When beloved characters return to the screen after decades

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed opening within weeks of each other, we are getting a chance to see our beloved characters return to screen nearly 40 years after we first got to know them. Rocky came to theatres in December 1976 and Star Wars followed 6 months later.

Harrison Ford was last seen playing Han Solo in Return of the Jedi in 1983. Although I have seen the actor in countless movies over the years, it was still a shock for me to see an old Han Solo (and Leia Organa) on screen 30 years later. They never got their happily-ever-after. Although Mr. Ford the actor, looks incredibly spry and youthful for a 73-year-old, Han Solo the character carries emotional wear and tear beneath his usual cocky façade. Likewise, the feisty, glowing Princess Leia has been replaced by a world-weary, hard-faced General Organa.

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We all love fairy tales and the closing line ‘they all lived happily ever after’; it’s the only way to escape the realities of time that we are all subject to. The original trilogy played out like a fairy tale but because this latest episode has been shot 32 years later and uses the same actors, we are harshly reminded what real life is like. I respect the filmmakers for going there, but feel sorry for myself; it felt like a loss of innocence, like the time a child first understands the concepts of ageing and death.

Unlike the big 30 year gap for Han Solo and Leia Organa, boxer Rocky Balboa has made more frequent visits to the big-screen, with the last one – Rocky Balboa – released in 2006. For me personally though, the last film I watched was Rocky IV from 1985. So it was the same shocking experience of seeing a once-unbeatable man reduced to a shuffling shadow of his former self (well-played by 69-year-old Stallone who in real life is in great shape!). Creed is an excellent film; mature and measured, it packs an emotional punch. It is the coming-of-age story of Apollo Creed’s son, but equally compelling is the story of Rocky. His team is no more – his wife, his brother-in-law, his trainer, his rivals are all gone. He lives by himself, with only his memories. Yes, the unexpected appearance of the son of his late rival-turned-friend gives Rocky something to work towards. Even so, both his spirit and his flesh seem to have trouble rising up to the challenge. At the end of the movie, Creed Jr. helps Rocky climb those famous steps up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the ones that he ran up so easily as a young man. It’s a poignant ending, both hopeful and uncertain.

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With both these films, I experienced the ageing of these characters in two snapshots separated by 25-30 years and it seemed to amplify my own personal experiences and fears related to growing older. I know there are plenty of US TV shows which have run continuously for decades, with the same actors ageing side-by-side with the viewers. I haven’t watched these shows and even if I did, I doubt the impact would be as strong, simply because we are seeing them continuously over a period of time.

The only other lead character I am aware of who has been played by the same actor over an extended period is François Truffaut’s on-screen alter ego Antoine Doinel. First seen in the iconic The 400 Blows (1959), actor Jean-Pierre Léaud returns in 3 more feature films spread over 20 years. I have seen the first and the last movies. The first had a poignant ending, with the famous freeze-frame of the 12-year-old Doinel facing an uncertain future after running away from a reform school. It kept me awake for many nights, wondering how this child could possibly survive on his own in a cruel uncaring world. Twenty years later, against all odds, Doinel is living a normal life, dealing mostly with challenges in his love life. Although I should have been happy for him, given how the ending of the first film had affected me, I actually felt a bit let down that the intensity had not been maintained in the sequel! So, this was the reverse of the Star Wars and Rocky experience – first because the character has only aged from 12 to 32 and second because he seems to be in a better place in his adulthood than he was in his youth.

It is worth referring to Granada TV’s well known socio-cinematic experiment, the Up documentary series. Starting with Seven Up! in 1964, this series of documentaries chronicles the lives of 14 individuals, starting when they were 7 years old and revisited every 7 years since. The latest instalment in the series is 56 Up released in 2012. All except the first one have been directed by British director Michael Apted (himself now 74 years old). I haven’t watched any of them, but I imagine that anyone who has watched some or all of them in real time over the years would have experienced the same emotional effect that I did with Han Solo and Rocky Balboa. Richard Linklater did something similar with Boyhood, although he shot the scenes over several years and cut it all into one film. So it’s not the same experience for the viewers. Of course, it also depends on the film; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return as Terminator after a 12 year gap in Terminator Genisys this year didn’t get anyone emotional.

Knowing how Hollywood works, studios must be wondering which hit movies from the 1980s would be worth creating a sequel for, provided the original actors are still alive and willing to return. For example, could we get to see 50 year old Marty McFly in Back to the Future IV? Or a 53 year old Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Son’s Day Off? It would be interesting to see what Michael Dorsey aka Tootsie is doing at the age of 78. Did he and Julie stay together and get their happily ever after?

I think some stories are indeed better left in the realm of fairy tales.


The Force is indeed strong with this one (SPOILER FREE)

Yes, I’ve already seen two other websites use this headline for their Star Wars story today, but I think it’s appropriate enough that a few more will be repeating it through this weekend.

After the first full trailer earlier this year, I avoided watching any of subsequent trailers or visiting message boards about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The only exception was that I knew in advance where Daniel Craig’s invisible cameo would happen. You will neither see his face, nor recognize his voice; but it’s an entertaining and important moment from a narrative point of view and he will be forever grateful to JJ Abrams for this gift!

