Growing up in the late 70s and through the 80s sci-fi, fantasy and the like were the realm of the truly nerdy fringes of society. The preconceptions of pasty white weaklings huddled in a basement with thick glasses and pocket protectors infiltrated a range of cliches from early hackers who had long since beat the toughest levels of Space Invaders or Astroids to comic collectors debating who were past the debates of Marvel versus DC as they argued the subtitles of Pacific, Eclipse and First in plot, design and distribution to the role playing wizards who were forging their own games after having run out of inventive ways to challenge the Dungeons and Dragons realm or ripping through pages of Vampire Hunter D with reckless abandon.
This, of course, despite a hacker like Matthew Broderick portrayed in War Games or the cultural transcendence of those first Superman movies or the girth of Schwarzenegger’s Conan series or the timeliness of the Orwellian dystopia in 1984. It didn’t matter NASA was putting humans in space at a rate not seen since the lat 60s; that we were creating the first “bionic” people (Dr. William DeVries’ implantation of artificial hearts); that personal technology was already surpassing most stuff imagined in actual fiction; the Transformers toys being counted among the most popular; and so on…
Today, however, being a nerd has taken on a new form of cool. The Big Bang Theory, for all it’s flaws, thrust geek culture into the mainstream. Marvel and DC race to produce potential pop-culture blockbusters of their once subcultured franchises. Apple has taken personal technology from by-the-way intriguing to a form of mainstream necessity. The list goes on and on.
So, when something formally geeky transcends it’s nerd-centric lovefest to cross-over to become a mainstream reference point for a generation to then becoming a generational spanning insignia of non-nerd cross-cultural popularity it’s worth noting. And, we’re seeing it happen right now with Star Wars.
I grew up enjoying the Star Wars franchise (because by the time I was old enough to really be into it it had already become a franchise with the release of Empire) as part of the overall sci-fi vernacular. I was well versed in the likes of Star Trek (the original television show and the beginnings of the movie franchise developing at the time), Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and The Six Million Dollar Man television series, as well as even sci-fi set cartoons like the Jetsons. As the decade continued my interests grew with new shows and movies filling out my modern sci-fi vernacular (a list too long to recount).
It didn’t dawn on me until probably late in high school or early college what being a fan of any of that meant. Or, how Star Wars was about to transcend all of it, not just with the prequils, or the new television series, or the explosion of pop-culture references that quickly followed suit, but how as I’m on the cusp of being a father myself how now it’s become a culture force unlike few others.
Funny enough, I’d made exactly this observation about how Greoning’s the Simpsons redefined the type of acceptance animation had within the mainstream during those late high school and early college days that transcended how that type of humor and cartoons as a whole were moving from the underground to pop-culture, not just in general acceptance but in nerdy analysis. Even as recently as a few years back I felt it kind of strange how far Tolkien’s works had come to help create the explosive interest in fantasy genre removing it from something dorks debated to something the mainstream was critiquing in an intelligent rather than its typically vapid way.
And, now, here we are today with Star Wars eclipsing it’s roots not just for sci-fi appeal, not just for nerdom but for a new generation to actually begin their adoration of the genre and it’s formerly counterculture ways as thinking as being the norm. The acceptance of the culture and it’s nerdiness is quite normal and almost expected. In an era where intelligence is sometimes perceived as a liability it’s quite intriguing to think that not only is sci-fi mainstream but that the reason it was underground before, because fans actually argued over the science and the subtleties of it’s fictional development, were occurring out in the open as part of the mainstream experience.
It made seeing the film actually a little uncomfortable.
That’s because before the film itself was even announced the mainstream was heavily critiquing the sale of the franchise to Disney and what that could mean for the characters, plots and concepts that had vividly taken on their own underground lives in the years between the original movie and today. Many of the (graphic) novels and (indie) films depicting the post-Return of the Jedi years were long out of print, the arguments at the time of their releases about what could have happened seemed all but forgotten save for a select few. And the, all of a sudden it seemed everyone who was anyone was familiar with the depth and breath of the Expanded Universe.
When the first scenes from Episode VII were released the response wasn’t just ooh-and-aah like with most previews. No. It was critical responses making top headlines and in-depth speculation unlike what any of the previous six movies had ever experienced. The profile and volume were really unlike what nearly any movie ever had experienced.
And, it wasn’t just some marketing hype machine doing it. It was the burgeoning underground becoming pop-culture in its own right. Not simply some metamorphosis where the counterculture had changed, it was the counterculture itself metastasizing as the mainstream.
Suddenly, the cliche arguments between nerds about if Greedo shot first; was it really possible to survive the Sarlac; how a light sabre goes from green to blue; why are Stormtroopers such consistently poor shots and easy targets (and why are there so few of them in most battle scenes when the Empire is clearly so enormous based on the size of the Karelian destroyers); as well as more philosophical ideas like if Sith only come in pairs how would a Luke-Vadar-Emperor Palpatine triad actually function; if the (fall and) redemption of Anakin Skywalker is really the central plot to the saga or is Anakin’s story a parable in a larger understanding of the Force; if the inherent conflict of the Force in the Skywalker family exists in Leia too, as Luke’s sister & Anakin’s daughter, and if/how such a conflit could be central to the post-Vader era; or if the “other” Yoda refers to in the explanation that if Luke is lost to the Dark Side there’s still hope is not in fact Luke’s sister Leia but rather some other, possibly non-Skywalker, character. These and many, many more points were no longer just idle nerd chatter and that is both fascinating and a bit frightening for someone who spent many hours contemplating just such ideas among a select few friends.
To be honest, seeing the movie was many things for me. It was cathartic both in feeling validated for being a fan for so long in seeing it transcend generations and cultural constructs as well as it being something that I could relate to better than what the prequils had provided for me from a nostalgia point of view. It was disappointing because it felt, pardon the pun, forced at times. It left me with that an even worse, “I’ve seen this before” feeling than Return of the Jedi left me with in comparison to a New Hope. It left me invigorated because taken alone as it’s own creation it was an enjoyable cinematic experience. It left me baffled because despite the tremendous box office success it is supposedly experiencing the movie wasn’t ruined for me by other theater-goers, as a matter of fact, it was half-empty and everyone in attendance was exceptionally well behaved.
Most of all, it left me happy because it gave the nerd in me something new to bond over with my dad who originally introduced me to all this stuff, to my friends who had initially become friend with me in part because I did like all this stuff and with my youngest sister who until the Force Awakens would constantly tease me about being a fan and berate me with funny-only-to-her versions of movie lines but now was a franchise believer like her brother and father before her.