Star Wars. Everything was beginning to feel the indescribable weariness of living with odd circumstances for more than three or four hours. I’ve been through worse, but this was somehow different. One guy I spoke to remarked with pride that he had been to both MCU marathons, as well as ones for The Hobbit, Back to the Future, and Die Hard. I just nodded. I couldn’t even imagine sitting through a dozen Marvel movies in a row, as much as I love them. This guy was a breed of devotion that I simultaneously admired and feared. He could do two Star Wars marathons back-to-back with ease.

By the middle of Jedi, I felt extremely uneasy, and I still can’t say why. My blood had become half-frozen Coca-Cola and dark roast. The past, present, and future of my mind contained nothing but the planets, faces, religions, and catastrophes of George Lucas’ fucking notion to put Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress in outer fucking space.

No, I know that Star Wars is more than just its obvious influences. At that moment, I had a serious Stockholm syndrome relationship going with the series. I was repeating scenes and lines from the movies in my head, but I wasn’t doing anything with them. They were just there, suffocating anything else that came along. All of this was made worse by the constant realization that I had consented to this experience. I was burnt out, miserable, but I was somehow still having a really good time.

Son of a bitch, bring on The Force Awakens!

At the end of Jedi, I was out for one last one cigarette. My body and mind being chipped away in huge, crucial chunks had made it a little hard to concentrate on things. I’m fairly certain now that I enjoyed Episode VI. As I got older, I was shocked to discover that a decent portion of the fan community didn’t like it all that much. I was never a fan of those stupid, unsettling Ewoks. I just thought the movie was amusing, and fairly exciting. The final showdown between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor is enormously satisfying. The final confrontation with Jabba, even more so. It’s probably the weakest entry in the original trilogy, but it’s still a great film overall, as far as this casual fan is concerned.

As I mentioned before, the audience participation played a small-but-vital role in how the marathon stayed enjoyable for the most part. It never truly intruded on my ability to focus on the films themselves. What it really did was just enhance certain things. For the original trilogy, the kiss between Luke and Leia in Empire got one of the biggest roaring cocktails of laughter and groaning. We’re not going to get into a big case study about it here. All I can say is that Han and Luke’s reactions to learning Leia and Luke are twins are two moments in Jedi that I will now never forget. Not that I didn’t notice them before, but the reactions from the audience for both of those moments have changed their level of hilarity for me forever. The fact that Leia is seemingly the least bothered by the whole thing is quite possibly the funniest thing of all.

Some people hate active, energetic crowds at the movies. I’ve generally believed that it depends on the type of movie you’re watching. For the most part, during the marathon, when it was time to pay attention, people paid attention. When we wanted to react, we did so. I was surprised by how easy going the crowd seemed to be. I was also pleased with every conversation I had with someone between films. We were united in this absurd activity that all of us had signed on for. In fandom culture, you run into a lot of unrepentant, hopelessly unaware jackasses. These are the people who hilariously, tragically believe that being born before you makes them a bigger fan. This is something I’ve gleaned from twelve years of staffing and attending conventions. Thankfully, when it comes to these tribes, communities, whatever you want to call them, the good generally outweighs the bad. The best of all this nonsense was in spectacular form for this marathon.

Image © Drew Struzan 

Image © Drew Struzan 

So, what did I think of The Force Awakens? I can’t tell you. I just can’t.

Not just because I don’t want to spoil anything for you. I don’t. You deserve to be surprised, and I’m confident you will be. I just can’t imagine being subjective about whether or not the movie was actually any good. By and large, the response to J.J. Abrams taking over this universe has been extremely positive. People are calling it the best Star Wars film in years. I can tell you for certain that I had a great time. Even after six long movies, I was completely stupefied in my enthrallment. It was wonderful to see the old favorites come back. Nothing in The Force Awakens got a bigger collective scream of approval and joy than the return of Han Solo and Chewbacca. The new characters were greeted warmly, and I liked almost all of them (I’m still not sold on Kylo Ren). What The Force Awakens lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in sheer enthusiasm. J.J. Abrams is a hack, when it comes to having and executing genuinely creative thoughts, but he puts on a slick, crowd-pleasing show. There are worse people out there who could have taken on this saga. As a self-professed fanatic of all things Star Wars, Abrams should be able to deliver something that fans will enjoy. Episode VII was a good step in that direction.

Nonetheless, I can’t completely trust any of those thoughts. By the time The Force Awakens came on, I was a giddy, decaying wreck of a human being. I was ready to go home, but I was also pretty sure my headspace was going to eventually lead me into oncoming traffic, when Cara and I made the walk back to our shitty hotel room. In other words, I didn’t want to leave, but I also desperately wanted to. I certainly needed to get the hell away from Death Stars, Endor, and all the rest. Cara was even punchier by the end. After nearly toppling down several flights of concrete steps, she spent the rest of our walk back to the hotel looking around, and muttering “What the fuck” under her breath. She wasn’t upset about the movies. She was just trying to readjust to reality again. We had gone inside under dark skies. It was cloudy for most of that Thursday. Darkness presided over Silver Spring once again, when we staggered out of the theater at around 9:45 PM. That alone can screw with your head a little bit.

We made it back to the hotel. I found it hard to get to sleep. We ordered Chinese food, ate quietly, and fell asleep watching Bob’s Burgers. As sad as it sounds, we had to spend the bulk of Friday recovering from the marathon. I didn’t think about Star Wars much, amazingly. The only thing I seriously considered was the notion that I need to see The Force Awakens again soon. I’d like to watch it with fresh eyes, a little bit more sleep in my system, and something that even loosely resembles a real diet. I know I enjoyed the film. I just know that I have to see it again.

I also realized that nothing in my life could have accurately prepared me for this marathon. I can watch two or three films in a row at home. I can keep the TV on while I work for twelve straight hours. None of that helped me get through the Star Wars marathon. That’s a shitty life lesson, but I guess I’ll have to take it.

In case you’re wondering, you can probably still talk me into one of these marathons. No one is ever going to accuse me of knowing when to admit I’m in over my head. Besides, it’s not like I actually went insane.

Right?