May 4th is Star Wars Day across North America. It’s not the anniversary of anything specific, like George Lucas’s birthday or that time 21,000 Canadians listed their religion on the national census as “Jedi.”
No, it’s a pun that went viral — “May the Fourth Be With You.” (Get it?). And upon this, an annual day of observation was born.
This year, Star Wars Day falls in the same month that the prequel Solo: A Star Wars Story is set to be released (the 10th Star Wars movie, for those keeping count).
And it follows by a month the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That juxtaposition is perfect, since one was the sci-fi apex of ‘60s boomer culture, and one gave birth to Gen-X nerd culture.
To wit: 2001: A Space Odyssey is trippy, long, slow, scientifically accurate, full of existential thoughts, and — I’m here to say — best seen while stoned.
Star Wars, meanwhile, was an action-packed half of a one-two punch by Mssrs. Lucas and Spielberg that transformed pop culture into which-superhero-movie-is-opening-this-week-again? Ships in space made sound-barrier-breaking sounds and weapons went, “Pew! Pew!”
Spielberg got that ball rolling in 1975 with Jaws, the movie that created the concept of the “summer blockbuster.” (Believe it or not, prior to Bruce the Shark chomping up the box office, summer was considered downtime at the movies, just as it was everywhere else).
The next year, Lucas released his game-changing space opera set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” — inspired, ironically enough, on movie serials of the ‘40s and ‘50s. And the world, or at least the multiplex, would never be the same.
Boomers were a lot of things, but sci-fi nerds they were not. OK, a lot of them read Dune in college, but they were looking for deeper meaning (or something). The one comic book that caught ‘60s college kids’ attention was The Silver Surfer, who was trapped in this world as punishment for trying to save it. Heavy.
On TV, you had Lost in Space, which was deliberately cheesy in the same vein as Adam West’s Batman, and likewise appreciated ironically, as described by Susan Sontag in her famous essay “Notes on Camp.”
And of course, there was Star Trek — which I’ll remind you, struggled to stay on the air for three seasons.
If it were not for Luke, Han Solo, Princess Leia and Darth Vader, Star Trek might have remained a minor cult passion among a niche of kids like me, who drew crude renderings of the Starship Enterprise in the margins of their notebooks. In some parallel universe, Star Wars never happened, and kids left Star Trek behind as they grew to notice how attractive some of their classmates were.
But as Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy once told me, no sooner did Lucas’s Star Wars hit the cover of Time magazine, than Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry phoned him to say Paramount wanted a Star Trek movie ASAP.
The lesson of history: No Star Wars movies equals no Star Trek movies. That’s 23 films with a total box office of a bajillion dollars. It probably would also have meant we’d have seen none of the subsequent five Star Trek TV series, amounting to more than 700 hours of television.
That’s one utterly different parallel dimension.
Am I saying Gen-Xers invented nerd culture? Well, yes. And I’m saying that as someone who used to be a Gen-Xer. The year I saw Star Wars was my first year in university, and somewhere Billy Idol was just launching his band Generation X.
Being born in the late ‘50s did not automatically make you a boomer then. But they arbitrarily moved the goal-posts as I get older to define a boomer as any guy old enough to have his prostate checked. (Since amended, now that Gen-Xers have also begun paying attention to RRSP ads).
And the culture-wide appetite for “genre” entertainment was not yet whetted. I remember friends smirking at how enthused I was by this film with robots, princesses and an asthmatic villain who looked like he was wearing the grille of a Studebaker on his head.
Though adults read “Underground comix” in the ‘60s and crime comics in the ‘50s, comic books still carried the image of children’s reading material until the ‘70s, when the first comic book stores were born (providing a handy set decades later for about 1,000 Big Bang Theory scenes).
The term “graphic novel” came into use in the X-er era, legitimizing superhero stories as adult worthy (though, to be fair, the category also encompassed what amounted to illustrated literature about everyday life by the likes of Harvey Pekar, Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes et al).
But again, it’s no coincidence that basically the first epic superhero movie ever, Superman, hit the big screen within two years after Star Wars. It was a slow embrace — 11 more years until the Batman films, 13 years after that before Spider-Man ignited the Marvel Universe.
But we’ve now reached the point where, as Canadian writer Stephen Marche has said, “being a movie critic these days is like being a food critic who’s only allowed to critique burritos.” Of the top-10 highest grossing films of all time, two are Star Wars films (The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens), four are Marvel films (owned by Disney, which also owns the Star Wars franchise), and only one — the number two film Titanic — doesn’t involve sci-fi, magic or superheroes. (The number one spot is Avatar — meaning Canadian boy James Cameron, who directed both it and Titanic really is “king of the world”).
I love burritos. I also love Star Wars. But yeah, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Regardless. Happy Star Wars Day.