Three little words. The first uttered in darkness, the remainder as the lights come up and we behold the weathered features of Han Solo standing next to his furry, lifelong companion, in the aging corridors of the Millennium Falcon. A clarion call to uncounted legions of dreamers, young and old alike, waiting in what often seemed merely vain hope for thirty-two long years. We'd seen the Falcon fly in the first teaser, but this was different. This was an affirmation of something that we'd long been told was never going to happen. This was a gift. This was faith rewarded.
About damn time.
The Internet has grown far beyond what it was in 1999, when one had to suffer through an agonizing hour of QuickTime buffering through a dial-up connection to behold the reveal, following the Lucasfilm logo, of Trade Federation tanks creeping over a grassy hill. Certainly, at the time, I pored over the frames of the teaser for The Phantom Menace with unbridled curiosity, clutching at the merest hint of clue to what the story would be, and discussing and debating it at length over pints with fellow Warsies. We were excited, surely, long having been starved of anything new from the galaxy far, far away, absent the comic books and the Timothy Zahn continuation novels, which, finely crafted as they were, could not quite compare to the idea of a new Star Wars movie rolling across the screens.
Retrospect (and retconning, to be totally honest) has diminished the sense of anticipation rippling through fandom in those months leading to Phantom Menace's opening night. I was the only one of my friends with free time on the day advance tickets went on sale, and I hauled myself out of bed before the sun came up in April '99 and drove twenty miles to the theater where there was already a line fifty folks long, prepared to stand there under baking sun until the box office opened at 3 p.m. People were playing the fresh-in-stores Episode I soundtrack on ghetto blasters, clowning around in Jedi robes and swinging plastic lightsabers, one-upping each other with quotes and character impressions and generally having as good a time as one can in a long queue. Foolishly, I did not bring any provisions (or even a hat) with me, and wound up having at one point to ask the two guys I'd befriended standing directly ahead of me to hold my place while I hopped in the car and raced off to the most proximate fast-food joint to find a bathroom and some bottled water. When they finally flung open the doors and I walked away, sunburned but with a whole pile of golden tickets for the 12:01 a.m. showing two weeks hence in pocket, it seemed rather anticlimactic, but I still had the sense of mission accomplished and relief that I wouldn't have to wait one second longer to see it than anyone else.
We wanted so desperately for that movie to be everything we'd been hoping for. It's tough to remember too that apart from the most deeply cynical cinephiles, everybody loved Phantom Menace on first sight. No less an authority than the late Roger Ebert said, "My thumb is up, with a lot of admiration." But the glow faded very fast. Loud naysayers started screaming about its flaws, and those of us who'd been soundly in the pro-camp began to realize that beneath the digital veneer and the aura of NEW STAR WARS! was a poorly-written and poorly-performed story locked in to hitting marks and prevented, by its very nature as a prequel, from giving us any surprises. It was like a long, monodirectional train ride past flashy scenery to a predetermined destination, its characters marionettes against bluescreen, the dialogue stilted and hammy. And the previously revered George Lucas became a figure of scorn. We gave him two more chances to right the ship, but as the credits of Revenge of the Sith rolled, and with them the end of Star Wars as we knew it, we sighed at the affirmation of that old axiom that we can't go home again. The uneven Clone Wars aside, that was it. Lucas said he was finished with Star Wars. He was ready to move on.
Enter The Walt Disney Company, and later, J.J. Abrams. The man who'd awoken the dormant Star Trek franchise by infusing it with a healthy dose of Star Wars-style action and banter. The man who tossed out the story treatments that Disney had purchased from Lucas and said that what he and the fans wanted to see was the return of Luke, Han and Leia. Sure, we said, good luck getting Harrison Ford back, who had opined with grouchy regularity over the preceding thirty years that he had absolutely no interest in revisiting the character of Han Solo. The photograph released last April of the new cast sitting in a round, Ford included, was welcome, but could not compare with the reveal in yesterday's trailer of Han and Chewie, together again against odds, against fate, against belief and probability and all measure of the randomness of how life unfolds. The gasp heard around the world was very real, and quite deafening, given the three decades we've been collectively holding our breaths.
The Force Awakens will not premiere for another eight months. In the months prior to the Phantom Menace's release, entertainment journalists were speculating about the possibility of it out-grossing Titanic and Lucas himself said with a shrug that it simply wouldn't happen. He understood that hyperbole of some aside, he was up against expectations that no one could possibly hope to meet. Certainly, Episode I could have benefited tremendously from some alternate creative choices here and there, but had Orson Welles come back from the dead to direct it from a script by the equally moldy Billy Wilder, you still would have had a vast majority of fans grumbling that they thought The Matrix was better. Anticipation is a funny thing in that satisfying it is often an exercise in disappointment. With tremendous loyalty to Star Wars as a whole still a robust force - pun intended - and the additional burden on its back of overwhelming the lingering sour taste of the prequel trilogy, so too can The Force Awakens not hope to please everyone.
What it has already done to its betterment is given us a singular moment that we can savor until the cold months return, and a lovely sentiment that we can remember with a smile in years to come, no matter the quality of the end result. The feeling that we have, if for ever a brief instant, finally come home.