Darth and Luke, fathers and sons
The force of 'Star Wars' unites generations of fans
By Jamie Allen
CNN Interactive Senior Writer
(CNN) -- It's a story based on family, the sacrifices of generations, the relationships between fathers and sons. So it's really no surprise that the "Star Wars" series has transcended a generation of fans.
When the first film, "A New Hope," came out in 1977, post-Vietnam youths pledged allegiance to "the Force." Now, with 1999's "The Phantom Menace" coming to cinemas, those filmgoers of 22 years ago are taking their kids to see George Lucas' fourth and latest installment in the ultimate space battle of good and evil.
This evolving creation is providing families with a foundation of movie memories.
Michael Wistock, who lives north of Oakland, California, was 8 when he saw "Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope." The experience, he says, changed his life.
"My dad was not in my life at all. I'd see him maybe at Christmas," Wistock says. "'Star Wars' filled the void. It was my moral guidleline ... It was a role model."
Wistock recently returned from the Denver gathering of the Star Wars Fan Club. The "Star Wars" material "changed my life forever," he says. "The last 22 years, it has affected me."
Now 30, Wistock is divorced, and his former wife and two boys have moved across the country to Virginia. But that's not going to stop Wistock from taking son Christopher -- who happens to be 8 -- to see "The Phantom Menace."
Christopher, like Dad, has become a huge "Star Wars" fan. It's their link. It's what they talk about on a long-distance phone call, though sometimes it's hard to tell who's more excited about seeing the new movie, dad or son.
"Watching (Christopher) and watching his reaction, it makes me wanna bawl like a baby to think about how happy it's going to make him," Wistock says.
Obviously, this is deeper than just a movie.
"I think that 'Star Wars' is the glue that holds us together," says Wistock.
'Just intoxicated by it'
Bob Saunders of Carrboro, North Carolina, also finds a connection with his 8-year-old son Jamie through the "Star Wars" series.
Saunders remembers seeing the first Lucas film when he was a teen. He loved it, although he admits he wasn't a hard-core fan -- he didn't buy into the associated paraphernalia. But he did hear a National Public Radio reenactment of the trilogy that came out in the 1980s.
When hype started building for the return of the original "Star Wars" trilogy to theaters a few years ago, Saunders checked out the NPR tapes from a library and listened to them when he was driving his son to and from day care.
"Jamie was in the back seat playing with toys and I thought he was oblivious to the radio," recalls Saunders. "I did this for a couple of trips, and about the third or fourth day I turned off the car, and I heard this wee voice saying, 'Daddy, can you please turn that back on?' It just shocked me."
Jamie was becoming a huge "Star Wars" fan.
"We kept on listening to the tapes until I got sick of it," Saunders says.
When "Star Wars" was re-released, with added digital effects, Jamie organized a trip to the theater -- Dad driving -- with his first-grade buddies.
'I think that "Star Wars" is the glue that holds us together.'
Saunders says it brought back memories of his own experience.
"They were just intoxicated by it," says Saunders. "It was a joy for me to watch them react to it the way I reacted to it .... It was just so much fun to watch."
When the 1980 "Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" was re-released, Saunders was faced with a parental dilemma. He remembered the film includes the revelation that the evil Darth Vader is actually Luke's father, and he didn't know how Jamie would react to it.
"I was worried that he might transfer that to me, like I was Darth Vader," laughs Saunders.
Jamie says he was "perfectly fine" with the plot twist, and he went on to see the 1983 "Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi," his favorite of the three.
Now, Saunders and son are planning to see "The Phantom Menace" on opening night.
'The basic struggle of good and evil'
To say Wistock is obsessive about "Star Wars" is like saying the movie's opening of the 1977 "A New Hope" -- starting with the words "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" -- is "memorable," or lightsabers are "neat-o."
Wistock claims he has seen the original Death Star explosion over 1,000 times. He saw the film on every one of the first 23 days of original run of "The Empire Strikes Back." The theater manager finally started letting him in free. His youngest son's name is Harrison, as in Ford, the actor who plays Han Solo.
Most recently, Wistock and his "Star Wars" pals saw the premiere of the four-minute John Williams "The Duel of the Fates" music video for "The Phantom Menace." After seeing the video's shots from the film, Wistock and friends were teary-eyed.
A that was simply a music video. What -- aside from filling a parental void -- attracts people to this story?
Even Saunders and son can't seem to get enough of what's becoming Lucas' Sistine Chapel. Why?
Well, it is, after all, an action-adventure serial, and even "Die Hard" has died down on the sequels route. Why does the "Star Wars" adventure, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, seem to grow stronger with time?
Wistock says the movies are a modern telling of "ancient myth or lessons from the Bible. It's about the struggles that people go through," he says. "It's the basic struggle of good and evil, and the conflict between family" members.
He cites "Return of the Jedi," in which Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker clash over "the Force." Eventually, Wistock says, the love between father and son overcomes the Dark Side.
"The Dark Side of the Force could be alcoholism or a guy who beats his wife," says Wistock. "Luke saves his father, and Darth has that transformation and realizes the love of his son is stronger than anything."
So, amid all the special effects, fans see a parable as basic as the conflict between father and son in any living room of the world, something many of us can relate to. It's humanity's struggle, even a humanity surrounded by androids and aliens.
'Good, clean, wholesome fun'
Saunders and Wistock agree the story is told in these films with minimal amounts of blood and guts. That opens the door for parents to bring their kids, who in turn are bringing their kids. They know that if someone dies, we won't see their brains splatter a wall.
"(These films) are no different from the cowboy-westerns that our parents used to watch," says Saunders. "The way Lucas uses myth -- he's made good, clean, wholesome fun."
The "Star Wars" films are also perhaps one of the greatest sales pitches of the century. Kids -- and even some adults -- see this work and decide they must own a piece of it: an action figure, an X-wing fighter, Chewbacca barrettes.
Although the "Stars Wars" material is sometimes criticized for starting the marketing madness that plagues many other films today, Wistock and Saunders shrug it off. They accept it as if it's always been this way.
Both their sons own loads of "Star Wars" toys, and, uh, Wistock does, too. In fact, he's playing catch-up -- he still laments the day he had to sell the "Star Wars" collection of his youth to help pay bills.
Critics are wondering if "The Phantom Menace" will live up to the hype. But there's also a question of whether it can live up to the memories that families bring to it.
What happens if it stinks? Will kids blame their parents for taking them, setting off years of sequels of blame and disappointment?
Judging by the excitement of the Wistock and Saunders families, this is doubtful. The experience -- whatever it turns out to be -- will simply add to the memories.
Wistock was able to take his son to see the first trailer of "The Phantom Menace" last year. It was a moment he won't forget.
"I watched him," Wistock says. "He was on the edge of his seat. He was smiling and his eyes were really wide. I just got goose bumps. I kept the tickets because that's one of my favorite 'Star Wars' memories."
There should be many more such moments waiting -- in that galaxy far, far away.
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