In four decades and over six movies, “Star Wars” has infused our culture like a Force unto itself. Devotees view George Lucas’s universe of lightsaber duels, spaceship dogfights, and father-son conflicts as holy writ. Even casual fans are counting down to the release of the long-awaited Episode VII, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” on Friday.
But what “Star Wars” means to its admirers, and the expectations they bring to the new installment, depends not just on personal taste but on how old they were when they initially encountered the epic science-fiction saga — and on where, for them, the story began.
“Whatever you see or read first is definitely going to influence how you see the rest of the franchise,” says Chris Taylor, 42, author of “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe.” For baby boomer and Generation X fans, going to the theater to see the original trilogy — “A New Hope” (1977), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), and “Return of the Jedi” (1983) — was a life-altering, mind-expanding experience. By contrast, the youngest “Star Wars” obsessives were born into a world where all six films — including the much-maligned prequels “The Phantom Menace” (1999), “Attack of the Clones” (2002), and “Revenge of the Sith” (2005) — were right there in their parents’ laptop video libraries.
“Everyone who is a ‘Star Wars’ fan is a ‘Star Wars’ fan . . . in their own specific way,” says Ryan Britt, 34, author of “Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: And Other Geeky Truths.” No matter a fan’s entry point, whether through the movies, the TV series, novels, or Legos, “Somehow, everyone thinks it belongs to them.”
So how are the members of the very different generations of “Star Wars” preparing to greet Episode VII? Like the Empire sending probes far into the galaxy, we queried the far reaches of fandom to understand what the movies mean to followers seasoned and new, and what hopes these fans bring to “The Force Awakens.”
The Old Republic
(Born 1964 and earlier; age today: 51 and up)
Baby boomers were in their mid-teens to early 30s in 1977, when Episode IV intersected with their lives. They were in young adulthood — but still malleable enough that some careers were shaped by “Star Wars.” Jeanne Cavelos, 55, a writer, scientist, and teacher from Mont Vernon, N.H., says the movie “changed my life” and encouraged her to “live in a galaxy far, far away.” She did the next best thing — working at NASA to train Space Shuttle astronauts.
“Science fiction films were pretty bleak and dystopian in the 1970s,” adds Robert Greenberger, 57, a high school English teacher and Star Wars fan from Fulton, Md. “The country needed a rousing adventure story where the stakes were clear.” For him, the “sheer joy and inventiveness of ‘Star Wars’ ” delivered.
“You should have heard the instant, spontaneous hiss at the first appearance of Darth Vader,” says Susan Shwartz, 65, a financial writer and fantasy novelist from Forest Hills, N.Y, remembering seeing “Star Wars” as a Harvard grad student on opening night. Shwartz wants “The Force Awakens” to take her back to her 20s to “find out what is happening with the characters with whom I grew up.”
For Meredith Hickey, 76, a grandmother from Huron, Ohio, “Star Wars” was a way to bond with her kids over heady ideas such as that “ ‘Something’ is much bigger and stronger than we are, and if and when we do surrender, that Force will help us in a positive way.” She plans on seeing Episode VII on opening day, before her kids or grandkids. “I want the bragging rights!”
Generation Jawa and Jedi
(Born: 1965-1979; age today: 36-50)
“Star Wars” hit Generation Xers in their most impressionable kid and teen years. “We watched, gobsmacked, at the single most incredible thing we had ever seen,” says Gregory Katsoulis, 48, a Cambridge writer, filmmaker, and photographer who remembers seeing “Star Wars” nine times the summer he was 10. He was inspired, he says: “I wrote my own stories, animated my own flip books, built my own lightsaber.”
“Almost everything meaningful in my life could probably be traced back to ‘Star Wars’,” says JoAnn Cox, 46, an East Boston resident who works for the City of Boston. The saga “inspires one to think beyond oneself, to take the hero’s quest, to see the interconnections of everything — if one wants to.” Tony Whitehill, 45, a radio personality and volunteer firefighter from St. Johnsbury, Vt., grew up in a small town; “I could relate to Luke wanting to get away and find adventure,” he says.
