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'Solo' revives thrill of seeing new actors inhabit old roles

One of the intriguing aspects of "Solo: A Star Wars Story" involves whether fans embrace Alden Ehrenreich and Donald ...

Posted: May 24, 2018 6:37 PM
Updated: May 24, 2018 6:37 PM

One of the intriguing aspects of "Solo: A Star Wars Story" involves whether fans embrace Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover as they approximate younger versions of Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams. And if that seems self-evident, given a recent trend in movies -- and "Star Wars" in particular -- it's a welcome departure from using computer gimmickry to "de-age," or even resurrect, actors.

The first "Star Wars Story," "Rogue One," employed computer-generated effects to revive Peter Cushing and, fleetingly, shaving decades off Carrie Fisher.

Hollywood has been utilizing that technology for some time, sometimes in response to an actor's unexpected death -- bringing back Tony's mother (played by Nancy Marchand) on "The Sopranos" and Oliver Reed in "Gladiator" when the century began, and more recently, Paul Walker in "Furious 7."

The technique has improved in the intervening years, if not entirely escaping a slightly creepy look -- creating younger versions of Robert Downey Jr. ("Captain America: Civil War"), Jeff Bridges ("Tron: Legacy") and Sean Young ("Blade Runner 2049").

When "Rogue One" was released, John Knoll, the chief creative officer at Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic, told the New York Times that because of the cost involved, "I don't imagine anybody engaging in this kind of thing in a casual manner."

Blockbuster filmmaking, however, can absorb those expenses. And the ability to use digital wizardry to manipulate performances has proven too tantalizing for filmmakers to resist, despite the ethical concerns raised about conjuring a performer's likeness posthumously.

The nagging problem has been, for lack of a better term, the soullessness of these digital renderings, even when a living actor is around to help create them. As Andrew Gruttadaro wrote on The Ringer, there are enough lingering flaws in the process that these manipulated characters become distracting, inasmuch as they're "always immediately noticeable," and "much weirder than seeing a younger actor who only kind of looks like the character he's playing a version of."

Related: 'Solo's' Donald Glover is cool with Lando being pansexual

Admittedly, there's risk associated with casting new actors in these massive enterprises, and Harrison Ford's charisma isn't easily replicated. That might be one reason why "Solo" gets off to a rocky start, before rallying down the stretch, as the story -- and the movie's star -- settle into the material.

Part of the excitement surrounding the project, though, is seeing a relative newcomer try to make the character his own. Historically, some long-running franchises have actually benefited from turnover, from James Bond's 50-plus years to "Star Trek's" new big-screen crew to the ever-changing face of Doctor Who.

Of course, the Bond producers haven't exactly been infallible, with George Lazenby among the footnotes to a movie series bookended by Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. But even the bar game of debating such matters -- Who's the best Bond? Does Ehrenreich measure up? -- adds zest to the maelstrom surrounding this sort of movie.

The risk-averse nature of major studios is hardly a news flash, which explains why the period before, during and after the original "Star Wars" has suddenly become one of the galaxy's busiest quadrants.

The fact that "Star Wars" is going to outlive its architects, however, provides an incentive to keep injecting new blood into it and finding fresh faces to play beloved characters, which -- at least at this stage -- is still vastly preferable to digitally remastering them.

That's not to say that every new Han or Leia is going to work out as well as the originals did. But to paraphrase the former, faced with a daunting challenge, there's not much gained by fretting about the odds.

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