Star Wars: Remembering Another Opening Night 32 Years Ago

In honor of the release of The Force Awakens, I thought I’d re-share this post about my Return of the Jedi opening-night experience. My friends and I were 12 years old then. Now, more than 32 years later, I will be reuniting with one of those friends to see the new film in IMAX at the Franklin Institute in Philly…

A long time ago, in a movie theater somewhat far away . . .

The wait had seemed interminable. Three years to find out the fate of Han Solo, to learn if Darth Vader had been telling the truth about Luke’s father. Three years is forever to a child who had only been nine years old when The Empire Strikes Back ended with a major cliffhanger. But the day finally arrived: May 25th, 1983, opening day for Return of the Jedi.

I was heading to the theater in Deptford, NJ with my two best friends, Bruce and Kim. Kim’s dad drove us up to the theater early in the day so we could buy tickets ahead of time and walk around the mall until the movie started. This proved to be a brilliant move because by the time we returned to the theater the line outside was longer than anything I had ever seen in my life. We got in line and it continued to grow behind us, stretching back farther than we could see.

After a while, a theater employee started walking down the line and informing people that the shows were sold out for the entire night. If they didn’t already have tickets, they weren’t getting in. It was still early at this point, so a lot of people went home disappointed that day. I don’t recall how long we waited before finally getting into the theater, but we stood outside for a long time. You don’t really see lines like that anymore (except maybe in major cities) because movies now open in so many theaters. Back then, we didn’t have 20-plus-theater multiplexes. I think our theater had six screens, and only a couple of those were showing Jedi. Personally, I have never seen a theater line in the 30 years since that even came close to the one that day.

Watching the movie was surreal. The audience erupted in thunderous applause every time something good happened. I have gone to other movies where the audience cheered, but nothing like this. After waiting three years for a resolution to the most stunning cliffhanger in movie history, the audience was just ready to let loose. It was a communal experience.

Jedi frequently gets a bad rap, is thought of as the weak stepchild of the original trilogy. I think much of this is due to revisionist history, particularly where the Ewoks are concerned. Everyone my age liked the Ewoks when we were kids–if you claim differently now you are not being honest with yourself. But putting the Ewoks aside, the movie had spectacular sequences and set pieces: the rancor, the battle over the sarlacc pit where we got to see Luke kicking ass as a Jedi for the first time, the speeder bike chase, the battle over the second Death Star with more fast flying ships, lasers, and explosions than had ever been seen onscreen at one time. And the scenes between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor were some of the best of the entire saga (at least until Lucas retroactively ruined the climax by having Vader scream “No!” but that’s a story for another article.).

It may not have been quite to the level of its predecessors, but Return of the Jedi was still a thrilling and satisfying conclusion to the greatest movie trilogy of all time, and I will never forget that opening day. My friends and I still talk about it.

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Return of the Jedi 30 Years Later: Remembering Opening Day

A long time ago, in a movie theater somewhat far away . . .

The wait had seemed interminable. Three years to find out the fate of Han Solo, to learn if Darth Vader had been telling the truth about Luke’s father. Three years is forever to a child who had only been nine years old when The Empire Strikes Back ended with a major cliffhanger. But the day finally arrived: May 25th, 1983, opening day for Return of the Jedi.

I was heading to the theater in Deptford, NJ with my two best friends, Bruce and Kim. Kim’s dad drove us up to the theater early in the day so we could buy tickets ahead of time and walk around the mall until the movie started. This proved to be a brilliant move because by the time we returned to the theater the line outside was longer than anything I had ever seen in my life. We got in line and it continued to grow behind us, stretching back farther than we could see.

After a while, a theater employee started walking down the line and informing people that the shows were sold out for the entire night. If they didn’t already have tickets, they weren’t getting in. It was still early at this point, so a lot of people went home disappointed that day. I don’t recall how long we waited before finally getting into the theater, but we stood outside for a long time. You don’t really see lines like that anymore (except maybe in major cities) because movies now open in so many theaters. Back then, we didn’t have 20-plus-theater multiplexes. I think our theater had six screens, and only a couple of those were showing Jedi. Personally, I have never seen a theater line in the 30 years since that even came close to the one that day.

