Thank God I snuck a Fiber One bar in here with me. I spent some time looking over the movie theater snack bar options, and they are something less than ideal when it comes to getting a day’s worth of nutrition. There are, unsurprisingly, no healthy options when it comes to food, because this isn’t one of those fancy-pants theaters where you can order kale chips with a colonic on the side. This is your standard-issue modern suburban movie theater, with nice, comfy seats and a decent offering of foodstuffs—just not of the good-for-you variety. I could have chosen one of those places for this marathon, as my Chicago residency puts me within Lyft distance of several, but I wasn’t thinking about that when I bought my tickets. I was thinking about big comfy seats, and the fact that I’d have to wake up at 1:30 in the goddamn morning. The end.
Turns out, there’s a number of factors I didn’t take into consideration when I agreed to attend the Star Wars movie marathon, an 18-and-a-half hour experience composed of watching every single film in the series, start to finish, in chronological order of the story. That means starting with the prequels (episodes I-III), then segueing to the classic installments (IV-VI), and capping it off with a 7 p.m. screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This felt very doable; people do these kinds of marathons in their homes regularly. I know more people than I can count on both hands who’ve spent an entire day watching every Star Wars movie. It’s not that impressive an achievement. Besides, earlier this year I did the Marvel marathon, a 28-hour ordeal that turned me into a glass-eyed moron and almost destroyed my ability to watch movies altogether, let alone write coherently about them. I figured that, by comparison, this would be a piece of intergalactic cake. This was, of course, before I remembered that watching the prequels was a big part of this equation.
I got here around 2:20 a.m., after waking up an hour earlier and taking a Lyft to the theater, my wife having informed me she’d rather be buried alive with only Jeff Dunham for company than get out of bed at that hour to drive me there. My driver was a very nice guy named Adesola, who chatted amiably with me the whole way there about the holidays. I told him of my mission. “Are you going to see the new Star Wars movie?” I ask. He smiles genially. “I’m not going to do that.”
At the counter, I check in, pick up my ticket, and am surprised to be given a choice of four different 3-D glasses for when The Force Awakens starts, because I’m an idiot, and didn’t realize this marathon ended in 3-D. Did all the marathons “force” you into seeing it in three dimensions? (That’s the kind of pun that made me starting laughing around 14 hours into the marathon, when my brain had slowly drained down my insides, Drano-style, until it settled inside my feet.) After choosing Captain Phasma-themed glasses from a selection that included the options of Kylo Ren, BB-8, and a Stormtrooper (has any kid ever watched a Star Wars movie and thought, “God, I want to be one of those faceless cannon-fodder minions when I grow up”?), I take a seat in the front of the main rotunda area, along that first row of seats behind the guard rail—a feature that always somewhat confused me. I guess it’s so that you don’t get so amped-up while watching a movie that you spontaneously fall out of your seat into the aisle? I could see how Forrest Gump might do that to a person.
A number of guys are napping (and make no mistake, it’s an audience roughly 85 percent dudes, although that number will go down over the course of the marathon), but the vast majority are playing on cell phones, or chatting idly about Star Wars. The guy next to me is saving a seat for someone by planting a giant stuffed Yoda in it, which is just cute as hell:
My first order of business is to talk to this seatmate, because I have one primary mission at this event, which is to talk with other attendees, and get their feelings about the marathon. After all, there’s not much that can be said about the Star Wars movies, prequels or otherwise, that hasn’t already been said. (We even ran a defense of the prequels recently, which should give you some indication of just how thoroughly every opinion on George Lucas’ universe has been covered.) So the experience of this 18-hour-plus event seems best explained by the other people around me, who have chosen to spend one of their days in this all-too-fleeting life of ours eating nothing but popcorn, hot dogs, and nachos, while shifting about in a seat, along with several hundred other folks who share a passion for the most successful movie franchise of all time.
