That elusive ‘Sith’ sense

DAMN THAT GEORGE LUCAS. Just when I thought I was out, he pulls me back in.

Not that I could have resisted his will (Jedi mind trick? Hmm.) for long. After all, I’m about to complete a 28-year affair with the “Star Wars” saga. That surpasses the longevity of virtually any other relationship I’ve been able to maintain with a non-family member, and most friends don’t disappoint me as frequently as Lucas has.

I was 14 when “Star Wars” premiered in 1977, but the film hit my radar months before. That’s because some kid who had a father that worked at 20th Century Fox handed me the one-sheet because he didn’t appreciate science-fiction. It’s in a frame now and would probably fetch around $600 on eBay.

As it did a lot of pimply faced teenagers, the original rocked my world. I saw it at least six times in the theater that summer, until John Williams’ theme spilled out of my ears. I distinctly remember waiting in an absurdly long line at Westwood’s Avco theater, listening to some geek wax eloquent about the number of special effects shots in the film vs. “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

When “The Empire Strikes Back” came out three years later, I was a high school senior and couldn’t see it that first night because I had a couple of tests the next day. No big deal, I figured, until some moron came up and said, “So did you guess that Darth Vader was Luke’s father?” There’s a special place in hell reserved for him, right next to the idiot who blew “The Sixth Sense” for me.

By 1983, I was entertainment editor of UCLA’s Daily Bruin, which enabled me to attend an advance screening of (and to review) “Return of the Jedi,” eliminating the Sophie’s choice of risking another spoiler or braving opening-night crowds. After “Empire,” “Jedi” struck me as anticlimactic (Darth Vader becomes good? The cool bounty hunter dies in a fluky fight? Say it isn’t so.), but I understood the impulse to strive for a feel-good finale.

SIXTEEN YEARS PASSED before the next trilogy, the kind of prolonged tease our prequel and sequel-saturated media seldom allows anymore. In the interim, friends weaned their kids on the tapes, creating a new generation of Ewok-sized junkies, such as my friend’s then-3-year-old daughter, who clamored to watch “Stah Wahs.”

Although I shared in the frustration that generally greeted “Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” unlike many fans I was willing to cut Lucas slack, imagining that the director needed to establish a foundation for the magic to come.

“Episode II — Attack of the Clones” dispensed with that notion, as Lucas’ ability to wring confounding line readings from otherwise talented actors — combined with the script’s fascination with arcane talk of tariffs and politics — made me want to snap my toy lightsaber. Thankfully, Lucas had the good sense to allow Cartoon Network to produce the animated “Clone Wars” shorts, which return next week and do considerably more to fulfill the saga’s promise than do those latest episodes.

Yet after the trailer for “Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” played on “The OC” and Lucas’ puffball interview with Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes,” damned if I’m not getting excited again, figuring this installment’s darkness quotient must render it vastly superior to its predecessors. At least, that’s my new hope.

SO LUCAS CAN POOH-POOH critics all he wants — as he did to Stahl — and vow to take the franchise to the grave with him, which seems like a waste, but whatever. Personally, I’m just glad to bring closure to something that’s been with me since I was a beardless boy.

Perhaps that’s why as the publicity drumbeat grows louder, I have a bad feeling that many of those grumbling will forget the past, as if someone waved a hand and said, “You don’t need to question Hayden Christensen’s performance.” At that point “Star Wars” acolytes will fall into lockstep like a mindless droid army, or Disney’s board of directors.

Sociologists contrive explanations for such things, but it’s as simple as a basic yearning to have something, however imperfect and inconsequential, that actually does bind us together. At the risk of sounding like a nerd, I can only attribute the surrender to the fact the payoff has been a long time coming, and that in this case, the Force is stronger than I am.

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