An Appreciation of Mark Hamill’s Meta-Casting in Brigsby Bear

Mark Hamill in Brigsby Bear Photo: Sony Classics

Spoilers ahead for the movie Brigsby Bear.

Brigsby Bear is a strange, meta little movie, a piece of pop culture that examines the risks and rewards of liking pop culture a little too much. Kyle Mooney (who wrote the film) plays James Pope, a 20-something man who has spent his entire life locked in a fallout shelter, his only contact with the outside world coming in the form of a PBS-style children’s program called Brigsby Bear (think low production values, morality plays, and lots of very digestible dialogue). The combination of the show’s teachings and guidance from his “parents” (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) comprises everything James knows about the world and how to live in it — but what he doesn’t know is that his caretakers are actually his kidnappers, and that his real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) have been searching for him his entire life. We meet James right as law enforcement finds him and brings him into the real world; bereft without his fictional friend, he spends the rest of the film processing his traumas by enlisting his sister (Ryan Simpkins) and her friends to produce a final episode of Brigsby Bear.

It’s a good-hearted story about the most unlikely of outsiders discovering himself while unintentionally helping those around him discover who they really are, too — but the thing that stops it from being a weird Hallmark film about the virtues of being yourself is its subcutaneous commentary on the perils and virtues of mass cult indoctrination. One of the movie’s most brilliant nods to that sub-narrative is the casting of Hamill as James’s captor-father, Ted, who’s also the architect and star of the Brigsby show. Every week, in a warehouse building filled with set pieces and props, Ted films a new installment of Brigsby Bear, keeping James occupied and brainwashed (one of the key lessons Brigsby imparts: “curiosity is bad”). In this fake-show-within-a-movie, Ted plays both Brigsby as well as a malevolent sun deity with a giant face on it (à la Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon), the forever nemesis of the man-sized bear and his good and decent friends.

Ultimately, Hamill’s role in the film is brief but memorable, primarily for its clever self-referentiality. As a criminal who’s robbed two parents of their only son, he’s delightfully good — surprisingly sympathetic, thoughtful, and nurturing. But his strength as an actor here isn’t that he disappears into the role. It’s not that you forget you’re watching Mark Hamill — it’s that you can’t possibly forget who he is. For better or worse, Hamill will forever be Luke Skywalker. As Emily Yoshida pointed out in Vulture’s review of the movie, Hamill is “a figure who has been burned into the psyche of generations of children, basement-dwelling and otherwise,” which makes him “a fascinating choice for a film that walks all the way up to painting pop-cultural indoctrination as a form of emotional abuse, and geek obsession as trauma, before pulling back and turning it into an avenue for healing.” There’s also an unprecedented joy in watching the last hope of the Jedi trade a light saber for a Deadmau5-sized Teddy Ruxpin head and explain to his fake adult son that the “grazer bugs” outside his window aren’t burdened by having dreams, because all they need is “fresh water and cold moonlight to charge their recto-skeletons.”

As Skywalker, Hamill has, for decades, been the player in fantasy world designed around him, an expansive mythology outside of his control that he became the face of when he was just 25 years old. The film makes cheeky reference to this by casting him as the the game-maker of, the star of, and a literal disembodied face within his own fictional universe, one that becomes both a lifestyle and a pseudo-religion to James. Under much less creepy circumstances, this is exactly what Star Wars has become for so many in the real world. To James, Ted is George Lucas, and Brigsby is James’s new hope, the hero he roots for and identifies with and dreams of becoming one day. Mulling over that meta concept isn’t the A-plot of Brigsby Bear, but considering it does demonstrate how fully Kyle Mooney developed his own tiny world. It also demonstrates how game Hamill is to poke fun at his own image when given the chance.

Hamill seems to understand that he’s inextricably linked to his past, which is probably why his prolific career has been defined almost entirely by voice work since the 1990s. The first time I saw Hamill as anything other than Skywalker was in the wild-eyed, movie-within-a-movie sci-fi villain Cocknocker in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. He bursts into the frame with yellow hair and a fist the size of a child’s torso before a title card pops up that reads, “Hey kids! It’s Mark Hamill! (Applause).” That was 16 years ago, and he’s only been in six movies since then as something other than a voice. He chooses his work carefully, presumably aware that anywhere he shows up, the fact that he’s Mark Hamill will be inescapable — that, in some ways, his work will always be self-referential. And that’s exactly what makes his role in Brigsby so rich.

An Appreciation of Mark Hamill in Brigsby Bear