I didn’t catch the first 2 films on the big screen and although I saw Return of the Jedi in the theatre in Bangalore in 1985, I just can’t remember the moment when the crawl came up on screen along with John Williams’ iconic theme (for the academically minded, I highly recommend this excellent article published yesterday by Billboard on why this score is so powerful). When I went back to the theatre in 1999 for the re-release of the original film, I felt the full force of emotions during those first few seconds. I had a similar (even stronger) experience during the opening exposition of The Lord of the Rings in December 2001. Well, it was the same feeling last night as three years of hope and prayers were finally fulfilled; in fact a cheer went up in the audience already when the Lucasfilm logo came up!

The opening scene which introduces a couple of the new characters and later, the extended introduction to the central character Rey (Daisy Ridley, pictured below with John Boyega and BB-8) are pitch perfect. I had mentioned in my series of posts about next gen British actresses that this film could be a springboard to a successful career for Ms. Ridley. Based on what I’ve seen, I believe we have just been introduced to a major new acting talent. Rey is the heart of this film; it’s her coming-of-age story just as the original trilogy was Luke Skywalker’s. Every scene she’s in carries weight because she is able to project a mélange of emotions – hope, despair, resilience, fear, determination, pride, love – giving us a sense of her character’s backstory. I can’t remember the last time I have felt this strongly about a major big-screen debut and I sincerely hope that she will be able to realize her tremendous potential.

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The new villain Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver, pictured below with General Hux and Captain Phasma) will be Rey’s nemesis through this trilogy. This is a more nuanced villain than Darth Vader, but equally hateful…perhaps even more so because of what happens in this film.

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In fact, full marks to the filmmakers for all the casting. Just as it was with the original trilogy, the fresh young faces (Daisy Ridley and John Boyega) and the rising young actors (Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac) are excellent in their roles. The non-human characters like Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), Unkar Plutt (voiced by Simon Pegg, sounding uncannily like the butler from Downton Abbey, I thought) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis doing his usual evil thing) are brought to life either through prosthetics or mo-cap CGI. No worries about a bumbling Jar-Jar Binks or a whiny Annakin Skywalker or an emotionally repressed Padmé Amidala here. And of course, the new generation BB-8 astromech droid steals the show, expressing a much wider range of emotions and solving all the mobility issues that George Lucas faced with R2-D2. This droid is truly an engineering marvel and I imagine that for those who don’t mind spending USD 150 on a ‘toy’, this will be a must-have purchase for the family.

The plot is easy to follow unlike that of the prequels. As with any JJ Abrams film, pace, editing and action are all top notch. It’s only towards the end of Maz Kanata’s castle sequence when several of the characters were at a loose end about what to do next, that I felt it was the scriptwriters who were unsure about what to do with the dialogue! There are of course, copycat situations from the beloved original trilogy and I think this was necessary to give hard core fans a ‘soft landing’ into the new trilogy. I suspect that the next two films will dispense with these and will take on a style and tone of their own. The original trilogy achieved this variety simply because The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were directed by different directors with their own filmmaking style. Likewise, Episode VIII will be directed by Rian Johnson and Episode XI by Colin Trevorrow. Johnson has directed 3 very different films – a noir thriller, a caper comedy and a time-travel scifi thriller (Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper). It’s notable that he has written the scripts for all of these and will have a writing credit for both the upcoming Star Wars sequels. Colin Trevorrow directed an indie scifi film called Safety Not Guaranteed and then hit the big time with Jurassic World this year.

A few words about the visual effects. I respect JJ Abrams’ approach of moving back to more practical effects and doing away with the overly digitized look of the prequels; this once again looks like a lived-in world rather than a video game. However, the fact is that while the first Star Wars invented a new category of special effects 40 years ago, the new film does not create a breakthrough of the same magnitude. In the past 30 years, we have had the water pseudopod in The Abyss, the liquid metal man in Terminator 2, the CGI dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the bullet-time action sequences in The Matrix and a fully expressive CGI character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. In terms of movie formats, it was Avatar that ushered in the new 3D era in 2009 and filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay who have leveraged the IMAX format impressively with The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar and the Transformer sequels. Even in 2015, the most unique visual experience I had would probably be Mad Max: Fury Road. So, there is no single unique or memorable visual effect in The Force Awakens, but safe to say the movie is not poorer for it; I think it was a choice to focus on the story/ characters and not create any visual gimmicks.

So, a huge round of applause to JJ Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy for delivering on this movie. Disney had a USD 4 billion investment in Lucasfilm at stake. Long term fans had been burned by the prequels (which have not improved in perception with time). But now, everything is well set up for 4 more years of Star Wars films – the sequels in 2017 and 2019, a standalone film titled A Star Wars Story: Rogue One next December (featuring Felicity Jones) and a Han Solo adventure film (wonder who they will cast as a young Solo) in 2018.

PS: Here’s a wonderful picture of the cast at a table reading at the start of the project.