I was twelve when George Lucas' Star Wars opened in 1977. Seeing the film was an event, not another night at the movies. My family drove several towns away from our home and waited on a line that wrapped around the large theater several times. Once in, we sat down front, close to the enormous screen. The lights dimmed and the now-iconic music started to play. Words appeared on the screen: "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ..." A huge, endlessly long spaceship flew over my head. I emitted an awe-inspired gasp. I was transfixed. I had never seen or felt anything like it.
This was before there were "blockbusters" movies. Before movie merchandizing tie-ins. Before sophisticated technologies and entertainments were available in the palms of our hands.
This was magic.
As a twelve year-old American male, I was the ideal audience member. Star Wars (later dubbed A New Hope) was a Western, swashbuckler, and romance reimagined as a space fantasy. As an entertainment, it had no equal. I was transported from Long Island and immediately and completely immersed in that galaxy.
As a gay twelve-year-old boy in 1977, Star Wars resonated with me. My burgeoning homosexuality was unconscious, but I knew I was different. There was something within me that was not like other people around me. And isn't this what Luke Skywalker feels, as well? He is lonely, he feels disconnected, alien. He discovers that the Force is within him and he must learn to accept it. He learns to harness his hidden power to achieve his potential.
In 1977, there was no positive gay imagery in American culture. No movies or television shows had gay characters. "Coming out" was not a thing. I had no idea what homosexuality was. So ... Luke became my boyhood hero, my role model. He was someone who feels different and has a secret, like me. Luke learns to accept who he is and achieves great things.
Most boys and girls going through puberty probably feel that same sense of awkwardness, isolation, and desire to be respected. Luke's story is not a metaphor for homosexuality, but rather a story of maturation. For a gay 12-year-old with no positive gay idols, Luke's story made sense and genuinely provided a new hope.
Last month, I kept my enthusiasm for the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, at bay during its opening weeks. I wanted to see it, to visit with old friends Luke, Leia and Han. But I was skeptical about sitting with an audience of young, contemporary movie-goers. To them, it is just another movie. They have seen every conceivable space fantasy and special effect on big screens. They have played wildly imaginative video games. Their technologies rival those used by the characters in the movie.
So I waited. Finally, last week, my husband, my friend Mark, and I went to see The Force Awakens in a half-full (half-empty?) theater. As adults in our 50s, we may not be the target audience for this space adventure anymore, but that did not curb our excitement. When the music started and the familiar storyline crawl moved through space, I was twelve again. I sat bolt upright in my seat, eager to soak in the galaxy and get lost in its mythology.
Much has been written about how The Force Awakens borrows its plot from the original Star Wars film. So what? A New Hope borrowed its plot lines and devices from all sorts of serials and proven formulae. Hell, even Shakespeare stole his plots from other sources. The Force Awakens borrows, yes, but this makes the film feel familiar, a comfortable continuation of what had come before it. And it alters its plot enough to make us want to know where the story will go from here.
When Han, Leia, and -- finally! -- Luke appears on screen, I was surprised at how emotional I felt at seeing them again. The actors, their characters, and I had all aged almost forty years since I was that boy sitting in that movie theater a long time ago in (what feels like) a galaxy far, far away. We had shared something in common then, and I was eager to catch up. They have had some rough times, these characters: difficult relationships, family troubles, stress. The actors playing those roles have had career ups and downs, accidents, and medical issues. I have had some of those, too. I felt so comfortable with them, it would have been nice to sit down with them after the movie over drinks... Interestingly, I spend a lot of time at a bar in the aptly-named New Hope, Pennsylvania. It is not as wild as the Mos Eisley cantina, it's a gay bar. But the characters that go there are colorful and eccentric, too. I think they would like it.
Rey is the new Luke: young, alone, misunderstood, gifted. She is a fresh imagining of this type. My hope is that actor Daisy Ridley and director J.J. Abrams have invented a character that may stir today's 12-year-olds. But are kids too jaded, surrounded by too much technology and advanced entertainments, to feel the way I did? Can The Force awaken something in young people as it did for me? Star Wars is in my DNA. Is it just another movie to them?
I am now a gay, married, 51-year-old man. I am lightyears away from where I was when I first started this adventure. Do Luke and I still have anything in common? I eagerly await the next movie so I can find out.