Though the title of Elstree 1976 refers to the studio just outside London where George Lucas shot the original Star Wars, the documentary has next to no interest in either the actual production of the seminal space opera or its principal cast. Instead, director Jon Spira trains the spotlight on 10 of the film’s extras and supporting actors, from David Prowse, who inhabited Darth Vader’s famous black outfit throughout the original Star Wars trilogy, to Pam Rose, who played an extra in the first film’s Mos Eisley cantina sequence.
Above all else, Spira yearns to put names to the masks that shrouded human faces, which occurs literally in the strong opening sequence, where each bit part player’s first name is shown on the screen alongside the Star Wars action figure that was made in his or her likeness. It’s a touching tribute, but too often that’s all there is to the film. Spira simply turns the floor over to his interviewees through a series of monotonous talking-head interviews filled with warmly related, if consistently unremarkable, personal reminiscences that rarely offer fresh insight into the life of a working actor.
Despite Elstree 1976’s connection to a film franchise sizable enough to have changed even its background actors’ lives, it too often fails to examine how the long shadow cast by Star Wars affected these people. The closest it comes to this sort of resonance is Prowse, for whom the original Star Wars trilogy represents a career peak, and one from which he continued to earn pay by attending fan conventions. Eventually, however, he reveals that he was banned from these official get-togethers after angering Lucas for signing autographs suggesting that he “is” Darth Vader. The moment provokes the obvious question about the character’s ownership: whether it belongs solely to the creator or just as much to the person who inhabited the costume.
It’s a fascinating idea that Spira might have been wise to make central to his documentary, but it remains unelaborated—an unfortunate hallmark of a wholly toothless film. Elstree 1976 is content to commemorate these unsung heroes rather than extrapolate from them whether they feel like a true part of the Star Wars universe or mere tag-alongs to a pop-cultural phenomenon. It leaves the documentary feeling affable, if nevertheless incomplete.