This photo is destined to become one of the most famous, or one of the most notorious, in popular culture. The image of the first assembly of the Star Wars Episode VII cast is right up there with that postage stamp-sized trailer we all downloaded 15 years ago. It has us all at our computers, wildly speculating, raising hopes, raising fears and ultimately doing what it’s supposed to do: get us talking about Star Wars. And here I am, doing just that.
It’s fair to say that JJ Abrams has one of the most thankless job in cinema history. If he gets the films right, people will just say he’s coasting on the creativity of Lucas. If he gets them wrong, he’ll be the laughingstock of Hollywood for the next twenty years.
Of course, they’ve been “gotten wrong” before. For those who can’t wait to dredge up the spectre of the prequels, the problems with those films can be traced back to a single ultimate cause: George Lucas. Without his direct control over these new films, nor his cult like army of worshippers who he paid all those years to agree with him about everything, his influence will be muted at best. It’s no problem for JJ to vault over that particular hurdle of quality.
A larger challenge for Abrams is going to be matching and expanding upon the original trilogy, to which he is making the sequels. As Irvin Kershner (who directed Empire, as I’m sure everyone remembers) once said, “The second one is only ever going to be the second one.” Sequels like this are very tricky business, but JJ has insulated himself from at least my criticism by making very smart creative decisions so far, like bringing in Lawrence Kasdan as a writer and building a full-sized Millennium Falcon. Even though I personally loathed his second Star Trek film, he is a filmmaker with considerable talent and nothing I have seen yet robs me of that impression, nor my cautious optimism about the future of Star Wars.
Let’s look at the photo for moment, carefully. All of the senior cast is present and accounted for, including R2D2 in a box. The junior cast includes such excellent young actors as Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley. The real coup is landing Oscar Isaac, an actor who’s actually verging on “too good” to be in a Star Wars movie. Like Affleck playing Batman, whatever you think of the match of character to actor, we have to admit that those two don’t have to do genre films with action figures. Isaac, in Drive and especially Inside Llewyn Davis, is a magnetic and powerful screen actor in the tradition of Joaquin Phoenix. I’m very curious to see what he will bring to the project.
But perhaps one of the interesting things about this photo is what the older cast are doing in it. Mark Hamill, bearded and suitably aged, is seated right next to Max von Sydow, the legendary Swedish star. (I also note that they’re wearing the Lucas uniform of plaid and jeans, possibly in some kind of subtle, joking homage.) It’s well known that Hamill is very respectful of older actors, becoming friends with Alec Guinness during the original film. Carrie Fisher is in deep conversation with young Ms. Ridley, presumably explaining the finer points of gaffer’s tape-based underwear. And old Harrison Ford, still intense and demanding as an actor, seems to already be deep in conversation with the equally intense JJ Abrams. I suspect these two will find each other a formidable match on-set, and that can lead to some very great moments with Ford.
But the final take-away point here is that Abrams has to balance the needs of the legacy audience with the needs of the 2015 marketplace and a young audience. Judging from the extremely talented cast of young stars and old veterans, he seems to be striking that balance well. It’s a good sign.