Watching the movie was surreal. The audience erupted in thunderous applause every time something good happened. I have gone to other movies where the audience cheered, but nothing like this. After waiting three years for a resolution to the most stunning cliffhanger in movie history, the audience was just ready to let loose. It was a communal experience.

Jedi frequently gets a bad rap, is thought of as the weak stepchild of the original trilogy. I think much of this is due to revisionist history, particularly where the Ewoks are concerned. Everyone my age liked the Ewoks when we were kids–if you claim differently now you are not being honest with yourself. But putting the Ewoks aside, the movie had spectacular sequences and set pieces: the rancor, the battle over the sarlacc pit where we got to see Luke kicking ass as a Jedi for the first time, the speeder bike chase, the battle over the second Death Star with more fast flying ships, lasers, and explosions than had ever been seen onscreen at one time. And the scenes between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor were some of the best of the entire saga (at least until Lucas retroactively ruined the climax by having Vader scream “No!” but that’s a story for another article.).

It may not have been quite to the level of its predecessors, but Return of the Jedi was still a thrilling and satisfying conclusion to the greatest movie trilogy of all time, and I will never forget that opening day. My friends and I still talk about it.

2001: A Personal Odyssey

This week marks the 45th anniversary of the theatrical release of Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is not so much a review as an anecdote of my experience with the film and how I grew to appreciate it as the greatest science fiction film ever made.

 

I first saw 2001 as a kid and found it boring as hell. I had grown up on action-oriented science fiction like Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek (yes, compared to 2001, Trek is quite action-oriented), so I was not prepared at that age for science fiction presented as a cerebral art film.

Consequently, these were some of the questions that ran through my juvenile brain: Where are the lasers and light sabers?  Where are the spaceship dogfights and massive explosions?  What does a space odyssey have to do with a bunch of apes running around in the desert? When are these astronauts actually going to do something other than jogging around to classical music? Okay, now there’s just some old dude sitting in a room eating dinner—that’s it, I’m out. And so I returned to Star Wars and its ilk, leaving 2001 in the dust, never to be seen or thought of again.

Then one day, as a young adult, I was flipping through channels and stumbled onto the movie just as the Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite sequence was beginning.

I was mesmerized.  This was not the 2001 I remembered as a kid.  This was stunning.  I watched it all the way through to the end and, instead of being bored by the old man eating dinner, I was intrigued.  I knew I had to watch the entire film so I rented it on VHS (kids, if you don’t know what that stands for, ask your parents).

It was a mind-blowing experience.  Every scene that had once seemed boring I now found incredibly compelling.  Things that had previously been unintelligible now made sense. However, as anyone who has watched the movie can attest, there was still much I didn’t understand.  As with the best of art, much was left open to interpretation, so after the movie was finished I went online and gobbled up every piece of information I could find, reading various takes on the material that helped me to develop my own interpretation with repeated viewings.  More than almost any other film, 2001 lends itself to multiple viewingsand multiple interpretations.  Every time I watch it I get something new out of it.

That being said, those who can’t sit through a movie unless something is exploding every five minutes may not find much to like.  2001 is not your traditional three-act, plot driven-film.  It is more of a visual tone poem, a brilliant work of art that challenges the mind and rewards viewers willing to probe its depths, in much the same way as poetry.  It embodies everything to which the greatest science fiction should aspire.

It’s also beautiful to look atand we’re talking about a film made in 1968, before the revolutionary advancements in optical and computer effects ushered in by movies like Star Wars and Jurassic Park.  That 2001 still looks so amazing is a testament to Kubrick’s talent as a filmmaker and the skills of his effects crew.

I could spend all day going deeper into the film, discussing the ways in which the movie predicted future technology that we now enjoy, the meaning of the monoliths, what actually happened to Dave after he went through the stargate, and how, despite being cast as the “bad guy,” the computer HAL is actually the most tragic (and human) character in the film, but I don’t want this post to get overlong.  Besides, critics and film historians far more talented than me have already discussed these things in much greater depth.

