Thirty-six years have passed since filmmaker George Lucas released Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, which obliterated box office records and cemented that the dawn of summer blockbusters had begun (after Jaws ushered in the era two years earlier in 1975). Sci-fi/fantasy movie culture has since then evolved from niche entertainment - with the occasional breakout hit like Star Wars - to a mainstay of present-day cinema, thanks to franchises like Lucas' and the birth of the modern comic book superhero film genre.
Star Wars: Episode VII is finally becoming a reality, as a project that features some of the biggest names in the tentpole entertainment industry (including, new Lucasfilm president and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy) working to make a Star Wars installment that can meet the expectations of modern audiences - yet, at the same time, recapture the infectious sense of wonder, optimistic worldview and authentic whiz-bang spirit that Episode IV possesses (i.e. the quality that've endeared so many people to the film over the past four decades).
Kennedy, in hopes of accomplishing that goal, spent a month tempting director J.J. Abrams, who's been itching to make a Star Wars movie for some time (as anyone who's seen his Star Trek films can attest). Together, the pair are collaborating with Oscar-winner Michael Arndt - a screenwriter/co-writer on Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3, Oblivion and the upcoming The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - on a story that will introduce new blood to the galaxy far, far away, but also bring back some old friends to help connect the Star Wars of the past with the future. However, a couple of your favorite (former) members of the Rebel Alliance and/or Galactic Empire may be brought to life by different people.
Peter Mayhew, who portrayed Han Solo's Wookie companion Chewbacca in Star Wars: Episodes IV-VI (and cameoed in Episode III), recently had both of his knees surgically replaced, in the hope that it will allow the 69-year-old fan-favorite (who stands 7'3'' tall) to walk again, after two years of being wheelchair-bound. Unfortunately, due to his physical condition, it would seem that Mayhew won't be reprising as Chewie in the third Star Wars trilogy - even though a newly-released Episode VII casting call (via Den of Geek) suggests that the character will be returning (albeit, with a different actor wearing the costume):
"Male, 7 ft to 7.3 ft tall with a slim/thin build and upright posture. Not too worked out or too 'thick set' especially in the shoulders. Broad facial features would be a bonus."
The casting description - released by Walt Disney Pictures/LucasFilm/Bad Robot for (officially) "Untitled Studio Feature" - could very well be for another Wookie altogether, maybe even an Episode VII character inspired by Lowbacca; who, in the Star Wars "Expanded Universe," is Chewie's nephew, a Jedi Knight trained by Luke Skywalker and friend to Han and Leia's adult children, Jacen and Jaina. However, given the rumors that a Han Solo origins movie is being developed (and the possibility that Chewie will make an appearance in Episode VII and beyond), the more logical assumption would be that the search is on for a younger actor to replace Mayhew and play Han's ever-loyal "walking carpet" hereon out.
Update: W. Ryan Ziegler, who is putting together a documentary called Standing In the Stars: The Peter Mayhew Story about the eponymous actor's recovery from surgery, passed on a message to Bleeding Cool from Mayhew, who said "I intend to pursue the role of Chewbacca for Episode VII." For our money, we hope his efforts work out and he's able to appear in the next Star Wars film (and beyond).
Ford, Fisher and Hamill are (unofficially) confirmed to return for Episode VII, while the latter two are reported to have started getting back into shape for the film around three months ago (Hamill's friend/actor Robert Englund has since confirmed as much). Meanwhile, the wheels continue to spin on the casting rumor discussion, with regard to Benedict Cumberbatch as a potential candidate, in particular.
Here is Abrams' non-comittal response, when asked about Episode VII casting (and the Cumberbatch rumors) by LA Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal:
JJ Abrams on #StarWars: "We're working our asses off trying to get things in place w/ casting." Benedict Cumberbatch? "I love that guy."
— Yvonne Villarreal (@villarrealy) September 20, 2013
Cumberbatch is rumored to play a Sith Lord in the new Star Wars trilogy, but there has also been talk about a female villain (Sith?) being introduced in Episode VII. Abrams previously cast the Sherlock actor as an iconic antagonist in this year's Star Trek Into Darkness, but the director knows better than to rule out such a promising contender at this point in the guessing game. Besides, as far as concerns about type-casting go, Cumberbatch as a red-eyed Sith warrior - who enjoys the sheer pleasure of drawing power from his anger - would be a far cry from (SPOILER WARNING!) his turn as a more sympathetic version of Khan in the Star Trek sequel.
The growing list of people who've (according to various sources) either auditioned for a role in Episode VII - including, Alex Pettyfer, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Liam McIntyre, Ksenia Solo, Saoirse Ronan, David Oyelowo and Michael B. Jordan - or are heavily rumored (like Cumberbatch), is a testament to what Abrams said about the difficult nature of casting the film. On the plus side, the relatively diverse lineup shows that even the Star Wars franchise is changing to keep up with the times in the geek community (without abandoning tradition, at the same time) - something that bodes well for the next era in the mythological space opera.
Are you excited by the possibility that Chewbacca may be returning to the Star Wars universe, for more than just the (unconfirmed) Han Solo origins spinoff movie? Do you think that Abrams' coy reply is a signal that Benedict Cumberbatch will eventually join the cast for Episodes VII-IX - or is the director just humoring us?
Star Wars: Episode VII is tentatively slated to reach theaters by Summer 2015, though it could wind up delayed until the Winter Holiday Season.
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