When you see all 7 'Star Wars' films in one sitting, the 'Force Awakens' big time

My love for "Star Wars" has been going on for 38 years, 6 months and 22 days.

That's measured from May 25, 1977, when I attended the premiere of the first film at Hollywood's (then) Grauman's Chinese Theatre to Dec. 17, 2015, when I was in the audience on opening night for the newest film in the series, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

In May 1977, "Star Wars" wasn't a big deal. Yet.

I was 23, and in my first six months of a job writing for a record industry trade magazine. My invite was just one of many I received for concerts, films, press conferences and other media events. But as a long-time sci-fi fan, this "Star Wars" thing appealed to my inner fanboy.

From the film's opening moments, I was hooked.

The explosion of John Williams' "Star Wars" theme as the title announced itself in bold fashion, in sync with the now-familiar yellow letters on a black, starry-night background, the scrolling of the text telling the back story, movie serial-style, and then the imposing-looking spacecraft hurtling forward in the first scene, followed by the utterly awe-inspiring shot from under the Imperial cruiser in hot pursuit. We'd never seen the underside of a spaceship before, had we?

At the end, I remember the audience's unrestrained cheering. Then Darth Vader himself appeared, walking through the theater. It was Hollywood, after all.

FULL COVERAGE: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

And I was all in.

So of course I had to catch "The Force Awakens" on its opening night, as I have done with every other "Star Wars" film since 1977.

When I receive an email from AMC theaters announcing their plan to show all six previous films in a marathon leading up to the Thursday premiere of "The Force Awakens," I decide that sounds like fun.

I was never a "Star Wars" obsessive. I didn't go to conventions or dress like any of the characters (apart from the one time I rented a Vader costume to make an appearance at my son's "Star Wars"-themed birthday party). I just loved the stories and characters George Lucas dreamed up, and the way Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness, James Earl Jones and all members of the extended cast brought them to vivid life.

And then there's this: I will fess up to naming my first child Alec in large part because of Alec Guinness, and my second son Harrison, both for Harrison Ford and, because of my love for all things Beatles, specifically George Harrison.

But after I decide to throw in with the marathon and go the whole nine yards, , I discover nearly every AMC theater in Southern California is sold out. Two tickets remain, however, for the screening in Orange, near my old house in Santa Ana, and not far from where my son Alec, now 23, lives in Anaheim.

And so, as we've done for all the "Star Wars" film since he was 7 — when "Episode I — The Phantom Menace" introduced the prequel trilogy to him and another new generation of fans — Alec and I set out to join another "Star Wars" opening-night audience.

Like many other adults and fans of the original trilogy, I was disappointed with some of what Lucas gave us in "The Phantom Menace," and yes, I'm referring to Jar Jar Binks. But my then-7-year-old son loved everything about it, and he was smack dab in the middle of the target audience Lucas talked about wanting to reach with the new film.

I hope midafternoon on Wednesday is sufficient for us to scout out good seats. In previous years, especially in the 1980s, fans camped out for days, sometimes a week or more in line. I don't recall waiting more than overnight at one of the premieres, but we did spend a cold night or two over the years in anticipation.

When we arrive, I'm delighted to find only a couple dozen people already there, so we stake out a couple of seats in the middle of the theater where we will spend the next 30 or so hours, the first 11 hours just waiting for the marathon to begin.

The communal and generations aspect of the "Star Wars" fan base comes through when the bearded guy seated in front of us yells to a white-haired woman reading a book several seats away from him, "Grandma! Mom and the others will be here in 90 minutes to take over!"

During the long wait, others compare lightsabers, and several who've come in costume pose for selfies at the front of the theater. I send out tweet dispatches under the hashtag #RandyAwakens.

Lightsabers were one element of "Star Wars" I indulged in for my two boys over the years. After starting out with the relatively cheap ($30-ish as I recall) telescoping plastic versions that were big in the '80s, I got them Master Replica editions: Darth Vader's red saber for Alec, Luke Skywalker's blue saber for Harrison. We still have them.

Things work on the honor system during the marathon. We're allowed to leave jackets on seats and exit the theater long enough to get food.

My favorite group of fans at the theater is the quintet who outfitted itself in the infamous Princess Leia bikini from "Episode VI — Return of the Jedi." All men.