I mainly just wanted to convey my love for this film and encourage you to watch (or re-watch) iton as large of a screen as possible. If you give it the chance, if you let it grab hold and pull you in, you will see why, 45 years later, it is still considered by many to be the greatest science fiction film ever made.

Quick Thoughts on the Hobbit in 48 fps 3D

Originally I had planned to see The Hobbit in IMAX 3D so I could catch the 9-minute preview of the new Star Trek film, but at the last minute I changed my mind, figuring I should try at least once to see it how Peter Jackson intended.  I’m glad I did it for the experience, but I probably won’t see a live-action film in that format again given the choice.  Some of the exteriors were breathtaking, but overall it had more of a videotape feel to it.  Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned over the years to associate the video tape look with cheapness and I don’t think that’s going to change, at least not for our generation.

No doubt that everything is much more detailed with the 48 fps format, but maybe too much so.  It certainly makes you feel as if you could step right out in that world, and this worked great for the wide-shot exteriors, but not so well for the interiors.  I was never able to get past the feeling of watching a made-for-TV version of Lord of the Rings.  I wouldn’t say it looked fake so much as unreal, especially since the look of Middle Earth had already been established in the original LOTR trilogy.  And the closeups of characters in exterior shots often made the distant backgrounds look flat, which probably wasn’t helped by the 3D acting in conjunction with the frame rate.

Taken apart from the frame rate, however, the 3D was perfectly fine, so if you want to watch it in 3D, see it in IMAX in the normal 24 fps frame rate.  That experience will be more like what you’re accustomed to seeing, and at least that way you’ll also get to see the Star Trek preview.  I, however, am thinking about going back to 2D for the next two installments of the trilogy so that their look will feel more synchronous with the Middle Earth established in the LOTR trilogy.

As for the movie itself, it was well done, with nonstop action once they finally left the Shire.  It doesn’t have the same stakes as Lord of the Rings and I can see why some people think the material felt stretched to accommodate the split into three films, but there is a lot to like, particularly the Gollum scene, and it’s always nice to revisit Middle Earth.  Personally, I think I could do with another viewing where I can watch the film for just the story rather than spending most of it preoccupied with the 3D and the overly-detailed picture.

Films have essentially looked the same since the early days of Hollywood.  This new technology isn’t like upgrading from black and white to color, or even to 3D.  It’s a fundamental change in the way films look.  I understand why Peter Jackson wanted to introduce it, but I don’t think we’re quite ready for it.

Final verdict: definitely worth seeing, but I’d avoid the 48 fps version.

 

Prometheus – Some Quick Thoughts

I haven’t posted here in a while so I thought I’d share a few thoughts about my most anticipated film of the year (yes, even more so than The Avengers or The Dark Knight).

Prometheus is a tale of two movies, beginning as a 2001-esque sci-fi film full of wonder that morphs into a somewhat by-the-numbers horror flick in the second half.  The visual effects and cinematography are spectacular, and the 3D is among the best I’ve seen, but ultimately it feels like it’s missing something.  There’s not much character development (in fact, Fassbender’s brilliantly played android is the most fully-realized character in the film), though this would not have been a problem if the film had continued along its philosophical path (such films have worked with minimal character development), but when it raises the stakes and becomes a horror film, the lack of character interaction or chemistry becomes a detriment.

Still, it’s better than a lot of the derivative drivel that passes for film entertainment these days, and at least it tries for something greater, even if it falls a bit short.  Despite its flaws, its a treat to see Scott working in sci-fi again (for the first time since Blade Runner), and I enjoyed watching all of the little bits that tied into Alien.  I still recommend it for its aforementioned qualities as well as some expertly crafted, thrilling sequences, but with the caveat that you may want to lower your expectations if you were expecting a genre-defining masterpiece.  Lets say, 3.5 out of 5 stars, though it is possible that rating could go up after a second viewing, as the film does leave behind much to consider and discuss.  And people are discussing it everywhere, so if that was Scott’s ultimate goal, you could consider the film a success.