Alistair Harkness: Why I can’t help being excited by Star Wars

AS the new Star Wars film opens this week, one fanboy tells how Luke Skywalker and Co changed his life

Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back. Picture: The Kobal Collection
Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back. Picture: The Kobal Collection

I tried not to get sucked in, I really did. I greeted the news that there was going to be a new Star Wars movie with a vow that I was past that stage in my life. I kept a professional interest in the names being bandied around to direct it – quizzing JJ Abrams at the Star Trek Into Darkness press conference, gauging Colin Trevorrow’s interest long before he landed the gig to direct Star Wars: Episode IX – but still I refused to waste time tracking the production. Even when the first teaser launched a year ago I didn’t let myself go full fanboy. “That first Phantom Menace teaser was brilliant too,” I told myself, “and look how that turned out.”

Then about a month ago I accidentally caught the final trailer for The Force Awakens at a screening of the reissued True Romance and fell hard for my first love all over again. That moment when a sagacious Han Solo informs new characters Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) that all those old stories, “the Dark Side, the Jedi... it’s true… all of it…” as John Williams’ elegiac reworking of his score swelled on the soundtrack… I realised then I was caught in the Star Wars tractor beam once more, a rush of childhood memories flooding through me like the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi instructing Luke to use the Force.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The Empire Strikes Back was the first movie I remember seeing on the big screen. It was a long time ago, in a galaxy not that far away. I was five. My dad took to me to see it at the Marina cinema in Hawick and the experience was so powerful I can still see the yellow lettering of the Star Wars logo whooshing onto the screen for the first time. I didn’t know what those words meant at that point, but I can remember being enthralled by Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and Chewbacca and that swamp-bound Muppet that sounded like Miss Piggy. I remember the thrill of that AT-AT Walker attack, and the lightsaber battle between Luke and that masked guy who said he was his father. I remember Han being frozen in carbonite and the cool way he deflected that soppy “I love you” moment. I remember Luke sliding through the ventilation shafts beneath the cloud city of Bespin and clinging with his only hand to what looked like a TV aerial. I even remember the short film – Black Angel – that played before it. That’s how total it was for me.

Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back. Picture: The Kobal Collection

When you have an experience like that, resistance to movies is futile. Like a lot of people my age – I turned 40 this year – the original Star Wars trilogy hit at the perfect moment, taking shape around me the way The Beatles did for babyboomers and Harry Potter has for millennials. When my parents got our first video recorder, Star Wars was the first film rented (on Betamax). When it was subsequently screened on ITV, I watched my taped copy so often – we’re talking hundreds of times – I wore it out. I found the wait to see Return Of The Jedi agonising, particularly as it wound its way round the regional screening circuit.

Then there were the toys. I got my first Luke Skywalker (in “Bespin fatigues”) shortly after that Empire Strikes Back screening and spent the next few years recreating scenes from the films or imagining new adventures with a growing collection of birthday and Christmas-sourced action figures. When I saw ET, that scene where Elliott plays with his Star Wars toys was so authentic it felt like something from my own life.

Needless to say, I’m not one of those people who criticise George Lucas for profiting from my childhood. For one thing, I was a kid and playing Star Wars was fun. For another, I’ve earned way more writing about Star Wars over the years than I ever spent on it as either a kid or an adult.

As these things always do, my interest diminished as I edged into my teens, but it didn’t disappear entirely. I was never really a collector (I melted Chewbacca on a lightbulb – I forget why), but I never stopped watching the movies, even when it really wasn’t cool to do so.

Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma

And then came the Prequels.

I saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in Mann’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard on opening day. I didn’t fly 5,500 miles just to see the movie – that really would have been crazy – but let’s just say I might have timed my arrival in Los Angeles in the midst of a three-month backpacking trip to coincide with the opening of Episode I.

Although not among the more dedicated fans who’d been camping on the sidewalk for weeks, I did get in line at 9am for a 3pm screening (despite already having my ticket). CNN were on the prowl for stories and when I told them I was from Scotland the reporter looked at me pityingly and turned on the camera. The reviews had just hit and they wanted to know if I trusted critics. “Of course not,” I said with the blind loyalty of a fan. “What do they know?”

Turns out quite a bit. Although it took months of denial and multiple screenings for the blinkers to finally fall away, those scathing reviews were on the money. This wasn’t the incident that made me decide to become a critic – that has way more to do with the love of movies begun by that childhood trip to see The Empire Strikes Back – but it did make me mistrustful of nostalgia, especially when the subsequent films continued to disappoint.

R2-D2 and 3-CPO

I watched those prequels again recently and there really is nothing of worth in them, except for this: I know kids who genuinely like them and actually got into an argument recently with a friend’s eight-year-old (I know…) about which was the best Star Wars film. “Empire Strikes Back,” I insisted confidently. “Attack Of The Clones,” came his equally defiant rebuttal. That he was thoroughly unwilling to back down was how it should be. I still maintain that I’m right and he’s wrong, but perhaps once we’ve both seen The Force Awakens this week we’ll have some common ground. Here’s hoping.

• Star Wars: The Force Awakens is on general release from Thursday

Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and Harrison Ford as Han Solo