Friday, November 16, 2012

"Star Wars Episode VII: The Cosmetically Altered Menace"

She's fast enough for you, old man.
We've all had a couple of weeks to digest the Big News: George Lucas sold his company, Lucasfilm Ltd, to Disney for $4.05 billion. What did they buy for all that money? Only the biggest movie franchise of all time, and the rights to extend that franchise. In half a hummingbird's heartbeat, Disney announced its plans for a new trilogy of "Star Wars" films, starting with Episode VII, which will follow the events of Return of the Jedi in the chronology of the Galaxy Far Far Away.

After the dismal non-entertainment of the prequels, one might reasonably wonder why anyone would care about any more "Star Wars" movies. But Disney has made a few smart moves to gradually ease all us kids of the '70s, myself very much included, back from "lock that sumbitch up, I never want to see him again" to "he didn't mean to, he's a good man, I brought bail money!"

First and foremost, George Lucas is not writing or directing or even producing the movies -- he's been consigned to ceremonial "creative consultant" status, which probably means the folks who just bought the keys to the Millennium Falcon will ask him what he would do, and then do the opposite. Because how could any set of movies be any worse directed than the prequels? It's not a shock that Jake Lloyd (child Anakin) and Hayden Christensen (surly teenage Anakin) were terrible, as they were both unknown, but George Lucas got stultifying, awful, unwatchable performances from the normally reliable likes of Natalie Portman, Ewan Macgregor, and Liam Neeson. (There are many theories about how exactly he accomplished that, and here, in video form, is mine:)

A second source of excitement among the faithful:  it's been hinted that the key characters of the original trilogy -- Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia -- will return in the new one, and original stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and even Harrison Ford have indicated interest in participating. Hamill and Fisher are no surprise, of course. While neither of them is exactly starving -- Hamill has had a successful career as a voice actor for comic-book cartoons, and Fisher is a celebrated author coming off a sold-out Broadway run of her autobiographical one-woman show -- neither has come anywhere near the heights of success or visibility they enjoyed as the faces of the biggest movie franchise of all time. Harrison Ford is more surprising, because while the "Star Wars" movies represented the apex of Hamill and Fisher's careers, for Ford it was only the beginning of one of the biggest leading-man runs of the last 30 years, and not a particularly pleasant beginning. He's been pretty tight-lipped about his time as Han Solo, and it's no big secret that that's because he had a couple of small issues with the experience, including hating the script, hating the concept, hating being in a "children's movie," hating shooting in the snow, hating the robots, hating Chewbacca, hating the Ewoks, and of course hating the director. ("You can type this shit," Ford famously told Lucas on set, "but you sure as hell can't say it.") It's a measure of how far his career has fallen (that awful fourth Indiana Jones movie had to be particularly dispiriting, considering it made Morning Glory and Hollywood Homicide look like recent successes by comparison) that he's publicly said he's open to returning to the role that made him famous. 
Seven years, two facelifts, and 180 (collective) pounds ago
All of this is very exciting, right? Not just new "Star Wars" movies, but "Star Wars" movies with the original cast reprising their roles, 35 years after the first movie? The nerds certainly are excited: the huge Internet community devoted to picking over every last detail of casting, production design, concept art, budgets, and catering choices pretty much sprang up in the excitement over the announcement of the prequels 15 years ago. Back then there were only a couple of these sites, Ain't It Cool News being the most famous and most informative. It's interesting to see how that particular subsegment of the Internet has changed in such a short time: Ain't It Cool hasn't broken anything interesting in years, and has lost every bit of its relevance and then some, while a whole legion of imitators that's grown up around it is thriving and has already published approximately 4.7 trillion stories speculating about every last detail of these new movies. Will they bring Darth Vader back from the dead? (It is science fiction, after all.) Will Quentin Tarantino direct a "Star Wars" movie? (No he will not, and is there anyone who'd seriously want him to?) And, will the original cast reprise their roles? I don't see how you can go forward with a story in the "Star Wars" universe that doesn't in some way involve Luke, Han, and Leia. (Even going forward without Darth Vader is a stretch.) The six-film saga of the original trilogy and the prequels was about the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, set against a galactic civil war. Both stories came to totally satisfying ends in the last 15 minutes of Return of the Jedi. So if you don't have Anakin Skywalker and you don't have the Empire, what makes "Episode VII" a "Star Wars" movie, if not some kind of continuity with familiar characters? There's a whole industry built around post-Jedi fan fiction, but all of it revolves around the Big Three and/or their offspring.
Almost, but not quite sadder.
Having said all that, I think bringing back the original cast would be a colossal mistake. Have you seen them lately? Mark Hamill looks like he's been sleeping under a car, Carrie Fisher looks (as she herself is fond of saying) like Elton John, and Harrison Ford, who's held up the best of all of them, looks like a confused grandpa (despite the best efforts of his tiny gold earring). Could there possibly be anything sadder than 70-year-old Harrison Ford staggering around in the white shirt and black vest? Does anyone want to see present-day Carrie Fisher kiss present-day Harrison Ford? Could anything be harder to watch than current Mark Hamill waving a lightsaber? When I'm watching a "Star Wars" movie, shouldn't whether or not bad facelifts are a thing in the Galaxy Far Far Away be the furthest thing from my mind?
"Welcome to the La Brea Men's Shelter! My name's Mark."
Must... resist... Jabba the Hutt joke...
To me, that last one is the real dealbreaker. I guess you could write this thing so that Luke and Han Solo are like elder statesmen passing the torch to young Jedi Master Prince Lazer Solo-Skywalker or whatever -- keep them behind a desk or a dining table, just show their faces for a second so we can hear their voices and renew our goodwill in this franchise. But there's no way you can put Carrie Fisher (who, I should be clear, I have a lot of affection for, no matter what she looks like -- she's a great writer, I paid full price to see her on Broadway, and she got the best scene in both The Blues Brothers and the first Austin Powers) in this thing and not immediately unsuspend my disbelief. She's put on some weight, which on Earth should not disqualify her, but would stick out in the Galaxy Far Far Away -- was there even one fat person, including extras, in any of the previous movies? (Naming Jabba the Hutt only underscores my point). But it's not really that she's older, or that she's larger: it's that she has a different face, and that's even more distracting than a floppy-eared special-needs alien stepping in poop and mugging directly into the camera (which still stands as the third most traumatic event of my life). And, it's an all-or-nothing proposition. You either bring back all three of these actors or you bring back none of them. And I'm sorry, I just don't see it in Princess Leia's character that she got a bad facelift. And, come on: Harrison Ford is now seven years older than Alec Guinness was when he first played Obi-Wan Kenobi. In what context could that possibly be awesome? Which leaves the only other option: recasting. This probably sounds like heresy, particularly when the original leads are all available, but it worked out great for the Star Trek reboot. I thought the guys who stepped in as Kirk and Spock did a great job of playing the characters of Kirk and Spock, as opposed to doing Shatner and Nimoy impressions (which would have been awful). I can't really think of anyone who'd be appropriate to take on these iconic roles, but that's kind of the point: they should get some relative unknowns (as with the "Star Trek" reboot) who won't bring any baggage. They should definitely bring back the guy who played Jar Jar, though. It was a note-perfect performance and bringing him back into the story would bring the whole thing full circle and give it a new throughline. How about this: when we last saw him in Revenge of the Sith, Jar Jar appeared to be a senator. So how about he becomes the new Grand Chancellor of the New Republic? Then he's slowly lured over to the Dark Side, and slowly, insidiously undermines the democratic process to appoint himself the new Emperor. "Yousa will find this space station fully operational!"

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