Thirty-five years ago, on May 25, 1977, Star Wars opened. On May 26, 1977, I saw it with my family. My life changed…

Hold it, back up a minute. Time plays tricks on us. I looked it up and while Star Wars did indeed open on May 25, it only opened in a handful of theaters, on a Wednesday…and there was no way my family was going to see it on a school night. By Friday, May 27, it was playing on 43 screens–none of them the twin theaters at the Morris County Mall in New Jersey.

By June 24, it had expanded to 360 screens. I’m pretty comfortable, sort of, that we saw it that weekend.

(If you didn’t see Star Wars until Aug. 19, when it reached its peak expansion of 1,096 screens, you were a loser. By then the cool kids like me, who were soon to be awesome seventh graders, had seen it two or three times. But think about it: The Avengers is currently playing on 1,096 screens in Manhattan alone–and we already now it will be on DVD and Blu-ray on Sept. 25. Whereas a pre-“ancillary” juggernaut like Star Wars played and played until demand ceased to exist, right through at least Dec. 14, when Saturday Night Fever opened–and, no, that photo I used is not in New Jersey. )

So: Thirty-five years ago, on May 25, 1977, Star Wars opened. On June 25, 1977, I saw it with my family, I think. I recall it raining, and that we had to wait for an hour to get in, as you had to back when event pictures played on 360 screens.

My life changed forever.

Except that it didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong–we loved it. What’s not to love? A partial checklist of things I loved about Star Wars: C-3PO. R2-D2. Han Solo. Chewbacca. Obi-Wan. Darth Vader. The garbage monster. That crazy chess game. Han shooting first (right?). Hammer horror veteran Peter Cushing in a movie I actually saw in a theater and not on TV. Jawas, which creeped out my sister, who was four years younger (and anything that creeped her out was OK by me). And I was happy to participate in a cinematic happening with my family–we missed out on Jaws (1975), as my parents thought it might disturb my love of the pre-Snooki Jersey Shore. (A year later we all saw Jaws 2, which creeped out my sister.)

We saw Star Wars twice. I bought the Alan Dean Foster novelization (and I still have it on my shelves in my parents’ house). It gave us kids something to talk about. But that was it. I didn’t obsess over it, and I don’t consider it a personal touchstone. The Spy Who Loved Me, released on July 13, 1977, made more of an impression. Barbara Bach. I digress.

It’s safe to say, however, that Star Wars changed all our lives, including my uncomprehending 11-year-old one. Though we didn’t know it at the time we were in the midst of the first summer movie season, the legacy of Jaws‘ success, which was cemented by Star Wars‘ dazzling performance–one that its distributor, 20th Century Fox, failed to predict, as it threw its marketing muscle behind the sordid Sidney Sheldon adaptation The Other Side of Midnight (a great movie for families, sheesh) and the pitiful Damnation Alley.

That clinker was “old school” in the worst way, and proved so dismal it was moved out of its planned summer berth and left to languish in late October. Outside of the Bond films, some of the disaster movies, and one-0ffs like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), effects technology was in sad shape by the mid-70s, and needed turbocharging. (Recall, with a shudder, that in 1976 two movies that any ten-year-old knew were lackluster, Logan’s Run and King Kong, were awarded Special Achievement Oscars, the achievement apparently being deepest scrape of the barrel.) Star Wars at last brought Hollywood up to date. (And it won its special effects Oscar in a fair fight, against the equally progressive Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

Star Wars also changed how movies were marketed. Tie-ins were nothing new, but when George Lucas picked up the merchandising rights from an indifferent Fox and printed money thereafter the studios woke up and started milking its would-be cash cows, however thin the herd. Does anyone out there have any Krull toys?) It’s cute when E.T. wears a Yoda mask–and an acknowledgment that the Star Wars stuff you see in movies from that era was all over the place by 1982, a galactic brand.

Thirtty-five years later, we see the dark side. Effects-thick studio movies manufactured to sell product dominate the summer marketplace, and the spring, fall, and winter ones, too. George Lucas has taken the rap for this–unfairly, I’d say. While cobbled together from the things he loved in his youth there’s an astonishing purity to Star Wars, which the 11-year-old in most of us picked up on. It was fresh and vigorous. Lucas had conjured dreams into reality. I had a reasonably good time at The Avengers, and kids today have their Harry Potter and Twilight and Hunger Games movies, but the stale air of franchise hangs over them. Only Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films have the same spirit of the Star Wars trilogy.

The original trilogy, that is. We’re not going there, however. For me there would be two more trips to Morris County Mall, and two more long waits, plus half a viewing of 1978’s infamous Star Wars Holiday Special before I turned it off. Everyone loved The Empire Strikes Back (1980), even Pauline Kael, who had no use for Star Wars. I liked it well enough, but (heresy) I’ve never embraced it the same way that others have. By Return of the Jedi (1983) I was college-bound and skeptical; Jabba the Hutt was a peerless creation (Lucas’ last peerless creation to date), sadly shuffled off in favor of marketable Ewoks and an underwhelming reprise of the Death Star. I’d grown up, but there were signs that Lucas was digging in.

And, one long footnote of prequels later, here we are. Take that. Isn’t it always the way that something that begins so well ends in bitterness and recrimination? It’s best that the show is over.

On this anniversary day, however, I’ll think a kind thought about Star Wars, the movie that changed the cinematic universe. May the Force be…nah. The Force is always with us.

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About the Author

Bob Cashill

An Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine, Bob is also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

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