I watched all 9 'Star Wars' movies in a row during coronavirus quarantine. Here's what I discovered
A long time ago (late December) in a galaxy far, far away (a Seattle movie theater), I had an idea (a bad one).
For the premiere of "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," the theater was screening all nine movies from the Skywalker Saga, in numerical order, front to back. I pitched this story to my editor: What's it like to watch such an ungodly amount of "Star Wars"? And what could compel folks to spend more than 20 waking hours in a movie theater?
She liked the pitch, but by then, the theater's marathon had sold out.
Skip forward three months: A global pandemic keeps me in my house for 20 hours a day every day, and I finished "Tiger King" in two sittings. If ever there was a time for an excessive movie marathon with a cut-and-dried division between Good and Evil — the bad guys always scowl and carry red lightsabers, lest you forget — this was the moment.
And so I set out on my journey, imagining myself as Luke Skywalker leaving his home planet of Tatooine to find his fate among the stars, John Williams' soaring score ringing in my ears. (In reality, I picked up fast food, texted my sister for her Disney+ password and settled into bed.)
Background: You might assume I'm a superfan, but that is not the case. It's complicated.
I was raised with "Star Wars," like three-plus generations of kids. My parents were my age when the original trilogy wrapped, my siblings and I grew up with the prequels. During the marathon, there were two or more lines per movie I could quote from memory. ("Do. Or do not. There is no try."; "Only a Sith deals in absolutes.")
But I'm no purist — I was the target demo for the nigh-universally loathed prequels. Fans bullied "Episode I's" Anakin (Jake Lloyd) out of Hollywood; I wanted to be pod-racing lil' Ani. Fans hated Hayden Christensen's overacted, petulant, aggressively horny Anakin in "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith"; OK, they were right, but my brother, our friends and I spent many childhood afternoons smacking the hell out of each other with plastic laser swords, honing an imaginary Force, because lightsaber battles are fun, not out of reverence for the Great American Space Opera.
I'd seen "The Force Awakens" and pieces of "Episode VIII," but didn't bother seeing the finale after my Great Marathon Idea fell through.
So, frankly, I didn't know what to expect when I booted up my PlayStation around 3 p.m. on a recent Friday, other than an interstellar family drama, heartburn, one sunset, one sunrise and an inevitable midmarathon nap.
Here's what I found on my journey across the galaxy.
I queued up "The Phantom Menace" and pressed play.
The symphony blasts to life! The iconic yellow credits roll! The modern American epic kicks off with ... a trade dispute?
The best parts of this movie did, in fact, stick with me. The palace scenes on blockaded Naboo, shot on location in Italy and Spain, are stunning. The costumes and makeup (especially Natalie Portman's Padme Amidala) are fantastic. Pod racing is a blast. Qui-Gon Jinn is the prequels' best hero, Darth Maul is their scariest villain, and the final lightsaber duel between that pair is one of the best in the entire saga.
The rest is a mess. I rolled my eyes when introduced to Jar Jar Binks and strained my sockets when he quoted "Full House" for the second time. I fully expected to stan the goofy Gungan everyone loves to hate. But he's the perfect encapsulation of why the prequels failed (and not just for superfans).
With quotes like "How wude!" and "Ex-squeeze me!," he sets an aggressively silly tone that hardens in Episode II and disappears in Episode III. His CGI rendering is painful, with a line between reality and computer generation visible around his face. But Jar Jar also hits on my greater point about the first episode in general, which is holy hell this might be the most casually racist movie I've ever seen.
The Gungan leader shakes his cheeks for emphasis while presiding over a council of aliens who speak a sort of bastardized Caribbean patois. The Trade Federation that embargoes and invades Naboo is led by conniving, bug-eyed Neimoidian viceroys who speak with overblown, horribly stereotypical Asian accents. On Tatooine, Qui-Gon Jinn frees child-slave Anakin from his owner Watto, a Jewish stereotype with a New York pawnshop accent, an elephantine nose and an obsession with money. I had to pause the movie to make sure I wasn't overthinking things, but no, folks saw this back in 1999, too.
The originals are rightfully critiqued for making Billy Dee Williams' Lando Calrissian the Only Black Man in the Universe. But the prequels simultaneously overcorrected and undercorrected. Samuel L. Jackson's prominent role as Jedi Master Mace Windu is a breath of fresh air, but the way the prequels depict aliens — and who is depicted as alien — is as bad a sin as the originals.
The point remains: How long ago and how far away was any universe ever this white?
I powered through the next two movies, taking lackadaisical bathroom breaks. But while the romantic comedy in Episode II is excruciating, it's also inadvertently hilarious. When Anakin professes his love for Padme, she stands up and says, "We live in a real world — come back to it." I laughed so hard I choked out my drink on my shirt.
Ultimately, the prequels never stood a chance. We know Senator Palpatine becomes the Emperor. We know Anakin becomes Darth Vader. The writers clearly had issues creating three movies' worth of compelling buildup, and when you're five hours into a bad drama about intergalactic politics, a toxic relationship and one young man's daddy issues, you start rooting for fight scenes and, frankly, for the Empire to win right away so you don't have to watch another six movies.
But I had a mission. So with Darth Vader newly christened, a few plot holes sewn up (no, I didn't watch "Rogue One," but I've seen and like it) and my yawns growing more frequent, I walked to 7-Eleven for an iced coffee and booted up "A New Hope" sometime around 1 a.m.
Well, OK boomers, y'all did "Star Wars" much better. Still super white, but the worlds and the sets themselves are charming, the characters are familiar and likable, and Hayden Christensen is nowhere to be found. I was taken aback by how real everything seemed compared to the prequels — there's two decades less technology but a lot more heart and creativity.
