Growing up in the early 2000s, the conversation surrounding Star Wars was not particularly positive. The prequels were in full swing, and it seemed that all every discussion about Star Wars was focused on how awful Jar Jar Binks was, and how terrible the podracing scene was, and what bad actors Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen were. With the original trilogy several decades in the past, the prequels so immediate, and it being our human nature to enjoy trashing movies more than praising them, Star Wars was not having a very happy new millennium.
The fact that A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were older movies also meant that, in the passage of time, they had gone from being great movies to becoming classics. The trouble with "classic" movies is the fact that their quality is implied, so when people talk about them they often forget to explicitly describe them as being good. Instead of saying "A New Hope is so much fun" or "Empire Strikes Back has some really wonderful character moments," the party line becomes "Oh yeah, The Empire Strikes Back is a classic."
During this century, with the advent of the Internet, Star Wars also underwent the process of memefication. As well as being parodied and referenced in countless different corners of pop culture, it also became part of our online language. Luke Skywalker's cry of "Nooooo!" became a reaction gif and Admiral Ackbar exclaiming "It's a trap!" became an image macro. During that time, the appellations of 'geek' and 'nerd' also became cool. Calling someone a "scruffy-looking nerfherder" as an insult and understanding references to parsecs was a proud indicator of belonging in a certain club. In a 2001 Census of England and Wales, 0.8% of the population stated their religion as Jedi, making it the fourth most popular religion in the country.
By the time I graduated university I understood all of these references, but the only Star Wars movie I'd ever seen was The Phantom Menace. When I told people that I'd never seen A New Hope, the general response was one of disbelief and scorn. "How have you not seen Star Wars?" people would ask. "It's a classic!"
Star Wars fans were like street preachers who got so caught up in warnings of hellfire and brimstone that they forgot to mention that how awesome God is. Over the years, many people told me that I had to watch Star Wars, that they couldn't believe I hadn't seen it yet, that it was a classic. No one ever told me what they liked about it. Watching A New Hope became an obligation - a chore - and as with any chore I put it off for as long as possible. After all, there was a whole ocean of movies and books and comics and video games and TV shows out there, many of which I was eager to explore out of genuine interest rather than a feeling of obligation. The Star Wars movies just sort of fell by the wayside.
I did watch A New Hope, eventually, to prepare for a job application where having seen Star Wars was a prerequisite. I sat down, watched it, got through all of the plot beats that I'd known about for years, and when the credits rolled I turned the TV off with a sense of relief and promptly forgot all about it. I'd liked it well enough, and could appreciate the fact that it was a good film, but I wasn't particularly moved or filled with any sense of wonder.
I finished watching the original trilogy this year, concluding with Return of the Jedi this week. Perhaps because it's not considered quite as holy as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi was a lot of fun to watch. It's a silly space adventure with alien teddy bears and a really weird musical number and action-packed fight scenes with flips and jetpacks and laser weapons. It didn't change my worldview, but it made for a fun evening that was only slightly marred by the resulting backlash.
When I shared my experience of watching the film for the first time as an adult, many readers were refreshingly happy to just reminisce about their own favorite parts of the movie, which was the response I had hoped for. However, there was was also outrage that I liked the much-maligned ewoks, and aspersions cast on my ability to write about other films at all without having seen Return of the Jedi. For what it's worth, I don't feel any more qualified now than I did before I saw it.
It wasn't until the credits rolled on Star Wars: The Force Awakens that I finally put my finger on why it had been such a radically different experience from any of the original Star Wars movies. Whereas I had grown used to waiting for things that I knew were already coming - like the reveal that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father, or the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi - I was finally watching a Star Wars movie with an audience full of people who had never seen it before, and didn't know what was going to happen. We laughed at funny lines that hadn't yet been turned into memes, we met new characters for the first time, and we were gripped by scenes of the heroes in peril without knowing if they were all going to make it. Afterwards, I wondered if this was how people had felt when they watched A New Hope on the big screen for the first time in 1977.
In the audience there were four year-olds, grey-haired men wearing Star Wars T-shirts, teenagers and people of all ages in between, but it felt like everyone was on a level playing field. Star Wars: The Force Awakens certainly has inside jokes and moments that might be appreciated more by fans of the original trilogy, but it also stands in its own right as the beginning of a new adventure, and none of us (save for a few people working at Lucasfilm) know how it's going to end.
Perhaps one day Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be a classic. Perhaps in another thirty years young people will be jeered at for not having seen it yet, and will grudgingly sit down down to watch the antics of Rey and Finn and BB-8 with a sense of obligation, and be relieved when it's over, and tick it off the list in their scavenger hunt for geek cred. But for now, at least, let's explore the galaxy together.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, and will be followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.