Monday, December 21, 2015

My 18 Hour Theatrical Star Wars Marathon Experience

Six days ago, I got a call from a good friend of mine who had an early birthday present to give me; he was taking me to the all-day Star Wars marathon at the Cinemark West Plano and XD theater. This would be an event where all six Star Wars films would be shown on the big screen and then culminating in the premiere of The Force Awakens. It sounded crazy, it sounded bonkers, it sounded like the type of undertaking only a madman would do.

So of course, I was pumped out of my mind for it. No kidding here, this was probably one of the best birthday gifts I've ever received in my life.

In order to get through all these motion pictures in one day, you need to start early. Very early. Which is why the marathon began with....
The Phantom Menace (3:00 AM)
As the day wore one, the specific times that the individual movies started evaded me, but as one might imagine, it's hard to forget watching The Phantom Menace at these wee hours of the morning. As me and my pal drove up to the movie theater, the streets were abandoned, with zero traffic to encounter. So desolate were the roads we embarked on that it felt to me as if we had somehow drove into the setting of a George A. Romero zombie movie. Arriving at our theater 30 minutes prior to the start of this 1999 George Lucas production, we were each given a lanyard and wrist-tag to help the employees identify which of its patrons were participating in this massive endeavor.

Since the auditorium we were seating in had reserved seating, I thought a good number of the attendees of this marathon would just show up when the original trilogy showed up. Nope; this theater was packed to the gills, and once the lights dimmed and that Star Wars logo came on, complete with that iconic John Williams theme music, the thundering cheers might it apparent that me and my comrade were far from alone in this environment.

This was my second time watching The Phantom Menace on the big screen, following its pointless 3D re-release in 2012. Now, you may or may not have heard this before, but The Phantom Menace is not a good movie. Granted, it does get a legitimate leg up on the succeeding entries in the prequel trilogy in that many of the environments the characters waltz into are actually real and are more visually pleasant to the eyes, plus John Williams turns in an excellent score and Liam Neeson has a solid screen presence in any movie he pops up in.

That being said, the rest of the film is just a big heaping mess, with a script so bad you'd think a drunk Jawa would have wrote it. The villains are pretty terrible, with Darth Maul looking cool but getting nothing of substance to do, and Nute Gunray and his trade federation cronies contributing nothing to the plot beyond blatantly racist accents. Obi-Wan, Yoda, R2-D2 and C-3PO all show up for no good reason, and yeah, Jake Lloyd just doesn't work as Anakin Skywalker. It's a plodding mess whose ambition to sell toys and show off fancy computer generated graphics can be perfectly summed up by the fact that more information is given to the various contestants at that endless podrace than anything of actual relevance to the plot like motivations for our antagonists or personalities for our protagonists.
Attack Of The Clones
In between each film, there's a 15 minute intermission, with only the breaks between Revenge of The Sith and A New Hope and Return Of The Jedi and The Force Awakens being longer than (those two breaks were an hour each). After grabbing a beverage and some candy, I was ready for what I've found to be in the past the absolute worst Star Wars film. After viewing it on a large screen for the first time, I stand by that assessment fervently. This is a terrible, terrible feature, one that I'd easily declare the cinematic equivalent of having one's testicles skewered.

For the entirety of The Phantom Menace, even whenever Jar-Jar Binks romped onscreen for the first time, the crowd didn't emit a peep. That changed with Attack Of The Clones, with the famous "I don't like sand" drawing out massive guffaws from everybody in the theater, specifically after Padme expresses after she and Ani kiss. Other smatterings of "romantic" dialogue, namely "I'm haunted by the kiss you never should have given me", also got the crowd in a tizzy of giggles. It was quite fun to see everyone engage in such a defense mechanism against the innate awfulness that binds Attack Of the Clones together; if we all hadn't united in our laughter I doubt we could have endured the rampant cinematic atrocities occurring before our very eyes, especially in our sleepy state of mind.

