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 Likewise, the feisty, glowing Princess Leia has been replaced by a world-weary, hard-faced General Organa.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.

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