Pop Off: ‘Furious 7’ and the death of Paul Walker

With an estimated weekend gross of nearly $150 million, “Furious 7” is on track to have one of the biggest openings on record alongside “The Dark Knight” and “The Hunger Games.”

Part of this means very little, because ticket revenues have been rising steadily since 2000 and these records continuously break themselves, diluting any significance. On the other hand, “Furious 7” distinguishes itself as a special blockbuster in a number of areas. It’s the (apparent) conclusion to a 14 year old series that began in the mainstream, fell into a more niche audience around “Tokyo Drift,” only to rebound into being popular enough to air trailers during the Super Bowl. Another, rather inescapable cause of “Furious 7’s” financial success is that it’s the swan song of the late Paul Walker.

Walker’s death in late 2013 stirred up many questions about the seventh film in the action franchise, which was only partially completed at the time. Fans were wondering if his character would be completely excluded from the remainder of the series, or if technology more advanced than you or I have ever seen would allow for his inclusion. The “Fast and Furious” producers opted for the latter, using face transplantation animation with Walker’s brothers acting as body doubles to recreate his presence.

Actors dying mid or post production is not unheard of. The most well-known example is Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, in “The Crow.” Lee was accidentally killed by a rubber bullet towards the end of filming, but his character’s heavy makeup allowed for stand-ins in the uncompleted scenes. The plot being about someone rising from the dead to achieve vengeance made its context all the more eerie. “The Crow” isn’t that good of a film. The story is paper thin, the pace is clunky and the editing is overzealous. But it achieved widespread success and garnered a massive cult following. Partially, or substantially, because it had became known specifically as Lee’s film, the only major work of his short career.

Walker is in a similar albeit more magnified situation with “Furious 7.” He was a staple for most of the franchise, and meeting his end in fiery high speed car accident is coincidence in the cruelest fashion. It was clear that in the months before the release of “7,” as trailers began to pop up regularly in theatres and on television, Walker’s name and legacy was the first thing mentioned in conversation. I began to fear that the film’s massive marketing campaign was make too much mention of his death, crossing the thin line from honoring to exploitation.

The first poster to be released for the film pointed to this being the case. The posters for previous films in the series tended to show the entire cast in a line looking stoic and determined. But the one for “Furious 7” only showed Vin Diesel with his back turned, and Walker, looking straight at us with the tagline “One last ride.” The first theatrical trailer showed that the poster was not a fluke, but at the same time possibly pointed to the motivation being the plot, not Walker’s death. It focused on the close relationship between the two. Walker’s face was at the center of a lot of key shots in the trailer and seemed to be the dominant figure throughout, but this could just be my eyes paying more attention to him.

Outside of that, much of the film’s advertising left Walker’s death to our knowledge. There hasn’t been “Come See Paul Walker’s Final Film” stamped into any of the TV spots. While Universal has been polite to tie his death and the film’s release with subtlety, they are definitely aware that further action would be unnecessary. The film was projected to make huge profits even before Walker’s death, and the tragedy will have its own affect without the studio making mention of it. I’m skeptical that “Brick Mansions” would have received a wide theatrical release in this country if Walker hadn’t died.

“Furious 7” premiered at a surprise midnight screening at South by Southwest on March 15, special tribute was paid to Walker by his co-stars and producer Neal Mortiz, who said “We lost a dear friend, brother and comrade when we were making this movie. When we decided to continue this movie, we were determined to honor his legacy.”

It was also revealed that the film’s credits include a brief memorial and dedication to Walker, with the words “For Paul” ending the reel. News coverage of the event seemed to focus less on the premiere of the film and the audience reaction, but more on it being Walker’s final feature. Again, this raises a few eyebrows in whether or not Walker is being memorialized for commercial gain.

While my cynical instinct wants me to say that is undoubtedly the truth, I ultimately don’t think so. Walker was so essential to the “Fast and Furious” series and beloved by its fans, it would be wrong for the film to premiere without it being in his honor. The words of Moritz, Diesel and Tyriese Gibson appear absolutely genuine. If Walker is treated more as the “star” of “Furious 7” now than he would have been if he were alive, the direction is in good taste, and it is what the fans would have wanted.

The real disrespect that I find is in the CGI technology that lets Walker’s image appear where he never stood. I don’t think use of such technology is wrong by principle, but again how audiences and the media are receiving it. Walker’s final performance doesn’t seem to be receiving any attention at all, just how well the editing works in creating an illusion. While Walker will never be honored as a prestigious or revolutionary actor, as most of his credits were in the genre where acting matters least, his role was as a performer. If an actor is going to be digitally resurrected, then our focus should not be on the scenes that were filmed after they had died, but the ones where they were alive. Along with all the roles that led, in Walker’s situation, to their final film being their greatest and grandest. The legacies of screen actors are not cemented through special effects, but what they do themselves when the red light turns on.

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