Something that dawned on me and my chum whilst watching Attack Of The Clones was a problem that may be one of the worst parts of the entire prequel trilogy; there's no recurring villain in these films. Yes, Palpatine is the one pulling the strings behind everything in the prequels, but he's hidden entirely in the shadows until the midway point of Revenge of The Sith. The rest of the prequels just dole out a new bad guy in each film that looks visually interesting (think: Darth Maul and General Grievous), but whose motivations for being evil are nonexistent to the audience. Each of these foes get maybe 15 minutes of screentime, tops, and then vanish so another disposable antagonist can enter the picture. You know you're in trouble when a silver screen legend like Christopher Lee can't make Count Dooku even remotely interesting.

Oh, and even after all that, I haven't even talked about the absolute worst part about Attack Of The Clones, which may be the most abhorrent scene to ever occur in any piece of Star Wars storytelling (yes, even the Whip N' Stir robot from the Holiday Special looks like Charles freaking Dickens in comparison.). The scene in question is when Count Dooku is about to escape....and then Yoda confronts him and proceeds to have a lightsaber duel with the Sith foe. I'll talk more in detail shortly about how incredible of a character Yoda is in The Empire Strikes Back, but good God, seeing a character so wise, philosophical and insightful be reduced to just jumping all over the walls with a little lightsaber is, above all else, pathetic. It doesn't contribute anything at all to the story, it contradicts everything Yoda stands for as a character and there's no emotional underpinnings to the combat. Good Lord, I was wrong...Attack of The Clones is making the idea of having ones testicles get skewered sound like a pleasant activity!
Revenge Of The Sith
And now, dawn has come, with sunlight being clearly seen outside. No time to bask in natural light for too long though; time to wrap these prequels up! Now, typically, Revenge Of The Sith is regarded as the "best" of the prequels, and while it's true that it's gotten a definitive leg up on its predecessors in terms of quality, this is still a deeply flawed film. Namely, the way they handle how Anakin transitions to the dark side, which is butchered to the point of being laughably incoherent in certain moments. The guy goes from being a normal dude to slaughtering innocent children in the span of nine minutes, and since he's already killed a bunch of Tusken Raiders and acted like a creepy stalker in Attack Of The Clones, there's very little difference between his pre-Vader self and his post-Vader being.

Two saving graces can be found here though, with those two positives being the acting of Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid. McGregor actually manages to sell the shitty dialogue that this movies equally shitty screenplay is infested with, you can actually feel serious heartbreak in his delivery of lines like "You were the Chosen One!". Meanwhile, McDiarmid just goes so over-the-top it's kind of wonderful. After villains like Darth Maul and Count Dooku who didn't do much of anything, it's nice to have a bad guy with an actual distinctive personality. The crowd I saw it with was quiet for the entirety of it, which I was surprised by. I was almost certain that Darth Vaders "NOOOOOOOOOO!!!" would generate cackles a-plenty. I'll also note that this was the one movie I decided to take a brief nap in, with me waking up just in time to see the start of the duel between Obi-Wan and General Grievous.
Star Wars (1977)
An hour break! To quote young Anakin Skywalker, yippee!! Time to move around and get some lunch! Me and my friend went off to McDonalds for a brief bite to eat before returning to our cinematic domicile, eager to see the original Star Wars trilogy on the big screen for the first time. Just to get it out of the way; these were the altered versions of the film. So that means we got that utterly pointless Jabba The Hutt scene, Obi-Wans weird as hell call that spooks the Tusken Raiders and Han not shooting first.

