Book Review: Mark O’Connell’s “Watching Skies” Celebrates the Blockbuster Generation

Book Review: Mark O’Connell’s “Watching Skies” Celebrates the Blockbuster Generation

Mark O’Connell and I both belong to a small, strange little generation. We were born about six weeks apart in 1975, at the bottom of a demographic dip as gen X tailed out and millennials’ parents were just finishing their drinks. Our micro-generation hasn’t really been properly defined. I suggested “disco babies” as a name for us, and now O’Connell has nominated another moniker: “sky kids.”

In O’Connell’s new book Watching Skies, he suggests that our generation is defined, in pop-culture terms, as the first crew of kids to grow up not knowing a world without Star Wars. Or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Jaws. We were a little too young to catch The Empire Strikes Back in theaters, but the arrival of Return of the Jedi was a wildly-anticipated event. We were exactly the right age to be piqued when our parents refused to let us see Gremlins, which was marketed straight to kids despite being…yeah, probably not appropriate for an eight-year-old.

To our generation those movies were larger than life, blazing with energy and effects. For younger generations, they were just part of the furniture — while for many older film fans, they marked the end of a golden era in Hollywood, not its beginning. With Jaws (1975), the conventional wisdom among cinéastes went, a blockbuster mentality began to shove smaller, more personal movies out of the international conversation. Products of the independent-minded early ’70s film scene, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would be the architects of its demise.

Too bad, so sad. Four decades on, E.T. and Ghostbusters still look like masterpieces, ideals to which 21st century fantasy films aspire. O’Connell even goes to bat for Richard Donner’s Superman, and Roger Moore in Octopussy. (His 2012 book Catching Bullets was subtitled Memoirs of a Bond Fan.)

Identifying the first decade of the modern blockbuster as the “watching skies” era (a reference to a Close Encounters working title), O’Connell sets out to recapture the way it felt to grow up in the years when fantasy films following the new rulebook, written by Spielberg and Lucas, were pop-culture colossi. The enticing posters, the tantalizing promise of VHS video on demand, the oddly-proportioned action figures…O’Connell remembers it all like it was yesterday.

While O’Connell touches on those universals, every “sky kid” was also an individual, and some aspects of the author’s experience distinguish him from the stereotypical ’80s kid consumer of storybooks-on-cassette and Darth Vader carrying cases. For starters, he’s British. Despite the fact that many of the era’s most epic films were largely filmed in the U.K., their American orientation gave them a further remove into the realm of wonder for a boy growing up in England.

Early in Watching Skies, O’Connell rattles off a list of features that appeared to him as landmarks of our vast country across the pond. “Station wagons, yellow school buses, cop cars, neon Coca-Cola signs, Cape Cod beach fences, protest marches on DC, newspaper stands, spinning wind pumps, the leaves of fall lapping white picket fences, lemonade stands, surfboards, top loading washing machines, baseball gloves, groceries in brown paper bags, piles of mash potato, mailboxes on poles, railroad crossings and all-night diners.”

As an adult, O’Connell made pilgrimages to Hollywood, and to Martha’s Vineyard — the filming location of Jaws, a movie the author particularly reveres despite the fact that it has more to do with seas than skies. O’Connell visited on his honeymoon, having been half of the first same-sex couple ever to be married at Pinewood Studios, the British facility where films including Superman, Alien, and numerous Bond titles were made.

As a straight guy, I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that a gay boy would find such rapture in a largely heteronormative canon, but O’Connell’s imagination romped delightedly through Reagan-era pop culture. Passages like his Masters of the Universe discussion are among the book’s highlights.

[My friend] had the fold-out Castle Greyskull, a “power punching” He-Man, Skeletor, Battle Cat, Man-at-Arms, Trap Jaw, Savage Cat complete with purple felt fur effect, Orko, Beast Man and Zoar the bird with flapping wings mechanism. Naturally I was utterly envious and reciprocated by haggling my mom into buying me a He-Man and Skeletor of my own — when the truth was that I was not totally into the chest-harness-wearing gym bunny with the iffy pageboy do that was He-Man. I wanted a Sorceress figurine with her amazing feathered sleeves, or an Evil Lyn complete with her bitchy, evil skull cap costume. Though I was never a fan of She-Ra: Princess of Power — the Masters of the Universe’s later side project for girls and queeny boys. She was always too needy — like the high school princess who was just a bit too popular. Although, as distractions go, her trusty tache-wearing and highly closeted archer pal Bow was a buff revelation.

There’s a lot to like, even to love, about Watching Skies. Unfortunately, the overlong book needed a much stronger editorial hand than it seems to have received.

Watching Skies is organized into chapters centering on particular films or franchises, mostly chronologically; O’Connell describes the movies’ merits and shares stories from his life. At least with respect to these titles, though, he’s less a critic than an enthusiast, and even the most ardent of fellow fans may not need this much unadulterated gushing about, say, the “beyond iconic” Jaws score. The Star Wars prequels and sequels, movies made long after the Watching Skies years, should have been given mentions in an epilogue, not full-fledged chapters.

The organization also dilutes O’Connell’s ideas; if topics like the British perspective, home video technology, O’Connell’s queer experience, and toys each had their own chapter, the author could explore them in a more focused way.

That said, there’s a lot here that will resonate with “sky kids,” and even those who aren’t. The Spielberg-Lucas decade may have been marked by rampant commercial culture, but it was our commercial culture, damn it! O’Connell embraces the movies’ messages of hope and humanism, and convincingly argues that we’re better because of these blockbusters.

O’Connell opens the Force Awakens chapter with a touching letter to his own childhood self. “You will watch the trailer on a phone on a train with your husband,” he writes. “Each part of that whole last sentence will make a hell of a lot more sense one day.”

– Jay Gabler