Seeing ‘Star Wars’ in theaters; a saga that began ‘a long time ago’ in Southern Utah

ST. GEORGE — A long time ago in Southern Utah — May 25, 1977, to be exact —  going to the movies was a different experience. Those clamoring to see a new movie called “Star Wars” had to flock to either The Electric Theater on Tabernacle Street in St. George or to the Hyland Drive-In in Cedar City. 

And that was only if the one screen at each theater happened to be showing the sci-fi epic. 

A 42-year hyperspace leap later, and theaters throughout Southern Utah were filled for the release of the ninth episode of what is being called the last movie of the Skywalker saga, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” on Friday. 

Something immediately apparent at the theater was the different generations walking in together.

James Brunton’s family of three generations was indicative of those arriving at the Megaplex Theaters at Sunset in St. George, which in 1977 was the site of the Starlite Drive-In. Brunton had his two twin sons, Lionel and Liam, in tow, as well as his parents.  

Connor Malcolm as Poe Dameron and Marty the tie-fighter pilot of the Utah-based Alpine Garrison of the 501st Legion greet moviegoers at the Sunset Megaplex in St. George on December 20, 2019. The fan costuming group, which does charity work throughout Southern Utah, said it had costumed members stationed at theaters in St. George, Hurricane and Cedar City Friday to entertain patrons. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

He remembers watching the previous movies with his parents and enjoying the sequels with his kids. 

“That’s why I’m bringing them,” Brunton said, as his son Liam gave him an appreciative hug.

“Rise of Skywalker” is the culmination of the third trilogy of Star Wars films, featuring a final stand for the last Jedi Rey and her resistance of former stormtrooper Finn and hotshot pilot Poe Dameron against the dark side of First Order Supreme Leader Kylo Ren. It also includes a last hurrah for previous trilogy favorites including Chewbacca, Princess Leia, Lando Calrissian and C-3PO, and the resurrection of Emperor Palpatine.

But despite the dozens of screens showing the movie throughout Southern Utah Friday, trying to see the movie proved to be harder than getting two proton torpedos through a 2-meter-wide exhaust port. 

According to Atom Movies, just about every screening at Sunset and Megaplex Theaters Pineview in St. George, Coral Cliffs Cinema 8 in Hurricane, Megaplex Theaters in Mesquite, Nevada and Megaplex Theaters in Cedar City was sold out Friday. There was just a smattering of single seats near the front left available. Many of the Friday screenings were just about sold out two months ago when advance tickets went on sale. 

Some people, like Michelle Hepworth, came to the theater at Sunset looking to get tickets, only to have to pick another day. The best she could do was Dec. 24, but that doesn’t mean she went away disappointed. 

The lobby of the Sunset Megaplex Theater in St. George, Utah on December 20, 2019. “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” opened in theaters Friday to packed houses throughout Southern Utah. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“It’s a great Christmas present and I have kids coming,” Hepworth said, adding that she grew up on Star Wars, and so did her kids. “I loved Princess Leia and her round hair that looked like cinnamon buns.”

Katrina Smith, assistant manager of the Sunset Megaplex, said while this year has seen its share of major movies, from Avengers Endgame to Frozen II, Star Wars is different. A self-professed Star Wars fan herself, her family Christmas card this year is Star Wars-themed. She remembers seeing the first movie at the long-gone Dixie Theater on Main Street in St. George, which is now an art exhibit and ballroom next to the TwentyFive Main restaurant. 

“It hits all ages. This is pretty big,” Smith said.

Smith said that Frozen II actually sold out of day-of tickets faster. She attributed that to many older moviegoers being wary of big crowds and waiting to see Star Wars later as opposed to the mostly kids demographic of the animated movie.

Expectations may not necessarily be sky high as the reaction to “Rise of Skywalker” by critics can best be described, pun-intended, as “Luke-warm.” The movie has a slightly rotten 58% overall good rating on the aggregate movie reviews website, Rotten Tomatoes

This image released by Disney/Lucasfilm shows John Boyega as Finn in a scene from “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” | Photo by Associated Press, St. George News

But Star Wars movies are relatively movie critic-proof, and the critics may not always reflect the views of the audience. The previous movie in the series, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” still stands at 91% among critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but has a 43% rating among audience reviews. And even while unpopular among critics, audiences thus far have given “Rise of Skywalker” an 86% audience rating. 

Renee Gilmore, who was going to see the film at the Sunset theater, was not going to let the critics keep her away. She and her husband changed their normal movie-going day from Tuesday to Friday because they were so eager to see the film. 

“Sometimes when they say you won’t like it, we like it,” Gilmore said. “You can’t judge a movie on one person’s opinion because everyone has different tastes and likes.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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