My neighbor’s name is Willis, it turns out, and here’s been here since around 11 p.m., because he is a dedicated man and knows what he wants. His compatriots, whose seats are currently being warmed by Yoda, were out at the Star Wars-themed bar the night before, which explains why they completely miss The Phantom Menace altogether, and do a fair amount of napping throughout the day. Willis, on the other hand, does not fuck around. He says he saw the original film 106 times in the theater when it first came out, which made me laugh, because that’s a good joke, until I realized he wasn’t kidding. He got his tickets to the marathon the instant they went on sale, which is a common refrain among the people I’ll talk to today. He’s wearing a Force Awakens T-shirt, and generally could not be a nicer guy, or more stoked about a marathon of movies he’s literally seen hundreds of time. I debate asking how many times he’s seen the others, but then I lose the chance, because the following happens:
At the Marvel marathon, no amount of hype was too much. There were hired people working the theater who served as literal hype people, getting chants and applause going in between movies, giving away shirts, holding trivia contests, and the like. It was like getting drive-time radio DJs to host an event, just endless chit-chat and inducements to excitement. It drove me fucking bananas at the time, but now I realize there’s a weirder choice: doing absolutely nothing.
Here is the sole audience engagement that occurs at the Cinemark Theatres branch where I watched the Star Wars marathon: Moments before the beginning of Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, we hear a voice call us to attention. Suddenly, a white-bearded man, probably in his 60s or 70s, slowly wheels to the front of the theater in a motorized wheelchair. His name is Michael, and he’s here to give us the schedule of screenings for the day, as well as how much time we have in between films. That’s it. No T-shirt cannons, no giveaways, nothing. Just Michael, expressing his regret that he can’t join us because the theater is making him work, instead. (For God’s sake, Cinemark, the man actually wants to spend his off-work time in your theater. Just let him.) But he also announces this fun fact: That we’ll have to change theaters, from auditorium 4 to 1, between the last of the old films and The Force Awakens, meaning we’ll have to get up, carry all our stuff, and carve out a new place to sit in a new space for the premiere. Oh, and one more thing: Michael does not know whether we’ll be let in before other people, non-marathoners, who will take up the other seats in the larger theater.
This news goes over like a fart in church. We’ll come back to this shortly.
Having now been given information that’s the equivalent of telling a middle child that his A+ in math means less than his older and younger siblings’ F- in remedial English, because Mom and Dad love the other kids better, the lights go down. On that note, let’s get this party started, right?! Way to set the mood, Cinemark.
On second thought, maybe that dispiriting letdown of a PSA was just the right tactic to set the tone for watching the first of the prequels. The applause that greets the triumphant horn blasts of the opening crawl is tepid, at best. I haven’t seen any of the prequels since I first saw them in the theater, and watching The Phantom Menace again now, I remember why. It’s a pretty bad movie. Jar Jar Binks, the cinematic equivalent of Fran Drescher screaming, garners derisive chuckles every time he appears on screen. Everyone’s awake and paying attention for this, but no one here seems that happy about it. There are some things I had completely forgotten in this movie, things that make my jaw drop in disbelief at their ridiculousness. My memory might be faulty, here, but I swear at one point, Jar Jar Binks looks at Padmé (Natalie Portman), then turns to Anakin Skywalker—who, let us not forget, is like 8 years old at this point—and says that she’s “pretty hot.” I’m not kidding. It’s fucking insane. I wrote it down, because I couldn’t believe it, but also because I’m pretty sure I’ll be sharing this info with my future therapist.
The applause that greets the end of the film is even more milquetoast than that which greeted the beginning, if that’s possible at a marathon populated almost exclusively by self-professed superfans of this franchise. A number of people showed up during the final minutes of this first movie, probably hoping they were going to miss it altogether. Sorry, guys: You have to watch a weirdly animated Gungan hold a swirly ball over his head and yell, “Peace!” like it’s the end of a Peter, Paul, And Mary concert.
The big news is that Cinemark Theatres has awoken to the angry force stirring in a crowd of hardcore Star Wars nerds, because an employee has hastily come out to announce that we won’t have to go anywhere to watch The Force Awakens; we can stay right here and zealously guard our hard-earned seats with the ferocity of a wampa. Our anxieties sated, we all head out to the snack bar, myself included, because it turns out a Fiber One bar isn’t going to last me until daylight. I get some nachos, as the realization that I have to go straight into watching Attack Of The Clones after this has generated an intense feeling of “fuck it” in me.
