Watching Skies: Star Wars, Spielberg and Us – Book Review

Were you a child of the 70’s or 80’s? If so, the chances are you grew up with men like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas in your lives with almost the potency of your own parents. Watching Skies: Star Wars, Spielberg and Us, from author Mark O’Connell, serves as a love letter to a youth driven by a new kind of cinema: the blockbuster.  

O’Connell came to prominence thanks to his first book, Catching Bullets, which captured his youthful, teenage into adulthood obsession with the James Bond franchise thanks in no small part to his personal connection to the material – his grandfather who acted as chauffeur to the man behind the movies for decades. Watching Skies doesn’t quite have that same connective tissue but it certainly has the personal angle; O’Connell discusses a range of pictures which define cinematic Americana from Jaws all the way through to roughly Ghostbusters through the lens, and eyes, of his pre-teen self discovering cinema and the wonders of storytelling through these transformative, and landscape transforming, pictures.

It is easy to forget how much cinema changed at the tail end of the 70’s into the 80’s, with the New Hollywood wave of creatives divorced from the aged studio system themselves helping to, if unexpectedly, bear populist, franchise-baiting cinematic experiences; Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, all of them bursting from a 70’s which had suffered a shattering blow to the ideals of the American Dream thanks to traumas such as Watergate and Vietnam, plus a downturning economy. O’Connell neatly draws these conclusions in his analysis – reminding us just how much Spielberg, George Lucas, Richard Donner and a whole host of new auteurs brought hope, joy and especially toys back into the arms of a post-Baby Boomer youth.

Watching Skies emerges as much more than a dry text revising facts, figures and analyses by virtue of how O’Connell manages to retain these explorations into the cultural and political tides behind these pictures—always with a hugely readable style and flourish to his prose—while wrapping them up inside personal recollections, childhood experiences and an underlying, almost character-journey for his childhood self, exploring these cinematic treats while riding the wave of parents separating, moving across the country to start a new life, emerging realisations about sexuality and the childhood difficulty as an only child (to which I can relate) in finding your place in the world. For O’Connell, it was these movies and gleeful childhood experiences which helped shape who he is today.

All in all, Watching Skies is a book full of joy, admiration and respect. It manages to both be an insightful, fascinating analysis of one of the most interesting points in American cinema and culture of the 20th century while at the same time feeling at times almost like a personalised diary, a stroll through the life and memories of a burgeoning cinephile and geek. For anyone who grew up in this era, with all its unique quirks (particularly as a Brit) and trends, Watching Skies will feel like you’ve been transported back to the era of Spandau Ballet, the Test Card Girl shutting you down at night, and E.T phoning home. Embrace it.

Watching Skies: Star Wars, Spielberg and Us, is now available from The History Press.

Don’t miss our exclusive interview with Mark O’Connell in Episode 15 of our podcast, STT Rewind, discussing his book.

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