I first underestimated the power of the Force

True confession No. 1: I love “Star Wars.”

True confession No. 2: I didn’t want to see “Star Wars.”

But allow me to explain.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away — Southern California, 1977 — I was 22, a year out of college, and slaving away at my hometown newspaper in what is now informally known as the OC. (The northern, non-beachy part of Orange County, but still … )

I also was an unabashed movie snob, having graduated from Northwestern University with a major in newspaper journalism and a minor in film history and criticism. (Both would come in handy — eventually — when I became a real live movie critic at the aforementioned Daily News Tribune of Fullerton, Calif., and then at the Review-Journal.)

Happily, my college years coincided with Hollywood’s second great studio era — one with far fewer restrictions, and far more self-conscious artistry, than the 1930s and ’40s.

The late 1960s and ’70s had plenty of cinematic dreck, to be sure. Exhibit A: the movie that (distantly) trailed “Star Wars” on the 1977 box-office charts: “Smokey and the Bandit.” And if you need more proof, maybe the titles “Airport,” “Love Story,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” will provide it.

But some of the decade’s biggest hits happened to be towering cinematic achievements as well. Think of “The Godfather” and its even-better sequel. Remember “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” Or “Network” and “Taxi Driver.” Or “Cabaret” or “Chinatown” or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

OK, so most of these movies weren’t much fun. Considering the feel-bad tenor of those post-Vietnam, post-Watergate times, however, many of us weren’t exactly in the mood.

Thus, when “Star Wars” hit movie screens — and movie audiences — in the summer of ’77, I was not merely skeptical but downright disdainful.

Never mind that director George Lucas had made one of my favorite movies, 1973’s “American Graffiti,” helping to fuel America’s seemingly endless nostalgia boom in the process.

“Star Wars’ ” relatively unheralded arrival (and the moviegoing public’s instant, ecstatic embrace of it) triggered this dismissive reaction from me: “Everybody loves it, so it must be garbage.” (In truth, I used a slightly stronger word than “garbage,” but returning to that long-ago galaxy also means returning to the expletive-deleted standards of the day.)

Besides, I didn’t want to wait in line for hours.

Unlike today’s blockbuster releases, which open on thousands of megaplex screens, most theaters in Bicentennial-era America were either single screens or what passed for a multiplex in those days: two or three screens.

“Star Wars” opened in 70mm on May 25, 1977, at 32 locations in the U.S. — a Wednesday, then the traditional opening day for movies.

Its studio, 20th Century Fox, considered the movie version of the steamy best-seller “The Other Side of Midnight” its big summer box-office attraction.

That is, until “Star Wars” took off like the Millennium Falcon making the jump to hyperspace.

During its opening weekend, “Star Wars” expanded to 43 theaters, but it wasn’t until midsummer that it reached more than a thousand theaters and took aim at the box-office record set by “Jaws” in 1975.

Even in populous Southern California, only a handful of theaters were showing “Star Wars,” which meant an extended expedition for anyone who wanted to see it.

Besides, I didn’t really want to see “Star Wars.”

Not even when I ventured back to my old college stomping grounds of Chicago to visit a beloved classmate who’d just gotten a job writing copy for the Sears catalog.

We discovered we were kindred spirits in our Principles of Advertising class, where our final project required us to create a TV commercial for the same product: orange juice. Tom’s commercial starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; mine featured Humphrey Bogart. Clearly, we shared a love for the Hollywood classics.

When I arrived for my visit, Tom was utterly aghast that I hadn’t seen “Star Wars” yet.

“Anybody who loves old movies as much as you do will love it,” he promised.

Luckily, months after its debut, “Star Wars” was still going strong at one of my favorite Chicago theaters: the Esquire, a glorious Streamline Moderne movie palace in the tony Gold Coast neighborhood.