Certain artifacts of pop culture endure for a reason, and you're damn right if you're presuming the original Star Wars is one such film. After being trapped in a three movie long no man's land of terrible characters and distractedly bad visual effects, to return to a film with (GASP!) interesting individuals and compelling drama was a godsend. It's no wonder this film became such a gamechanger for the world of storytelling, since 38 years later it still resonates as an incredible feature. Rewatching it against also made me realize just how rich of a character C-3PO is; he manages to be extremely humorous in his interactions with R2-D2 ("I don't think he likes. No, and I don't like you either"), but there's also a sweet character arc to him where he does appreciate his scrappy pal in the end. When he offers any of his parts to help a damaged R2 in one of the movies final scenes, just try not to be won over.

I wasn't the only one who was enjoying this one, as one could feel a palpable sense of joy coursing across the auditorium. Applause greeted the destruction of the Death Star and ebullient laughs occurred whenever C-3PO or Han Solo dropped a humorous line. Somehow though, even after all of that excellence, the best is yet to come. For you see, the Empire is about to strike back....
The Empire Strikes Back
Just as Revenge Of The Sith is conventionally regarded as the very best of the its prequel brethren, The Empire Strikes Back is frequently dubbed the very apex of what Star Wars storytelling is capable of. Such a reputation more than holds up on my most recent viewing of the film, which does an excellent undercutting the more optimistic tone of the first film by tossing our heroes through every struggle or obstacle imaginable. Luke can't just use the Force to save the day this time around, he's gotta confront Vader face-to-face and realize the terrifying truth about the lineage between him and this Imperial adversary.

More interested in developing our protagonists through their struggles than shoehorning in gratuitous action sequences, The Empire Strikes Back also manages to introduce one of the most lasting touchstones of the entire franchise in its running time; Yoda. This little green Jedi master gets a most humorous introductory scene where he feigns being a crazy little o'l man (him bashing R2 with a stick while trying to reclaim a lighter never gets old), and from there subverts audience expectations by revealing himself to be one of the greatest Jedi masters who ever lived. His training helps the audience see the full commanding might of the Force and every line of dialogue out of the characters mouth is seriously fascinating and thoughtful.

My generation may have been raised on the prequels conception of Yoda, which essentially boils down to "little green guy who jumps around and beats people up", but The Empire Strikes Back reminds us all that this character used to mean far more than that. Hell, that level of depth extends to all of our characters, particularly Han, whose selfless attitude leads him to being frozen in carbonate. Just prior to him being iced, one of the most underrated tearjerker moments in all of Star Wars comes up, when Han tells a forlorn Chewbacca "Ya gotta take care of the princess now, OK?". Seeing these two long time friends have this kind of solemn goodbye is truly heart-wrenching to watch.
Return Of The Jedi
If Star Wars is a burst of exuberant hope and The Empire Strikes Back is a thoughtful extension of previously established characters and concepts, Return Of The a very good sci-fi movie, but not much more than that. Oh, it's not bad, in fact it's got plenty of exciting action sequences that I can't believe were accomplished in a pre-CGI day and age. That final Darth Vader/Luke/Emperor confrontation is excellently executed, the Ewoks are adorable (when that one Ewok bites the dust and his pal tries to wake up his corpse...poor little guy!) and the entire Jabba The Hutt sequence is incredible. Crammed to the brim with awesome creatures and thrills, this opening portion of the movie is the highlight of the entire production.

However, it lacks the the more thoughtful parts of Empire and the pervasive sense of elation in Star Wars. Much of that can be chalked up to the uneven pace of the feature, which, I hate to say it, but does come from the Ewoks. The little critters are adorable, but they eat up a good chunk of the films running time for a plot tangent involving C-3PO as a deity that's extremely extraneous to the overall plot. I should also note that this was the movie that got some derision from the audience in my theater, starting with Luke's out-of-nowhere realization that Leia is his sister. Even more amusing was the chorus of "EEWWWWWWWW"s that greeted Leia mentioning that she always knew she and Luke were siblings.

