Affection for “Star Wars” runs deep within the Brown clan, of Marrero.
Jason Brown Sr. has attended Saints games as “Saint Boba Fett,” a black-and-gold version of the famed bounty hunter from the original “Star Wars” trilogy. He has passed along his allegiance to his 10-year-old son Jason Jr. The extended family has made multiple pilgrimages to “Star Wars” weekend at Disney World.
And so there was no question about where they would spend the 24 hours leading up to Thursday’s opening of “The Force Awakens,” director J.J. Abrams’ hotly anticipated sequel in the much-beloved franchise: at the AMC Elmwood Palace 20 in Harahan for an all-night, all-day marathon of the first six “Star Wars” movies, topped off by the new one.
The Brown contingent camped out in the fourth row at Elmwood’s Screen 6. Jason Jr. nodded off in the wee hours during “The Phantom Menace,” arguably the least-respected chapter in the “Star Wars” saga.
“If you could sleep through one, that’s the one,” his dad said. “He did well. He made it through the good ones.”
As of Thursday, the vast constellation of “Star Wars” fans in New Orleans and beyond finally got to see if “The Force Awakens” is another good one.
Spoiler alert: It is.
George Lucas’ original “Star Wars,” released to modest expectations in 1977, mushroomed into a global cultural phenomenon of good-versus-evil modern mythology. Two sequels, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi,” further solidified the franchise’s prominence in the pop-cultural firmament.
Lucas directed three prequels between 1999 and 2005 — “The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith .” They made money but did not resonate with fans as the first three had.
In 2012, Disney purchased Lucas’ company Lucasfilm for $4 billion — that’s billion, with a B — and announced plans for a new “Star Wars” trifecta.
The first installment, “The Force Awakens,” takes place 30 years after “Return of the Jedi.” Abrams, whose credits include the latest “Star Trek” and “Mission Impossible” movies, was assigned the monumental task of reviving the “Star Wars” brand.
He and his team toiled under the weight of enormous commercial and creative expectations. They reportedly spent about $200 million making “The Force Awakens” — not a bad investment, if projections of $1 billion in ticket sales are met.
Friday was the official opening day. But studios often let theaters screen major movies a night early, in part to pad first-weekend box office tallies. Disney mandated a 7 p.m. start time Thursday for “The Force Awakens.” Local theaters altered their schedules accordingly, to satisfy fans’ demand for instant gratification.
The single-screen Prytania Theatre, New Orleans’ oldest active movie house, sold out all 265 seats for its 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. screenings Thursday. The theater added another at 1 a.m. “for people who couldn’t make the earlier shows but needed to see it” opening night, general manager Eric Ramstead said. “We’re pretty much around the clock, with enough time to clean out the theater.”
At 35, Ramstead wasn’t born when the first “Star Wars” premiered in 1977.
“The Force Awakens” is “the biggest opening in my lifetime,” he said. “People don’t seem to get as excited about movies these days. It’s nice to see them excited.”
On Thursday, the Prytania hosted a detachment of Stormtroopers from the 501st Legion, the self-described “world’s definitive Imperial costuming organization.” Members don meticulous facsimiles of the bad guys’ uniforms for charitable and other events.
The Prytania reserved 40 tickets for the 501st Legion, so at least 15 percent of the audience consisted of villains.
Downtown, the Theatres at Canal Place welcomed the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, a Carnival marching organization named for Chewbacca the Wookiee and Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.
However, film fantasy must still account for security reality. AMC Theatres, the nation’s second-largest chain, issued an advisory prohibiting masks, face paint, weapons and “items that would make other guests feel uncomfortable or detract from the moviegoing experience. So put on your costume, bring your lightsaber, turn it off during the movie, and leave the blaster, face paint and Darth Vader mask at home.”
At Elmwood, character sightings included a brown-robed Jawa in the ticket line. One Kylo Ren — the new movie’s villain — stood at a men’s room urinal while another bought popcorn at the concession stand. Neither wore masks. “It’s not the same,” the men’s room Kylo said with a shrug, “but I do feel safer.”
Most, but not all, early screenings sold out in advance. Blocks of seats for Elmwood’s 3-D screening at 7 p.m. remained empty. Just as some Beatles fans prefer mono to stereo mixes, some “Star Wars” fans favor the old-fashioned two dimensions.
All 200 tickets for the all-night marathon at Elmwood’s Screen 6 were snapped up, at $65 apiece. Demographics skewed toward fans old enough to have experienced the first “Star Wars” as kids in theaters. Some brought pillows and blankets.
A woman who gave only her first name, Aly, accompanied her husband for his birthday. “I made it through three movies, and then I was out of there,” she said as she filed back into the theater for “The Force Awakens.” “I came back to humor him.”
By contrast, April Robinson and her compatriots toughed out the entire marathon. By seeing all the movies back to back, “you get a sense of the whole epic. It makes it more of an experience,” she said.
A camaraderie gradually developed at Screen 6, with plenty of inside jokes. “It took a while,” Robinson said between bites of a chicken sandwich smuggled in, Han Solo-style, by a fellow attendee. “It’s been pretty low-key. After the first couple movies, people started to realize we were in it for the long haul: ‘OK, we’ve only got four more movies to go!’ ”
At Screen 20, the lights dimmed for the house rules: No cellphones. No talking. “And don’t pull out your lightsaber,” someone adlibbed.
Finally, “The Force Awakens” opened. The introductory text scrolled off into space, instantly transporting attendees to a galaxy far, far away. The audience reacted happily whenever a familiar face, robot or spaceship appeared: Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. R2-D2 and C-3PO. Even the fishlike cult hero Admiral Ackbar, described recently in Rolling Stone as resembling “something you’d find at a raw bar.”
New heroes — Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe — squared off against Adam Driver’s evil Kylo Ren.
With its deserts and dogfights, bizarre bar bands and secret missions, “The Force Awakens” is first-rate escapism rife with references to the original “Star Wars.”
After two hours and 16 minutes, “Force” concluded with a tidy hand-off to its sequel, followed by a sustained round of applause.
Stephen Pomes took two days off from his job as a librarian to attend, and then recover from, the marathon. Growing up, he “wasn’t the type of person who collected the figurines,” he said. But seeing the original “Star Wars” at Oakwood Mall at age 12 left a deep impression.
His verdict on “The Force Awakens”? “Mythic, just like the other films.”
In short, this was no “Phantom Menace.”
A pivotal, dramatic plot twist proved especially traumatic for some.
One man exiting the marathon announced to no one in particular, “It was just a big part of your life, run through with a lightsaber. No big deal.”
Then he added, “I haven’t cried like that since ‘Braveheart.’ ”
A Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputy directed new arrivals headed to the later Elmwood screenings. Veterans of the first showings gazed upon them with newfound wisdom. “They don’t know what they’re about to experience,” one said. “It’s so intense.”
In the hallway outside Screen 6, the last, weary marathon stragglers encountered a couple returning from the bathroom.
“Is it over over?” the couple asked.
“Nothing after the credits?”
A hint of relief, mixed with disappointment. For some fans, 20 hours of “Star Wars” still wasn’t enough.