That wholehearted embrace set this generation up to be particularly betrayed by the prequels. The wisdom of Yoda — “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” — is still with Kevin Cafferty, 40, a video and media creator from Arlington. So is a tattoo of the “Rebel Alliance” logo, which he got to commemorate the release of “The Phantom Menace” — before he’d seen the movie. The prequel trilogy, he says, “taught me to deal with crushing disappointment.”
“It was a mythology that felt personal. It was ours,” says Lisa McColgan, 45, a database administrator and “theater nerd” from Malden. That deep investment in Lucas’s creation and the subsequent letdown of the prequels caused a breach of trust that, for some Gen Xers, puts more at stake in the new film. “I want to believe again,” she says.
(Born 1980-1999; age today: 16-35)
Millennials are the first generation whose initial encounter with the “Star Wars” universe might have been the second trilogy. That isn’t necessarily bad, they say. “People gripe about the prequels a lot, but they’re amazing when you’re a kid,” says Anna Geneva Renz, 26, a bookseller from Brookline. She’s grateful she was “able to see them when I was the right age to enjoy them.” Some even found Episodes IV, V, and VI dull. Liam Hefferman, 18, a student from Lexington, says that “as a little kid, I really disliked the original trilogy. It was slow. I didn’t get it.”
The films’ authority-flouting political message also spoke to some young viewers who came of age in the Bush era of the early 2000s. For Marcy Harris, 25, a Somerville resident and bookstore marketing coordinator, the world of “Star Wars” taught her that “women could be political movers and shakers, X-Wing pilots, and Jedi Knights,” she says. “I could be outspoken, I could be powerful, I could control my own story” — a step up from most “gendered narratives” she was exposed to. About “The Force Awakens,” Harris says, “I’ve completely jumped on board the hypetrain.”
As with Generation Xers, these fans also grew up with movies regularly released during their childhood. “What takes ‘Star Wars’ beyond simple nostalgia is the fact that it was present in a very real way at significant milestones of my life,” says Tony Pacitti, 30, ofCranston, R.I., and author of the memoir “My Best Friend Is a Wookiee.” Like the Force, the movies were with him, always, during times of heartache, change, and rites of passage.
(Born 2000 to present; age today: 15 and under)
Today’s children have access to all six films. They experience them as one story. Unlike their parents, they may know from the start that Anakin (Darth Vader) was good before he turned to the dark side.
And many are anticipating “The Force Awakens” with unbridled excitement. Episode VII is already the top film for Leo Stern, 6, of Portsmouth, N.H., even though he hasn’t seen it yet. “I know it’s going to be my favorite,” he says, “because I love Kylo Ren” — one of the new characters. His father, Jeff Stern, 42, a film professor at Bentley University who’s made a short film called “My Dark and My Light Side Meet in a Bar to Discuss the New Star Wars Movie,” used to be a huge “Star Wars” fan. Seeing “The Force Awakens” phenomenon through Leo’s eyes, he’s “all in” again. “I’m not worried that it’s not going to be good,” he says. “Why go into it cautiously?”
Still, some are keeping their hope in check. “ ‘The Force Awakens’ might be awful,” says Dylan Itkin, 14, a young filmmaker from Providence who runs the movie review blog FlickFlackMovieTalk.com with his brother Ethan. “But I really hope it’s good.”
Too young to remember a time when the films didn’t exist, children may think of “Star Wars” as being as timeless as fairy tales. Finn Collins, 7, of Brookline, watches all six “all the time,” he says. His mother, Barbara Moran, estimates he’s seen them 40 times each. Finn’s also psyched for “The Force Awakens.” “Did you know the hero of it has the same name as me?” he asks.
Other kids, too, have a “Star Wars” namesake — and for some, it’s an expression of allegiance. John Minor, 42, a software engineer from West Warwick, R.I., and his wife named their son Anakin and their daughter for another character, Mara-Jade.
But not every son follows his father’s path. While Mara-Jade, 13, “loves all things ‘Star Wars,’ ” Anakin, now 15, “could care less,” Minor says. “Typical teenage rebellion.”