They're classics — that's why the prequels and sequels tried to imitate them. Maybe my favorite part of watching Episodes IV-VI was picking out the Easter eggs that hatch in the other trilogies and in the spinoff video games and books I obsessed over as a kid. That, or the several minutes I spent laughing about how my parents once vaguely resembled Han Solo and Princess Leia and how deeply that thought is ingrained in my brain — when the pair fights, it bummed me out. When they kiss, I felt inclined to turn away. Years ago, subconsciously, I'd placed myself squarely in this story.
I think a lot of people have a "Star Wars" story like that, a daydream they've indulged where they leave home in search of a cosmic fate greater than common life on Earth. Maybe that's the original magic of "Star Wars" — the idea that an adopted farmhand from a nowhere planet could bring balance to the Force.
Still, I wrote in my notes after Episode IV, "Obviously the best movie so far, but it's now 3:20 a.m. and I'm rooting for the Dark Side at this point." DIE, REBEL SCUM! LET ME SLEEP!
The originals aren't written into a hole, which is obviously refreshing, but they also aren't so easy or heavy-handed. When Anakin faces Dark Side-Light Side choices in the prequels, it's overt. At one point, he literally holds two lightsabers — one red, one blue — to the neck of a Sith lord. The originals portray Vader's conflict more subtly, and guys like Han Solo and Lando Calrissian aren't purely heroes, at least not right away. They have to make the choice to follow the Light Side, repeatedly, and not just when the choice or consequences are easy.
By Episode V, my focus was compromised. I paused to listen to mid-aughts internet classic "Stars Wars Gangsta Rap" about six times, stifling my hyena cackles, then resumed the marathon. But the damage was already done.
"Return of the Jedi," probably the best in the entire series, took me about four hours because I kept falling asleep. I set alarms every five minutes but eventually gave up, allowing myself an hourlong nap. Still, I made sure I didn't miss anything, because that movie is ICONIC SCENE AFTER ICONIC SCENE — Luke saves the day on Tatooine! Vader sees the Light! "It's a trap!" — and if I hadn't seen the Ewoks singing and slinging rocks on Endor, then this entire marathon would have been for nothing.
With (Earth's) sun rising, I kicked off the final trilogy. And I was relieved to be reminded that it's an absolute blast! That is because Episode VII is just Episode IV with some cool new heroes joining old friends (Han! Leia! CHEWIE!), plus 2015 special effects and the knowledge that everything doesn't need to be CGI.
In Episode VII, J.J. Abrams rehashed old plots (the Empire/First Order is chasing the dwindling Rebel Alliance/Resistance) and motifs (a rebel puts an urgent message into a droid for safekeeping; a black-masked villain wavers between the Dark and the Light) with a fresh crop of protagonists and villains, populating a more diverse universe with John Boyega as the first Black lead in the series (it's a start). The plot is uninspired, but it's a fun watch, so it kept me engaged into midmorning Saturday.
And "The Last Jedi" is fun, too! (I was also pretty slap-happy at this point.) The action drags a bit, but it sets up a compelling duel between Kylo Ren and Rey, the trilogy's antihero and heroine, and the addition of Kelly Marie Tran is a welcome change — as Rose, she is the series' only woman of color in a leading role, a delightful addition to the canon who enforces the resounding message that anybody, even a mechanic, can feel the Force. Anyone can be a hero.
The backlash to Episode VIII was ... sad.
Tran was bullied off Instagram following the release, and in "The Rise of Skywalker," Rose is explicitly told to stay at the base while the real heroes save the universe. Further, despite many fans speculating (begging, even) that Boyega's Finn and Oscar Isaac's Poe would be the first same-sex couple in the entire universe, both characters were written female love interests. There is one moment of queerness: Two women kiss in the last scene of a nine-movie series.
Representation is conspicuously lacking, and it's glaring when you watch all nine in a row — especially when you consider that George Lucas and Co. had four decades to at least try to be more inclusive. It's a lot easier to place yourself in a story if you can see yourself in the characters.
Episode IX ends with a bit of a thud. The angry fanboys shouted Rose off the screen. We meet new random characters, and in a series built on reused material, holy cow did they reach deep into their own bag for the galaxy's final fight. The movie is new enough that I don't want to spoil it (I had to rent via Amazon), but it's as bad as Darth Vader hypothetically rising from the dead to salvage the soul of his grandson, Kylo Ren.
In the end: And so the marathon ended, around 2 p.m. Saturday, without thunderous applause. My final observations? The prequels were mostly fun, but also meandering and, yes, sorta racist. The originals were iconic but far from inclusive. The final trilogy started off enjoyable but unoriginal, with an eye toward the universe's failings. But "Star Wars" drew the curtains, bowing to its worst fans, by tamping down diversity with disconcerting fervor, by shoehorning in a contrived ending that eliminates any need for an examination of the balance between Good and Evil — the conflict of the entire series.
When you binge the saga, you realize the prequel and sequel trilogies were never going to escape the shadow of the originals. When the various filmmakers tried to tap that energy and take it to exciting new worlds, the series shined. But more often than not, the saga stumbles over its own feet when trying to re-create the past, bending over backward to satiate fans who'll never love anything as much as their memories of the first time they met the Skywalkers.
I didn't want to think about all that, at least that afternoon. I wanted to sleep and to get far, far away from this galaxy for a bit. With the theme song playing in my head, I took a neighborhood walk, came home and knocked out. I wouldn't necessarily recommend a movie marathon like this to anyone — it's just not that fun to treat movies like an endurance test, even for fans. And I can guarantee that, at least at some point, you will hate "Star Wars."
If you already do (or you don't, and you're willing to take the risk): May the Force be with you.