Ah, but the best audience reaction was yet to come. One of the many aggravating George Lucas commissioned changes made to these original Star Wars film (two of which he didn't even direct, yet he still tampered with) was replacing Sebastian Shaw  as Anakin Skywalkers ghost at the end of Return Of The Jedi with Hayden Christensen, the actor who so memorably intoned lines "It's all Obi-Wans fault!"as Anakin  in the prequels, This doesn't make sense for a myriad of reasons (how come Anakin comes back in ghost form as his younger self while Yoda and Obi-Wan are still old as sin?), but it's made all the worse by the fact that the prequel version of Anakin is heatedly detested as well as the fact that he's glowering in this sequence, which conflicts directly with the more upbeat atmosphere of the finale of Return Of The Jedi.

Thankfully, the inescapable deficiency of this "updated" moment were infinitely softened by the fact that a massive wave of "BOOOOOOOO!!!"s was unleashed from the audience once Hayden walked on-screen. Needless to say, it was glorious to watch, everyone being amalgamated by our hatred for this specific change to this entry in the Star Wars saga.
The Force Awakens (7:00 PM)
The afternoon of this marathon whizzed right by once the original trilogy started playing, and soon, it was time. Three years and two months since Disney announced they had bought Lucasfilm and commissioned for multiple new Star Wars movies, here it was, I was seated in a movie theater with my BB-8 3D glasses, ready to watch Episode VII of the Star Wars saga. The instantaneous second the lights dimmed, cheers erupted from everyone in the auditorium. All of us in here, my brothers and my sisters, we had spent this entire day watching this six film saga as it was meant to be seen: on the big screen. And now, the legendary tale was about to continue. Would it suck? Would it amaze? Would it be only "meh?" Only time would tell. But the feelings of anticipation that simmered throughout that room that night will stay in my soul until the end of my days.

But, like any theatrical motion picture, our feature film was preceded by previews, and the coming attractions for this one were all quite notable titles, with several drawing out large responses from the audience. The X-Men: Apocalypse trailer drew out "Wooo!"s as it began, while the Gods of Egypt drew out noticeable disdain from everyone around us. Amongst an audience of the most nerdiest of nerds (who else would devote 18 hours of their life to watching Star Wars movies?), the Warcraft trailer played like gangbusters, with the Blizzard logo alone generating lots of applause. Wonder Woman popping up at the end of the trailer for Batman v. Superman drew a smattering of applause (I was part of that clapping; she and Lex Luthor are the best parts of that trailer in my book!), while the final tag of The Jungle Book referencing The Bare Necessities garnered a ton of laughs and cheers. By far the biggest response went to Captain America: Civil War, which drew out applause once it started, cheering whenever Black Panther popped up for the first time and even more clapping once the May 2016 tag showed up at the very end.

And then that iconic Star Wars theme bellowed across the auditorium and the first new opening title crawl in 10 years flashed on screen. You can read what I thought of the film here, but needless to say, I found it to be a blast. The entire audience for this event, made up of only the most die-hard of Star Wars devotees, pretty much reacted to this film like a rock concert, with charming bursts of thunderous applause and cheers erupting at numerous moments in the film (namely, whenever the Millennium Falcon and Han solo first popped up on-screen and when a soon-to-be-iconic moment of Rey badassery occurred). To say it was a fun environment to see the film in (which, for the record, I enjoyed immensley seperated from this unique viewing experience) was an understatement.

This level of commitment by me, my pal and all of our fellow Star Wars aficionados may be seen as weird by some, but I found it uber charming, to be entirely honest. Seeing the original trilogy as they were intended to be seen made me appreciate the visual splendor of those movies and the narrative intricacies that make those original motion picture stand the test of time.  But perhaps best of all was spending time with my life-long buddy and conversing with complete strangers about Star Wars media in the concession stand line. That may be one of the greatest lasting effects of Star Wars; the way its storytelling unites people in so many different ways. Since the dawn of time, we've used the art of telling tales to bring us as humans closer together, and this Star Wars marathon certainly reminded me that this saga has done accomplished that without question.

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