'Star Wars' Cast: Next Challenge Is

Star Warsannounced its new cast this week, which of course lit up the Internet like someone had just blown up the Death Star.

Which is kind of strange, since at least in the last “Star Wars” trilogy, George Lucas’ clumsy scripting and emphasis on digital filmmaking managed to make actors almost irrelevant to the process.

That will change, hopefully, with the new movies, and at least qualitatively speaking, it’s one of the biggest challenges facing the new team of filmmakers.

Anticipation for the films ensures they’ll be popular. How well they satisfy a fan base as protective of a franchise as the “Star Wars” faithful is potentially another matter.

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Certainly, the original “Star Wars” benefited from Harrison Ford’s roguish charm, Mark Hamill’s boyish enthusiasm, Carrie Fisher’s plucky princess, and the gravity provided by those two great British actors, Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, as well as James Earl Jones’ voice as Darth Vader.

By the second trilogy, though, Lucas – with his stubborn insistence on writing and directing all of them – had seriously compromised character in the service of technological wizardry and arcane plotting. Procedural matters involving the Senate were discussed at length. And it was demonstrated even Liam Neeson could be handcuffed when saddled with a cute (and immaculately conceived) kid, Jar Jar Binks and trying to explain the mystery of midi-chlorians.

There were grand visual flourishes, and the crowd-pleasing sight of Yoda actually engaging in a full-on light-saber duel. The third movie darkened considerably, and in its closing flurry effectively brought the story, as it were, back to square one.

Yet even actors as formidable as Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor struggled with the clunky dialogue and production approach, which felt so enamored (or perhaps more accurately, preoccupied) with the spectacle as to short-change the drama.

The second trilogy also saw a significant drop in revenue from the first film to the second. “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” grossed over $1 billion at the worldwide box office, while “Attack of the Clones” was down nearly 40% to $649 million — an indication disappointment in the product can exact a financial toll (though hardly enough to dissuade Disney, Lucasfilm’s new owner, from wanting to exploit the property at every turn).

Having the original central trio back will imbue the new films with an element of nostalgia, even if they’re likely to have relatively modest roles. That leaves the next generation, who should be going into this experience with eyes wide open – aware of the enormous scrutiny it will bring, and the simultaneous reality that major sci-fi and fantasy tentpoles in general (and “Star Wars” in particular) has a mixed track record as a career launching pad.

Perhaps nothing was more illuminating, in fact, than seeing Hayden Christensen (a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker) in “Shattered Glass” – a fascinating true story, casting him as a disgraced journalist – during the last trilogy. Surely, the compelling actor in that film couldn’t be the same fellow who kept whining to Portman’s Padme about how Obi-Wan and the Jedi Council were overly critical and holding him back.

If this sounds hypercritical as well, rest assured it comes from someone who thoroughly enjoyed the first trilogy and approached the second with high hopes and expectations. Indeed, “Star Wars” might be its very own health kick, providing aging baby boomers an incentive to spend a few more minutes on the treadmill, trying to ensure they’re around long enough to see the story through to the end.

Much of the franchise’s success can be traced to that sense of ownership, to fans feeling like they have a stake in “Star Wars,” with each harboring scenarios on how and where it should go. Of course, that ranges from old-fashioned enthusiasm to a smaller contingent that fails to realize however invested they are in Lucas’ galaxy, it’s not their story to tell.

Publicly, anyway, Lucas largely shrugged off most criticism directed at the more recent films, but one suspects the new stewards of his creation are acutely aware of the weight they’ve inherited. As for steering the starship in the right direction, restoring the importance of flesh-and-blood actors to the “Star Wars” universe would be a good place to start.

That said, the new stars of “Star Wars” should be mindful of history. Because when it comes to such iconic roles serving as a springboard to other things, to paraphrase an old Jedi, these aren’t the gigs you’re looking for.

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