While waiting for the next movie to start, I notice two people sitting in the very top row, dead center. They stand out, mostly because they’re smiling, unlike many in here at present. It’s not actually very crowded in this place, I should mention. The room is maybe half full, tops, which surprises me, until I consider even a lot of diehard fans probably don’t want to get up at 2 in the morning to watch the prequels. But I head up to the top, and meet these cheery folks. Heather and Craig (and their son, Clifton, who I missed because he’s sprawled out horizontally across three seats next to them, deep in slumber) turn out to be the ideal people to interview here, because they are absolutely true-blue fans. Heather got here at 10:45 a.m. yesterday to make sure she was first in line. They live in Hobart, Indiana, meaning they literally crossed state lines to attend this marathon. She stresses more than once than this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “After all, you can always buy stuff, but you can’t buy memories,” she says, which is so utterly guileless and earnest and endearing that I almost burst into tears on the spot.
Craig can tell me the name of the long-defunct theater in Virginia where he saw the original film, opening day. Heather talks animatedly about how much fun even waiting in line was, how the next couple didn’t arrive until around 7:20 p.m. that night, but she made a bonding experience of it, bringing coloring books, crafts, Star Wars cereal, a Star Wars pillow, and so on. My sturdy sense of cynicism slowly gives way under the onslaught of Heather’s goddamned positivity, until I’m basically ready to abandon my post and go bake R2-D2-shaped scones with her and Craig. It’s the ideal pep talk to get prior to the coming film.
The first hour of this movie is so painful, I think a good portion of the audience dozed off, myself included. There are some inspired action scenes, but the dialogue is so clunky, and the Anakin-Padmé romance so cringingly staged, more than a few people actively turn away from the screen. (When we get a quick warning about not using electronic devices before the film starts, a guy snorts, “Right, because someone wants a pirated Episode II,” and everyone laughs.) I will say that dozing off and then waking up for the final 30 minutes is an interesting experiment—it makes you feel like you’ve stumbled into a much better Star Wars movie than the one from before you fell unconscious.
As the film ends, everyone seems to just be enduring the process. I get up to go to the bathroom, and there’re two guys and a girl in the lobby, venting about how much the movie they just saw sucked. “There’s literally a scene in the alien equivalent of a Steak ’N Shake!” one of them exclaims, and I decide they would be the ideal people to interview during this intermission. Kevin, Lorraine, and David bought their tickets about a day after they went on sale (apparently Lorraine was the instigator). On the younger side of the attendees, all of them were introduced to the Star Wars universe by relatives, be it a sibling, cousin, or other blood relation. They’ve grown up in a world where it always existed, though they were drawn to it in various ways. Lorraine read some of the expanded universe books, David liked the video games, but all of them lived all their lives with the movies. Well, the originals, anyway: “We’re here now to save seats for the good ones, basically,” Lorraine says with a laugh. They, too, slept through a goodly portion of Clones.
A new guy behind me just rolled in with one of those oversize sleeping pillows—clearly, he’s pumped as hell for Revenge Of The Sith. The guy next to me has abandoned all pretense at caring about the prequels, and has splayed across two seats, snoring gently. It’s like the Star Wars equivalent of walking across hot coals, watching this trilogy: No one enjoys that much of the actual experience, but there’s a masochistic sense of achievement, like unlocking an endurance award in a video game, only on a collective level. We can talk to each other after this with the easy familiarity of Vietnam veterans.
With this film, people are just making barfing sounds whenever Anakin and Padmé appear on screen together. Honestly, though, this one is better than I remember, like a fraternity hazing where you’ve been told you’ll be drinking piss, and instead it’s just flat, warm Mountain Dew. It’s not great, but come on, it’s not piss. Especially in that situation, Mountain Dew is a pretty welcome presence! Whether it’s the quality of the previous film, or simply its own merits, Sith is like one half of a good movie. Also, although my eyelids are sorely struggling not to squish shut from drowsiness by the end, I notice something funny. Have you ever actually watched the end credits of Revenge Of The Sith? They’re hilarious. Like, there’s roughly 1 billion characters in this movie, and even if the name is never said, it’s listed at the end. In practice, this means the credits crawl at the end is jam-packed with character names like “Wala-Mee” and “Zootoo” and “Feebo.” There’s probably a “23 Skidoo” in there somewhere.