So Tom dragged me to the Esquire. As always, I was thrilled to be in a vintage theater. “Like entering heaven,” as Woody Allen described the experience in “Radio Days.” (Alas, the Esquire is no more — as a theater; it was gutted and became an upscale retail and dining complex.)

I don’t remember where we sat. Doesn’t matter; the Esquire had 1,400 seats and a massive screen to match.

But I definitely remember, when “Star Wars” began, the introductory words scrolling past on the screen, recalling Hollywood epics of yore.

And then came The Shot. You know the one, after we first glimpse the surface of a planet, see a small spaceship subject to a series of blasts (accompanied by John Williams’ rousing score) and finally see the source of all that firepower: a gargantuan star cruiser coming in from the top of the screen, filling the screen yet seeming too impossibly big for any screen, however wide, to contain.

The Shot instantly revealed that “Star Wars” wasn’t just another cheap, hokey outer-space adventure.

Naturally, the “cheap, hokey” description in no way applies to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which I saw at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome during its initial 1968 release. Not surprisingly, it awed me.

Great as “2001” was, however, it wasn’t much fun. “Star Wars,” by contrast, turned out to be nothing but.

Captivated as I was by “Star Wars’ ” then-groundbreaking special effects and imaginative, lived-in galaxy, I was even more captivated by its breezy, jokey mix of genre elements — from Westerns to war movies to swashbucklers — scrambled into one blissful, rocket-fueled blast. (I also remember muttering the “American Graffiti” line “Ain’t he neat?” when “Graffiti’s” bad-ass hot rodder Bob Falfa, alias Harrison Ford, materialized in the Mos Eisley cantina as the blaster-slinging, quip- and hip-shooting Han Solo.)

Suddenly, here was a movie — a new movie — that recaptured the giddy, out-of-body delight I felt while watching old movies. (Some of them, anyway.) And just as suddenly, here was a new movie that everyone else seemed to experience in much the same way.

It felt a bit strange to join the collective swoon, but such was “Star Wars’ ” force that I instantly surrendered my snootier-than-thou cynicism (good thing I wasn’t a movie critic yet) and followed Obi-Wan Kenobi’s advice to stretch out with my feelings, opening my heart to the Force.

It had happened to me only once before: in 1964, the first time I saw the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

This time, I was a grown-up (at least I thought I was), not an impressionable 9-year-old.

But that didn’t stop me from becoming an instant “Star Wars” fan — and launching an ever-expanding collection of “Star Wars” tchotchkes that’s still growing several decades later, thanks to ever-indulgent family and friends.

Since the magical day “Star Wars” entered our collective consciousness, the movie and its creator have been subject to (too) much criticism for everything from Hollywood’s blockbuster fixation to the much-maligned prequel trilogy.

Not having been a child when I first saw the original movie, I didn’t experience the anguish many “Star Wars” acolytes did when they first saw the prequels.

After all, Lucas wasn’t destroying my childhood — and he certainly wasn’t destroying the childhoods of the actual kids whose first “Star Wars” movies were the prequels.

I remember a delightful Amtrak ride during which an irrepressible 5-year-old pestered his father with the nonstop incantation “Jar Jar Binks! Jar Jar Binks!” until the flustered parent exclaimed, “What the hell is Jar Jar Binks?’ “

At that point, I leaned forward and said to the kid, “Meesa thinks yousa saw ‘Star Wars,’ ” prompting the little boy to abandon his father and join me for an extended discussion of “The Phantom Menace” — and his favorite character, the bumbling Gungan with the weird dialect, Jar Jar. (See, not everybody hates Jar Jar.)

And that, ultimately, is what I love (and, once I saw it, have always loved) about “Star Wars.” It’s only a movie, but for millions of true believers, the galaxy’s never far, far away at all. It’s as close as our willingness to make believe — and that’s an irresistible Force indeed.

So, I’ll see you at the movies — make that the movie — this weekend.

Save me an aisle seat. After all this time, I’ll need plenty of room to stretch out with my feelings.

For more stories from Carol Cling go to reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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