The Uncanny Paul Walker
Furious 7 opened over the weekend with the largest box office debut in the 14-year-old series. The upward trajectory of the franchise has been astonishing especially when it seemed all but exhausted after The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift in 2006. The appeal of this big, loud, and silly series is undeniable. Wesley Morris, film critic for the Boston Globe, summed it up perfectly when he called the franchise “the most progressive force in Hollywood.” Short of a LGBTQ character or two, the series reflects today’s world better than most.
And then on November 30, 2013, during a Thanksgiving break from filming, Paul Walker died in a car crash. Initial reports revealed that he had only filmed half his scenes.
Like many, I wondered how their efforts would turn out. I immediately recalled the unexpected death of Heath Ledger in 2008. Much was made of his final performance in the box office—shattering Batman sequel, The Dark Knight. His bold take on the Joker made his death all the more tragic, elevating him to the ranks of James Dean and River Phoenix, two other young talents whose lives were cut short. His performance in The Dark Knight also seemed to overshadow his next film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which was also only half completed at the time of its star’s death. Terry Gilliam, the film’s director, managed to salvage his film with some clever revisions allowing Ledger’s character to “transform” into other actors, friends of Ledger who wanted to honor him. The effect worked and the film not only was completed, but felt complete.
The most startling and emotionally affecting scenes in the film was one Ledger had filmed—his character Tony’s introduction. The film’s other characters found Tony hanging from a bridge. They cut him loose and resuscitate him. And in a wonderful meta-moment, Heath Ledger has been resurrected for one final performance.
The comparisons between Walker and Ledger (as well as Furious 7 and Dr. Parnassus) seemed to stop there. Write-ups on Ledger focused on his great talent and memorable performances. In the days following Walker’s death, online obits and memorials hinted at Walker’s one-note performances and lack of talent.
In their memorial piece, Vulture needed to address previously calling him an actor that “understands his limitation.” While it is good they acknowledged the snark, it was still disheartening to read just weeks after the actor died. Was this the best Walker would get? Now that Furious 7 was going to be completed, would it too be considered another one-note performance?
Overall, I enjoyed Furious 7. It was fun from start to finish, and—yes—I teared up at the respectful and sweet send-off given to Walker’s character. But I also struggled throughout the film in a way I didn’t with Dr. Parnassus. Perhaps it was due to the way he died, or the approach to finishing the film. Walker wasn’t coming alive for a last performance, but instead his death hung like a shadow over the film. Director Wan stated in interviews he doesn’t want to reveal which scenes were with Walker and which were manufactured. To his credit, it is hard to tell. But it’s distracting and something which with I found great difficulty. In some scenes, I was watching Paul Walker, but other times it was I really was not sure. I experienced the Uncanny Valley effect, and as a result, inadvertently put off by what I processed as unreal. It felt like an approximation of Paul Walker—one that was lovingly recreated by people who just want to do right by him—but still just an approximation.
Even as I wiped the tears from my eyes in the beach-set final scene, this dissonance was evident. In the film’s own meta-moment, we watch Walker’s co-stars say goodbye to him via a proxy, a digitally manipulated double of their friend while the actors themselves were offering their own farewell to Walker. Walker’s character is giving up the high adrenaline lifestyle to be with his family. He plays with his pregnant wife and son by the water as the rest of the group hangs back and admires the sight, noting it’s where he belongs. As lovely as the sentiment was, I thought, “That’s not really Paul. I’m watching a ghost.” The film deliberately blurred the lines between reality and fiction, and the effect is jarring. I debated whether this caring tribute enhanced the film or took away from it. Was it a complete and purposeful film or was it simply the movie salvaged after Walker’s death?
In conclusion, I write this piece to tell myself and others like me that we’re over-thinking it. Getting hung up on these thoughts and on which moments were real and which were manufactured is missing the point. In between all the car chases and explosions, we have a franchise that put a huge emphasis on family, not just the family you’re born into, but the family you make. I can’t imagine the difficulty the cast and crew experienced going back to work without Walker. They had to act like their dead friend was in the room with them so his image could be inserted into the shots later. It’s an upsetting thought. But to look at Walker’s co-stars as his pallbearers and the film as a funeral does a disservice to everyone involved. Their love for him produced a fitting goodbye true to everything that came before it. It’s rare to see such an expression of love brought to a film, let alone a film of this genre. The audience is lucky to share in that, and I’m certain even in his absence, Walker’s presence will be felt in future installments of the series because he lives on through his family. It was more like Dr. Parnassus than I realized.
One last note: After Walker’s death, I learned about Reach Out Worldwide, an organization he founded that provides relief efforts for areas affected by natural disasters. I donate to them regularly now and only wish it didn’t take his death to learn about them. For more information about Reach Out Worldwide, please check out their site.