When I Was Nine: Thoughts About Star Wars

Movie listings for June 29, 1977 from my hometown newspaper in Spokane, Washington. This is what I saw when trying to find out when and where the movie would be playing. ((Spokesman-Review via Google News Archives))
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In 1977, I was nine years old, living on a farm in eastern Washington state. I was a dreamer, an astronomy and space science nerd, writing fan mail to NASA, building my own telescopes, and feeling bored and restless in the middle of nowhere. That year, my grandmother gave me a gift of a three-foot-tall roll of white butcher paper, meant to be used as art supplies—a practically endless canvas for drawing or painting. The first thing I drew? An Apollo rocketship maybe 25 feet long—as close as I could get to scale. I remember taping the drawing up in our dining room, it wrapped around three walls. And, yes, about eight feet of that was flames (insert rocketship sound effects).

Then, along came Star Wars.

The buzz about the movie in 1977 was nowhere near the scale it is today. I remember first finding out about it from a preview before another movie—then I started seeing photos of these strange robots and spacecraft on magazine covers while in the grocery store, and in the TV commercials like these:

I have a distinct memory of wondering what Darth Vader’s voice would sound like, and I had debates with friends at school about whether Stormtroopers were supposed to be robots or people in armor. I talked Mom into buying anything I could find promoting the movie. I cut out pictures and collected them into a photo album, hanging some from my ceiling.

When I finally got to see Star Wars, it transported me in a way nothing else ever has in my life. There is really no way I can tell my kids exactly how it felt, how this movie that looks so slow and a bit cheesy today meant so much to so many.

It’s personal—one’s relationship to a work of fiction. There’s almost a whole generation of us who were between six and ten years old in 1977, who were blown away by a brief visit to a world unlike anything we’d ever seen before. We lined up and dragged family and friends to see Star Wars that summer—six, seven, 20 times (I think I saw it at least eight times). We are now between 45 and 50 years old, looking at the world with entirely different eyes—critical, cynical, experienced eyes. But for many of us, the childhood imprint of the first Star Wars movie is amazingly strong. (If any of you have profound memories of the movie’s opening and want to share, drop us an email.)

I am not the biggest fan in the world, not by a long shot. I have never dressed up like a Stormtrooper, though I do own a couple of desk-toy spaceships. When I was a kid (before VHS, DVD, or Video On Demand), I owned “The Story of Star Wars” LP—the complete soundtrack (sound effects and dialogue, everything)— and listened until it wore down. Some of the earliest parts of my neural pathways are still shaped by this repeated exposure, and amazingly tiny details still remain strong in my memory, like one of the X-Wing pilots saying “Negative, negative, it didn’t go in; it just impacted on the surface.”

In about an hour I’ll be standing in line to go back and visit that place that meant so much to me when I was nine, to hopefully see some old friends I haven’t seen in years, and just maybe have a great adventure with them. (I’ve had the movie tickets since October, and I’ll be attending one of the handful of early screenings before the big opening tomorrow.)

Storytelling is such a huge part of what it is to be human, and George Lucas somehow tapped deep into that mechanism, our mythology, our nature. Lucas isn’t God, his mythology isn’t epic, Star Wars dialogue isn’t inspired, and the writing can definitely be hit and miss. But the most important things to me have always been the characters—the people, creatures, places and things that make up the Star Wars universe. These are characters that I care about, that I’ve known most of my life.

Yes, the prequels had a lot of issues, but I still loved watching them, going back to that place, exploring, taking the ride. Seeing the original movies so many times, I would find myself concentrating all my anticipation into a ball that seethed right before the new movie began. When the lights would go down, and the 20th Century Fox and LucasFilm logos would dance across the screen—in that moment, all of my hopes and anticipation for the next movie would just overflow, and I became a bit of a lunatic, just like I did when I was nine. Of course, after that, the movie would unfold, some delight, some disappointment, but I've always treasured that moment of anticipation.

I do not apologize for loving these characters and places as much as I do. I do not make apologies for creative decisions taken by others. I do not care to politicize the story nor analyze the marketing strategies of Disney.

And now, now I am thrilled to get one more chance ... to step into a dark theater, have the lights dim, let my excitement (that I usually keep bottled up) overflow and let the darkness hide my stupid grin from any snide onlookers. I’m glad for one more visit to a place that meant so much to me when I was nine and still does today.