I didn't know what to expect from a documentary about fandom, but I guessed it wouldn't be good. Generally, this type of documentary leans in one of two directions: 1) it demonstrates how geeks are crazier than everyone else so "normal" people can feel better about themselves, or 2) it slavishly focuses on one aspect of a hobby to the exclusion of any negative commentary about the subject.
What's surprising about A Galaxy, Far, Far Away is that it actually provides a balanced view of the two perspectives by showing the extremes. In essence, this is a journey about one producer trying to understand why everyone was so excited about Star Wars.
We're not talking about "I like Star Wars" kinds of fandom. We're talking about camping out in front of a movie theater 42 days before the fourth entry in George Lucas' series.
I remember the days leading up to that first movie. There was Star Wars merchandise in every single store: shoe stores had Star Wars shoes, toy stores had Star Wars toys, book stores had Star Wars books, ad infinitum. It finally struck me where else I had seen such cross-channel marketing…a holiday.
In essence, Lucas created a national holiday. There was no merchant who wasn't somehow touched by the film's release. Many of my coworkers took the day off to see it, just like it were a holiday. A Star Wars holiday (not to be confused with the Star Wars holiday special).
Tariq Jalil, the director and narrator, takes us along on the journey to understand why Americans were so excited about what amounts to a couple hours of staring at a big screen. And he uncovers a couple of truths along the way.
Jalil interviews fans, from the rock star Jedi singing about the force to the technician who names his son Anakin, from the four kids who remind you of college chums camping out in front of a theater, to comedians who rap lyrics about the Force. Jalil also interviews movie stars. We hear from Roger Corman, James Duval, Andy Garcia, Meat Loaf, Joe Pesci, and other people Jalil forgot to turn the microphone on for. Their assessments range from dismissive to supportive, from philosophical to freaked out. Which pretty much reflects how everyone who isn't a fan felt about the phenomenon.
On the negative side, Jalil points out the extravagance. Only in America could people huddle together in a crowd, clawing and fighting, to get the first Star Wars action figures. He drives this point home by cutting in scenes of crowds in Kosovo scrambling for food. It might sound like a heavy-handed approach until you realize just how similar the two scenes are. At one point I wasn't able to tell the difference.
As one observant young lady points out, the amount of money and manpower dedicated to providing security, food, transportation, and lodging to millions of Star Wars fans could change the world. But Americans don't do that. Instead, they spend it on a fantasy world…because they can.
If the documentary stopped there, it would be a horrible slam on fandom. For a little while, I felt dirty afterwards for liking Star Wars. But then Jalil then asks the tough questions. Forget asking why people like Star Wars when a camera is pointed in their face. Ask them about their personal lives, and suddenly it all comes into focus.
Many of the kids in this documentary have issues with their fathers. And they're not "I don't like my dad" issues either. Their fathers are abusive or completely absent, situations where children have no childhood to speak of. These kids like Star Wars so much because they dislike their lives in equal amounts. The plot connects with them in ways that other media can't.
And that's the conclusion Jalil comes to. Maybe the fans aren't perfect. Maybe they could focus their efforts on something more constructive. But there are a lot worse things. If Americans want to believe in a mystical force of good, in the power for families to come together despite their differences, then maybe their devotion isn't so bad after all. In the old days we used to call that religion. Today, we call it Star Wars.