It was just before 3am on December 17 as I made my way up the winding ramp of the mall parking garage towards the Providence Place Cinemas 16. I had counted all of 10 other cars on the road, typically the minimum I’d need to wait out in order to turn off of my street on my regular morning commute. The garage was more or less empty, save for a random few cars on any given level. Overnighters, security, holiday shopping season managers. Armed with a handful of Kind Bars and some slightly healthier than Slim Jims style meat snacks I was ready to join the other fanboys and fangirls parked on the top floor for what would be nearly 20 hours and the new entirety of the Star Wars saga.
I consider myself to be something of a veteran couch potato. My ass has endured long hours on many a sofa, some more comfortable than others, and with the right combination of interest, caffeine and sheer will power, I can lock my eyes on a screen with the best of them. But I’ve only ever been a hobbyist, putting this particular gift (curse?) to the test in the comfort of my own home. Absorbing the entirety of Rocko’s Modern Life from a stack of VHS tapes secured on eBay? Been there. Sleepless nights spent bouncing back and forth between Woody Allen and David Cronenberg movies on Netflix until the sun comes up? Kid’s stuff. Cramming all six Star Wars movies in advance of The Force Awakens would be a walk in the park, in fact it’s a walk I had taken once in college, but to do it in the wild, away from my bathroom and my refrigerator and my own controlled space… challenge accepted.
The theater was comfortably over 80% capacity from the get go and there were some real pro moves on display. Pajamas, pillows, snuggies, contraband coffee and breakfast foods from outside the theater. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this had been some people’s second or third rodeos. Marvel had put on a similar, though denser 11-film, 28-hour nerd Tough Mudder ahead of The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Ditto for The Hobbit and its more manageable three-movie, nine-hour fun run. At least we’ve run out of Middle Earth to churn out. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars Saga both show no signs of stopping, meaning it’s only a matter of time before theaters will be sequestering fans away for days on end as they test their mettle against upwards of 20 consecutive film screenings.
For me, this particular marathon came with two main objectives; to say I did it, and to try to jump start a surprising and somewhat concerning indifference to The Force Awakens’ very existence. Star Wars has always held a special place in my heart, but the prequels disappointment had broken my faith in the very thing that had brought me so much joy as a child and budding film buff. When Disney bought Lucasfilm and immediately announce a new trilogy I was shocked, and then I never gave it another thought. As trailers were released over the summer I’d feel my heart flutter as the Millennium Falcon made its first loop-de-loops in 32 years, but that excitement would fade as quickly as it came. No wild anticipation, no existential panic. I felt nothing. Full immersion therapy seemed like the best course of action and I was expecting one of three scenarios to play out, illustrated below with the following film references:
One: By the time I reached The Force Awakens I would transcend to a higher level of consciousness/fandom a la astronaut Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is the best case scenario.
Two: I would become psychologically scarred by the very art I love after overexposure, not unlike Alex having Beethoven ruined by association in A Clockwork Orange.
Three: I would fall into a mind bending state of madness and CGI-fueled depravity a la Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “We were 60 clicks outside of Anchorhead, on the edge of the Dune Sea when fatigue began to take hold…”
The prequels came and went relatively painlessly after a beautiful false start. The Phantom Menace began with just audio and no picture, something the audience saw as an improvement. Attack of the Clones and its horrid romantic tension was given the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. Revenge of the Sith, though certainly not great, was not as bad as I remembered it. In all, seeing these three again back to back to back really drove home how poorly the first two work as films. Little if any dialogue exists outside of the service of plot, reducing characters to nothing more than sign posts on the way to a lot of CGI whiz-bangery. The podrace and the climactic fight with Darth Maul hold up on their own as superficially cool scenes. Attack of the Clones is, basically, a steaming load. Sith at least anchors its exposition in some (overwritten) personal drama.
Each film came with breaks in between, and at some point during Attack of the Clones a continental breakfast style spread was put out in the lobby. Plastic collector's tubs came with unlimited popcorn refills all day for those of us crazy enough to attempt the 20 hour run. Coffee flowed as plentifully (and reasonably priced!) as Aunt Beru’s blue milk. The “no outside food” rule seemed to have been waived and all in all it seemed like spirits were high at the midway point.
Revisiting the original trilogy didn’t prove as revelatory. My opinions of those movies are forever locked in the amber of nostalgia and I’ve long outgrown my irritation with Lucas’s 1997 Special Edition tinkering. If anything I had half expected to enjoy Return of the Jedi less. Ewoks don’t appeal to a 30 year old as much as they once did and Harrison Ford is kind of phoning it in by that point, especially once the heroes get to Endor. I’m happy to report that despite those things Jedi holds up as well as I remembered.
At this point I’ve been here for nearly 16 hours and with the exception of a couple of brief nods turning Attack of the Clones and speedy trip to Hudson Street Deli during the half hour break before Revenge of the Sith I hadn’t missed a minute. I hadn’t found that excitement either. The Force Awakens was now less than an hour away and I felt nothing. Had sixteen hours straight in the dark scrambled my brain to some extent? Sure, but tired and squirrely as I wasn’t a vegetable by a long shot.
Excitement was all around me, a sea of Star Wars t-shirts and costumes coming in like a tide. Everyone else seemed to be pumped in a way I couldn’t be, but what finally made everything click was seeing a dad come up the escalator flanked by his nine year old son dressed as Boba Fett and his five year old daughter dressed as Princess Amidala. I recognized the excitement on their two faces. It was the same excitement I wore to The Phantom Menace 16 years ago when I was about to see a new Star Wars movie on the big screen for the first time. I had already done this. I had already had my “greatest day of my life” and I was finally able to admit to myself that despite all of my talk about keeping expectations tempered I had desperately wanted that feeling again. I wanted a do over on a once in a lifetime experience.
Finally I sat down to see new words crawl across the stars and yes, I got a bit choked up. I laughed and went wide-eyed when I was supposed to. BB-8, Poe, Rey and Finn were all charming, and Kylo Ren was just the right kind of lightsaber wielding unhinged. Harrison Ford actually showed up for Old Han, no small shock after he whiffed Old Indiana Jones big time. There was a lot to like, and a handful of things not to, but at the end of it all I was satisfied. The Force Awakens didn’t disappoint because I wasn’t a 14 year old kid who put loaded expectations onto something that can’t love me back anymore. It was fun and exciting in all of the right ways, and though I can’t say that those two kids’ lives as movie lovers would be defined by their experience with it I can say that they both looked pretty damn happy about what they’d seen. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I think I’ll go see it again, though this time I’ll probably skip the first six.