Back in 2018 Solo: A Star Wars Story was released in theaters. It received mixed to positive reviews from critics, and bombed at the box office making it the first live action Star Wars film to be considered a financial disappointment. In the aftermath of the fallout, there were various reasons proposed for the film’s failure including a lack of marketing and the fact that the film was released literally 6 months after Star Wars: The Last Jedi, yet another very divisive movie in the franchise.
One big part of the conversation revolved around the film’s foundational question: what did Han Solo’s early years look like? But in the process of replacing the iconic character played by Harrison Ford and recasting him with the younger Alden Ehrenreich, I feel like Lucasfilm learned the wrong lesson from the film. I think they blamed Ehrenreich for its failure more than anything.
Earlier this year Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy told Vanity Fair that what the studio learned from Solo‘s failure was that they shouldn’t recast iconic characters. “Now it does seem so abundantly clear that we can’t do that,” she said.
Some fans, including myself, took a bit of an issue with her statement because it really seemed like she was throwing Ehrenreich under the bus. I feel like there are bigger issues with Solo as a film than just the fact that they recast Harrison Ford. Personally, I think the movie’s biggest issue is that it’s a film that was made by two different teams of filmmakers. Phil Lord and Chris Miller were first hired to direct the film and had actually shot most of it before being fired by Kennedy, and replaced with Ron Howard. The movie was essentially made twice, with trades reporting that Howard re-shot 70 percent of the film. If there was anything to take away from 2017’s Justice League, while that may provide the studio with more footage to choose from, it complicates the final product.
In the case of Solo, the complication really came from the studio’s dissatisfaction with the directors. To me it seems like Kennedy and Lucasfilm later used Ehrenreich as a scapegoat to avoid admitting that they simply made a dumb decision that led to a jumbled film.
The other thing that made Kennedy’s comments seem odd was the fact that this wasn’t the first time an iconic character from Star Wars was recast. The aforementioned quote came out last year at around the release of Obi Wan Kenobi, a series starring Ewan McGregor, who had replaced the late Alec Guinness and appeared in the role since The Phantom Menace in 1999.
Despite all the negativity the prequel trilogy got, McGregor was always praised as a standout for his performance as a younger version of Kenobi. So that example alone should’ve been proof enough that recasting the characters isn’t the problem. Even in Solo you had Donald Glover replacing Billy Dee Williams as a young Lando which people loved. But The studio seemed to commit to the idea that these characters should only be portrayed by one actor. And their solution to this problem is one that I don’t think has a lot of longevity.
In the Season 2 finale of The Mandalorian, the character of Luke Skywalker arrives at the end to save the day. Now since Mark Hamill is currently 71 years old, he can’t really play Luke the way he could back in his twenties and thirties. So, if you were to use a younger version of his character the best idea would be to just get a good young actor who has a resemblance to him to do it. But instead Lucasfilm decided to have a young actor be a stand-in while they used CGI to digitally recreate Hamill’s face when he was younger and put it on the stand-in’s body. Also, because Mark Hamill’s voice doesn’t sound the same anymore, they used a program to recreate his voice and so now he sounds kind of like a robot when he talks…
At the time this scene was a big deal – and a lot of people loved it. That’s because in the context of the episode it was a very emotional moment, and it was really cool to see a young Luke get to come in and fight off a bunch of droids for the first time decades. However, overtime the impact of the scene has diminished a bit partly because the emotional impact of it was immediately undermined in the spin-off The Book of Boba Fett. But also, because it’s just weird. Luke’s CGI face and his robotic sounding voice are very distracting. In some ways Lucasfilm did improve on this later on. For example, when Luke showed up in The Book of Boba Fett the CGI for his face was much better and looked a lot more convincing. However, the camera also notably never lingers on his face for very long and it also cuts away whenever he starts to talk a lot. While the CGI was improved, the stiffness and emotionless of the AI voice remained a problem.
If Lucasfilm was just using this technology for small cameos that be one thing. They’ve done it before with Princess Leia in Rogue One and The Rise of Skywalker. But with Luke’s role in Boba Fett, it especially seems that this is the direction they want to go with these characters. Instead of just simply retiring them and focusing on new characters or recasting the roles (if they insist on using them), they’re just going to digitally recreate them. And I don’t know if that’s the right call. I don’t know how most people would feel about an entire series or film focused on an AI generated Luke Skywalker. How long before the weird voice and the camera not being able to focus on his face for too long starts to become a distraction?
Also, another potential problem with this method is that technology is constantly evolving. Like I said before, Luke’s appearance in Boba Fett was a lot better than it was in The Mandalorian and those seasons were just a year apart. The effect of digitally de-aging someone is getting better all the time. As a result, the previous attempts will only begin to look worse with every rewatch. Back in 2010 when Disney released TRON: Legacy with a digitally de-aged Jeff Bridges, it was groundbreaking. But if you were to rewatch that movie now you’d notice that doesn’t hold up too well.
Mike Flanagan’s The Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep probably stands as perfect proof that it is possible to carry on a story with familiar characters using new faces. Now, leading up to that film’s release there was some speculation about whether Nicholson would be brought back de-aged. Instead, Flanagan felt that while the technology was reliable, the best option was to simply recast the role. “The best approach was not to do impressions,” he told the press at the time of the film’s release. “It was to find actors who would remind us of those iconic performances without ever tipping into parody.” And he was right. When Jack Torrance appears in that film (played by Henry Thomas) it works because it’s another great actor playing that character and not some weird recreation of Nicholson’s face doing an impression of him.
Perhaps one day the technology will get to the point where it’s feels seamless and not so distracting. All I’m saying is that Disney and Lucasfilm are both in such a unique position because they use it so often. They can either continue to experiment until its perfected or go back to taking risks and casting new faces. Right now, there may not a wrong answer. But 100 years from now, when all of none of those actors are no longer alive, even if it does look perfect it will feel wrong.