Thankfully, we’ve been granted an hour reprieve in between the first and second trilogy, perhaps because our brains literally cannot take the cumulative experience of absorbing the first three with some sort of Pavlovian reward, so I head to the nearest place to get some quick and vaguely breakfast-like food. Of course, they’re out of the item I decided I absolutely had to have (Strawberry Granola Parfait) while I was waiting in line. I briefly debate setting fire to the building. Instead, I settle for some quinoa oatmeal, hoping this will quell the upcoming competition between movie-theater pizza and pretzel bites I know will soon do battle for the privilege of causing me intense gastrointestinal distress.
I return to the theater, and we all start to straggle back in to our respective seats. Stepping outside has rejuventated everyone’s spirits, along with the fact of the prequels being over. Everyone is smiling. It’s all uphill from here on out, save for some brief scenarios involving Ewoks. It’s almost like you wouldn’t think the overwhelming majority of us had been here since 2:30 a.m. Also, the gender balance is slowly improving—not tremendously, but a notable change. I ask a man near me, Jason, how he’s feeling. He says he’s doing great, and also says the thing about this being a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He’s not wrong, but I’m starting to wonder about the use of the term. Chicken pox is also a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
It’s a new hope in two senses of the word. There’s real, sustained applause as the movie begins. For the first time, it’s like everyone in the room stops whatever they were doing to watch the same screen, with an intensity that’s rare to see, outside of, say, that Folger’s incest commercial coming on TV during a family hangout. People laugh, people cheer, people have a great time. It’s certainly debatable how much of the universal goodwill for the film is the gauzy haze of nostalgia and how much is genuinely great cinema, but it also doesn’t really matter. Right now, everyone’s having a blast. When the lights come up, Willis—who, I remind you, has seen this film 106 times—turns to his friends: “That was frickin’ awesome.” Pretty much the entire theater gets up to pee.
Cate, a 25-year-old texting in a corner, tells me she was introduced to Star Wars by a VHS box set of the original trilogy her parents owned when she was a child. She was about 8 when the first prequel film came out, and she was already hooked. She devoured the novels, and remembers being so excited when she pre-ordered one of the video games that came with a strategy guide. She’s taking off work at Northwestern today to be here, in her Star Wars pajamas. An art history major in college, she says she developed a new fondness for the films once she was knowledgeable enough to be able to point to certain scenes and say, “Those are Art Nouveau details,” “That’s from the Hagia Sophia,” and so on. Every paper she wrote in school, she says, inevitably included Star Wars as an example when possible, regardless of the topic.
Still, this is her very first time watching them all straight through at once. She loves the sense of youthful possibility it brings back in her—again, with an earnestness I find impossible not to envy. I wish I liked anything as much as Cate likes Star Wars. Luckily, the 90-year-old man in me finds common cause when she admits she thinks the prequels aren’t really movies: “Lucas wasn’t quite capable of it,” she says, and I bond with her for life.
Yoda, judging by crowd reaction, is the MVP of the Star Wars movies. He always gets a cheer, and in Empire, he steals every scene he’s in. The puppet of the original trilogy is so funny, so expressive, so goofy, he just raises the temperature of the room the instant he appears. It’s a bit cliché to try and describe what’s almost universally agreed upon as the best film of the entire series, because talking about it being the best is a bit cliché.
Smell-wise, it’s getting a bit dodgy in this place. Getting up at 1:30 in the morning takes its toll, and despite the movie being great, between the heat and the faint smell of body odor, this is prime siesta time. I only doze for 20 minutes or so in the middle, and rouse myself, promising that if a nap is needed, you better believe some damn Ewoks are getting ignored.
In an effort to artificially boost my blood sugar levels prior to Return Of The Jedi, I buy a couple boxes of candy as well as one of those mass-market ice cream Drumsticks—whose main ingredient, I’m pretty sure, is sadness. This is probably a foolish way to combat sleep, especially with one more film I’ve seen a couple of dozen times still to go before The Force Awakens, but when you’re allergic to caffeine, you do what you can.