One sobering difference I note at this marathon versus all the other "Star Wars" premieres I've attended: This time there are armed security guards patrolling the lobby and the theaters. A sad commentary on what's transpired of late.

At 9 p.m., Alec says he needs coffee, yet resists his father's attempt to bring him to the dark roast side.

He returns from the lobby with a ginormous 44-ounce "Star Wars" beverage cup filled with vanilla Coke. It's the first time in history I agree that the unlimited refill cup is the smart way to go.

"There goes another Princess Leia," I point out, as a woman in a white gown and honey-bun hairstyle walks by.

"Yeah," he replies. "I saw three in the lobby eating popcorn."

One woman appoints herself keeper of the countdown, and every hour, on the hour, announces the time remaining before the films get underway. "Only two more hours!" she shouts at 11 p.m., her enthusiasm undiminished.

The theater is far from filled yet, so many fans stretch out over three or four seats and sleep.

At about 12:30 a.m., a theater employee addresses the crowd and tells us how things will work. There will be no previews: "just the 'Star Wars' films for the first six," eliciting a hearty cheer.

Finally, at 1 a.m. the first of a successive chorus of increasingly boisterous cheers go up as the lights dim and the familiar 20th Century Fox logo and theme music kicks in.

We're underway. Here are some highlights of revisiting the films I've seen countless times over the last 38 years, as well as some non-spoiler reactions to the newest entry in the "Star Wars" franchise.

3:15: a.m. "Phantom Menace" concludes. The good? Villains Palpatine and Darth Maul, plus John Williams' great musical theme for the "Duel of the Fates" between Maul, Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and young Obi-Wan Kenobi. The bad? Time hasn't helped the stilted script, Lucas' CGI-tis or the character of Jar Jar.

5:45 a.m. "Attack of the Clones" is over. Is the wedding of Anakin Skywalker to Queen Amidala legal if it's only witnessed by two droids?

9 a.m. A 90-minute breakfast break. We leave the theater, head to Denny's with a raft of other marathon-goers — obvious by the lanyards swinging from their necks. Over bacon and eggs, I ponder my renewed appreciation for the big questions "Star Wars" raises: Is the dark side really strong? Does Vitamin Water cancel out hot dogs? I also realize that Episode 1 could have been worse: Instead of hinging on a dispute over taxation by the Trade Federation, at least Lucas didn't build a galactic battle over zoning infractions.

If Jedi Masters like Yoda and Qui-Gon Jinn can sense tremors in the Force across half the galaxy, why does it take them 2 3/4 films to figure out that Palpatine is a bad guy? And there, in the often-cliched scripts of Episodes 1-3, is one gem of an observation by now-Sen. Amidala as she watches the Old Republic degenerate into a dictatorship: "So this is how liberty dies — to thunderous applause."

10:15 a.m.: Now we're getting to the good stuff. The original trilogy begins with "Episode IV — A New Hope." The biggest audience ovations yet are during the first film's opening credits. The cheering continues with each on-screen arrival of the now-iconic main characters.

2 p.m.: "Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back" is underway. Hour 13 into the marathon. "Star Wars" wall hitting I am.

3 p.m: Following "Empire," I check the lobby for the merch booth set up with special marathon and premiere T-shirts, ball caps and other trinkets. I see a line down a hallway with people lined up since 8 in the morning for the 7 p.m. premiere in another theater for "The Force Awakens." All I can think is: Lightweights.

5:30 p.m.: Dinner break after "Return of the Jedi." Craving salad or veggies. Anything not served on a bun. Also wondering after Palpatine's showdown with Luke and Darth Vader: How did he maintain his iron grip over the entire galaxy with such slouch posture?

7 p.m. "The Force Awakens." Fans are beside themselves. A huge cheer goes out when the "Star Wars" title shows. There's a pumped reaction to every familiar character and reference — and there are many — to the original franchise in the new film. "I had chills the whole time," a guy in the row behind me says after the closing credits roll. This audience loved it. For me, without giving anything away, I was delighted with the return of the energy and spirit of the original films, and the tangible quality J.J. Abrams brings to this one in the era of CGI special effects.

9:45 p.m.: We did it. Seven movies, something like 16 hours of film, 30 hours in the theater. Now we are that much wiser in the ways of the Force. And Alec and I can't wait to see it again.

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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