5-25-77 Blu-ray Review: A Long Time Ago in a Town Far, Far Away

For sci-fi starved ‘70s youth, the arrival of Star Wars was a watershed moment forever etched in our collective memories. Writer/director Patrick Read Johnson’s largely autobiographical tale recounts the events in his high school life in the year leading up to the monumental film release, making the theatrical debut very much the destination of his narrative, not the jumping off point. The true start is the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, setting Johnson’s boyhood mind afire as he spends the intervening years devouring all things sci-fi, including Planet of the Apes movies, Space: 1999, Silent Running, and Jaws.

John Francis Daley stars as Pat Johnson, a sci-fi obsessed teen stuck in small town Illinois. He spends his free time shooting elaborate 8mm home movies in his backyard and dreams of Hollywood success. When his mom arranges for him to make his dream trip to LA in the hopes of meeting visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull, he also stumbles into an impromptu encounter with young Steven Spielberg, gets a tour of ILM’s vehicle models for the in-production Star Wars, and views a rough cut of the film months before its theatrical release. In short, his young mind is completely blown as he returns to Illinois to finish out his high school career and count down the days until the release of Star Wars.

The film was shot on a shoestring budget, and it shows, with wildly inconsistent film stocks, shoddy compositing, and poorly mastered sound. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it ties nicely into Johnson’s backyard studio roots and drives home the hand-crafted nature of the film. Johnson giddily incorporates lousy models for effects shots, constructs dizzying montage sequences stuffed with fascinating imagery, and always maintains a sweet-hearted feel that keeps us rooting for his Hollywood dream. 

The biggest misstep is the inclusion of a dreary love story that brings the film’s momentum to a halt whenever it occurs. It’s understandable that high school romance was very much a factor in Johnson’s adolescent interests, but the actress is fairly weak and the storyline does nothing to elevate the overall theme of the film.

The film was shot in 2004 but is only now getting a commercial release, surely setting some sort of record for time in the can, as well as demonstrating the persistence of its creator. The cast is largely unknowns, with the principal exception of star John Francis Daley, who first gained fame as a child actor on Freaks and Geeks. If you’re familiar with him from that show, or from his later years as an adult on Bones, his appearance as a young adult here in between those two eras is fairly jolting, especially considering that this movie is being marketed as a “new” release with a 2022 copyright date.

The principal bonus feature is a nearly hour-long Q&A with Johnson recorded after a screening of a cut of the film at the 2013 Fantasia Film Festival. He proves to be an earnest if somewhat manic presence, something like an extra-caffeinated Kevin Smith. He recounts the long path of the film’s production and post-production, which was at that time only the halfway point to its present-day release. Johnson also provides a commentary track for the film. Bonus features are rounded out with a theatrical trailer and photo galleries. The end credits of the film also contain a wealth of behind-the-scenes photos, driving home just how much fun the cast and crew had crafting this passion project on its long, winding road to final release.

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Steve Geise

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