There’s an armed cop that walks into our theater just prior to this film starting. He probably just wants to watch the movie (also, he seems to know Willis), but it does feel a bit like a Stormtrooper poking his head in to remind us that we should be obeying the Empire. But the movie starts, and once again, it’s a high-energy experience, the combination of the trilogy’s end fusing with the mounting anticipation for the new film. I neglected to mention this before, but one of the most fun parts of watching these movies with a Star Wars-savvy audience is that, every time one of Lucas’ ill-conceived CGI additions pop up on screen, someone in the room—without fail—utters a deep, lengthy sigh.
There are some scattered cheers when Darth Vader kills the Emperor (spoiler alert), as well as some scattered boos when ghost Hayden Christensen appears as the spectral replacement for ghost Sebastian Shaw at the end of the film. (If you want a fun YouTube comments thread, check out the debate over footage of the original version.)
There’s a guy wearing a Darth Vader hat and what looks like Star Wars footie pajamas, singing “The Final Countdown.” We’ve got a half hour before it starts, and everyone’s standing up before the big push—going to the bathroom, getting food, stretching like an actual marathon runner, etc. Unfortunately, I’m also hitting that point I like to call “peak gross”: I’ve been eating garbage, my skin is covered in a fine patina of grease, and my stomach is trying to commit ritual seppuku in penance for that box of Mike And Ikes.
But there’s something else in the air, too. There’s a lot of guys (and women, now, too) just sitting in their seats. Not lazily flipping through Twitter like in between the earlier films, or napping, or joking about what they liked and disliked. They’re just… sitting. In anticipation. For these superfans, literally years of waiting is about to be over. This is a real moment. And, for all my professed distance (and workmanlike vow to be snarky about this whole thing), it kind of is for me, too.
Nothing hammers this home more than my next experience. To guarantee I won’t get tired during The Force Awakens, nervous adrenaline infusion or no, I hop up and rush out to get a Blue Raspberry Icee, the coffee of the caffeine-allergic everywhere. (Not really, but I like blue raspberry as a flavor; it tastes like fraud.) As I’m waiting in line, the kid next to me who’s lined up for pretzel bites notices my lanyard. It’s a black laminated tag, listing all the movies in increasing font size, up to the new one at the bottom. It’s how the staff has demarcated us Star Wars superdorks coming in and out of the ticket area all day long. This boy, maybe 10 years old, sees it, and taps me on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, where’s you’d get that?” I explain that it wasn’t available as swag, unlike the commemorative cups or 3-D glasses readily available to everyone tonight. I tell him it’s the admission pass of sorts for the marathon. He takes a deep breath. “Dude, that’s so awesome,” he says, eyes filling with wonder. He calls his sister over—she’s close to the same age, and they’re both there early, waiting for the 8:45 screening. He explains how I got my lanyard, and her eyes go wide as well. “I’m so jealous,” she whispers. I look at these kids, quivering in anticipation, and I’m reminded again just how important these movies are, not just to an earlier generation of kids who are now parents themselves, but to a brand-new generation of young people, eager for heroes, and villainy, and derring-do, all against a backdrop of a galaxy far, far away. “That’s such a, like, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” she says.
Without any hesitation, I agree with her 100 percent.
The audience I saw it with, unsurprisingly, adored it. I think I really enjoyed it, though maybe that’s the Blue Raspberry Icee talking. There’s a lot of fan service (though less than in the prequels, and it’s certainly less clumsy), and a fun ongoing game of “Hey, it’s that person!” runs throughout the film. It works—as a movie, as an installment of a series, as a fitting continuation of a swashbuckling story of heroism and good against evil to which some people here have now given almost 40 years of their lives in fandom—and it’s heartening to see the smiles. Were I not part of the situation myself, I could also see it making me barf. (And an hour later, sitting in the bathroom and contemplating the effects of my dietary choices from an entire day of theater food, I can picture it making me barf all too well.) I think our own A.A. Dowd captures it nicely, though I enjoyed it somewhat more than he did. And what no review can capture is the experience of sitting here, surrounded by several hundred cheering nerds, some in footie pajamas, hooting like adolescents for a space adventure set in the distant past and a remote galaxy. It’s heartening, and warm. Embarrassing and smelly, sure, but heartening.