Personal Essay: On “The Force Awakens”, generational storytelling and movie magic

This personal essay was my final assignment for my storytelling structures journalism class at Northwestern University this fall. The prompt was simple — describe one distinct moment in your life. Enjoy!

On the evening of December 17, 2015, there was only one place for a Star Wars fan to be — the movie theater.

The night marked the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first installment released since 2005. Years of diligent training with a plastic lightsaber in my basement and envisioning how a seventh episode would turn out now gave way to an actual screening of an actual Star Wars movie, my first in theaters. My dad and two younger brothers waited with me behind a velvet rope, alternating between lightsaber clashes and heated discussions of the best episode in the bustling lobby of our local movie theater. 

Just before seven p.m., the ushers walked out from under the warm theater lights and pointed us to the theater. An all-out dash ensued to find the best seats, and eventually all four of us cozied up in seats right in the center, lightsabers in our cupholders. But the greatest thrill came a half-hour later, when the opening notes of the fanfare blared and the bright yellow of the Star Wars wordmark graced the screen. 

***

My first exposure to Star Wars came in the summer before first grade, when my dad finally persuaded my mom to let us see the original 1977 movie as a reward for us getting our tonsils removed. For my dad, going to see Star Wars in the theater was a true spectacle. Films back then only had theatrical releases instead of the DVD copies and live streaming options of today. The novelty of seeing the images plastered on countless cereal boxes and comic books come to life on the screen made the Star Wars movies essential entertainment.

My dad was only six when the first Star Wars movie hit theaters, but back then, the hype had yet to envelop the franchise. Merchandising, one of the franchise’s brilliant breakthroughs, did not even hit shelves until 1978 and my dad was content to see the film in the tail end of its theatrical run. But by the time Empire Strikes Back offered a sequel to the cultural phenomenon, the piles of Star Wars trading cards and board games had piled up in my dad’s basement. One time, the local library promised that Star Wars was coming for a day, only to roll out cardboard cutouts of C3PO, R2D2, Chewbacca and Darth Vader for the young visitors. With each new card or toy, the burgeoning Star Wars fanbase clamored for more. 

My dad attended Empire Strikes Back with his parents, sister and brother on a family vacation to Cape Cod, oblivious to the now-famous plot twist. He basked in the glory of Darth Vader, who took center stage as the film’s iconic villain after a supporting role in the original. The sequel lived up to the hype.

***

I lived in the luxury of the 21st century when it came to my Star Wars childhood. In addition to poring through the library’s books and acting out battles with action figures, I could turn on the original movies or the prequels (except for the PG-13 Revenge of the Sith) whenever I felt the urge. And, of course, I had a parent who could answer all of my questions, or wield a red lightsaber when I needed an opponent in battle.

The prospect of another live action movie never crossed my mind as a possibility until Disney bought the franchise for $5 billion in 2012. From that moment, it was a race to the cinemas for Episode VII. My 15-year-old self felt as if a portal to the galaxy far, far away was opening up. 

In the weekends leading up, The Force Awakens succeeded in every sense. Critical reviews praised its balance of old and new characters and cutting-edge action scenes, while box offices reflected global anticipation. Empire Strikes Back rose to the top of the charts with 67 million tickets in 1980. In comparison, Force Awakens hit 111 million tickets and just over $2 billion in revenue by the end of its run. Never mind that the film was fiction — I saw in the opening night an immediacy unrivaled by any other film. Not only did I need to be there, but I needed to book my tickets two months in advance, I needed to arrive two hours early and I needed to see the film the second it hit the big screen, free of spoilers. 

As the film unfolded, I basked in the sensation of it all: the crisp sound effects, the detail on Kylo Ren’s jagged lightsaber blade, the John Williams blend of old and new that revitalized the franchise. I wanted to hold onto my adoration for the Star Wars films I grew up with, but this new installment locked me in a Force hold, waiting to see each twist and turn. I reveled in reacting in real time to a narrative unfolding before my eyes.

I walked out of the theater insistent that Force Awakens was now my favorite Star Wars installment, a stance I have since recanted as the sensory allure of the film has worn off over the years. I returned to theaters only a couple days later for a second watch, and became so enamored with the spectacle of seeing Star Wars in theaters that I saw each of the sequel trilogy’s installments two times.

For my dad, the rare film premiere proved to be worth the hefty $20 price of admission. It would never be the same as the films he watched as a young Star Wars fan, he says, but Force Awakens added to the saga. Beyond that, he loved the experience. A father and his sons at the theater sharing in a global moment, their gap in generations bridged once again by a light show of sound effects, gritty battles and galactic conflict.

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