fb-pixelThis theory’s a Force to be reckoned with - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Ty Burr

This theory’s a Force to be reckoned with

Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977’s “Star Wars.”

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a little outer-space opera called “Star Wars.” And it was good. But this is getting ridiculous.

There is currently nowhere to hide from the cultural and marketing tsunami that surrounds the coming of “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” The film arrives in theaters on Dec. 18, but when the latest trailer debuted last week during halftime of “Monday Night Football” — and, more importantly, announced that tickets were available — the ensuing stampede temporarily broke the Internet.

The mania has brought out weird and telling strands in popular culture and individual people. The normally levelheaded Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg penned an article on how “Star Wars VII Explains All the Great Cultural Debates of Our Time.” The Conspiracy, “the official blog of the Jewish college experience,” mused on the question “which famous Jedi is most likely of Jewish descent?” I had an appointment with my financial adviser yesterday. All he wanted to talk about was “Star Wars.”

Most notoriously, a racist twitter campaign dubbed #BoycottStarWarsVII surfaced Tuesday to protest the casting of the black British actor John Boyega in a leading role as a good-guy Stormtrooper, among other sins. The new film’s director, J.J. Abrams, was dubbed a “Jewish activist” promoting “white genocide” by various basement dwellers before the hashtag was overrun by non-crazy Twitter users piling on the mockery and scorn. It’s possible, even probable, that the campaign was the work of trolls stoking manufactured outrage, but my own feeling is that if the nutcases want to skip out on this movie, they should feel free. The rest of us will breathe a lot easier.


Still, allow me the heresy of suggesting that all this craziness is over a movie. A movie that no one has yet seen. A movie based on another movie that was a great deal of fun 38 years ago and certainly stands as a major event in modern pop history, with or without the sequels, but that was — you may now ready the rocks for stoning — hardly a great work of cinema.


Let me guess: You disagree, perhaps violently. If you do, I would guess that you’re under the age of 50 and that “Star Wars” is for you a pinnacle achievement of the popular culture you have been bequeathed. There is no arguing with it because it has always been there, and it has always been great. Which brings me to a little thing I call the Footie Pajama Theory™.

The Footie Pajama Theory™ posits that there are certain pop artifacts about which entire generations are unable to have any distance, simply because they encountered them during childhood. For me, that would include “The Wizard of Oz,” a movie that received mixed reviews when it came out in 1939 (“A pound of fruitcake soaking wet,” Otis Ferguson, The New Republic) but that seemed to play every Thanksgiving on TV when I was a kid in the 1960s and ’70s. The Beatles, too, because I was 6 when my sister brought home “Meet the Beatles” and I became an immediate convert. (On the other hand, is there anyone who doesn’t like the Beatles?)

The Footie Pajama Theory™ says that I will never be able to discuss “The Wizard of Oz” or the Fabs with any rationality because my responses to them remain deeply emotional, rooted in youth, before any poncy critical faculties kicked in. I can repeat whole swaths of dialogue from “Wizard”; I still sweat blood at the thought of winged monkeys and green-faced Margaret Hamilton. The Footie Pajama Theory™ explains why, when I dared to suggest in an article several years ago that Disney’s “The Lion King” maybe wasn’t the greatest animated movie in the history of the galaxy and that, all things considered, “Beauty and the Beast” might be better, I received virulent hate-mail from men in their 30s. How could “The Lion King” be anything less than monumental? It rocked their world when they were 7.


And, honestly, I was exactly the wrong age for “Star Wars” when it came out in 1977: a 20-year-old film studies student breathless with excitement over the latest Werner Herzog movie, gaga over David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” What’s the reverse of the Footie Pajama Theory™? The Snotty Collegiate Prat Theory™? I qualified. I enjoyed “Star Wars” for the inspired comic book it was, traced its influences back to “Flash Gordon” and Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress,” got a good giggle over the surrounding pop explosion, and, along with many people, appreciated the first sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” as the better movie.

But it wasn’t until 25 years later — when I watched “Star Wars” with my 8-year-old daughter and she turned to me during the hyperspace scene and blurted “ThisisthebestmovieI’veeverSEEN!” — that I experienced the Footie-Pajama effect full force. Secondhand, and through a kid’s eyes, but yeah. I came away with renewed appreciation not only for George Lucas’s little fantasy but for the way movies can speak to the deepest, most credulous parts of our being.


Of course, you could argue that “Star Wars” put the footie-pajamas on all of pop culture from 1977 on. That Hollywood learned an audience of fantasy fans — people willing themselves into a childlike state of belief — was far easier to sell to. That from Comic-Con to cosplay, we are living in Footie Pajama Nation.

And you could certainly argue that Lucas is the worst possible ambassador for the franchise he created. He came up with the characters and set them on their merry Joseph Campbell way, but he never, ever gave them anything interesting to say. The single best line of dialogue in the original trilogy — when Leia says “I love you” and Han Solo responds “I know” — was improvised by Harrison Ford on the set. (Lucas’s scripted line: “I love you, too.” ZZZZZZ.) We will not speak of the broad acres of narcoleptic prose in the recent Episodes I through III.

In fact, it’s Abrams’s participation that piques my interest in the new movie, and only because the director brought “Star Trek” back from the dead with his hugely enjoyable, profoundly nostalgic 2009 reboot. But my response to that movie probably has something to do with the re-runs of the original late-’60s TV show I imbibed obsessively in my early teens.


Call it the PF Flyer Theory™.

More coverage:

Watch the trailer

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.