Do we really want a digital Peter Cushing in a new ‘Star Wars’ film?

08.24.15 2 years ago

We're at the dawn of a new age.

It is, to be blunt, a very creepy new age. If you saw “Ant-Man,” you got a glimpse of it in the opening scene where '80s-era Michael Douglas shows up, and for the first time, it felt like they could stage actual dramatic scenes involving actors who have been aged backwards or, in the most extreme possible cases, brought back from the dead.

For years, there's been a script in LA that has been an example of someone's ambition exceeding the ability of the town's FX artists. “The Gemini Man” was supposed to pit a mysterious serial killer against an older police detective, only to reveal that the killer was a decades-younger clone of the detective, allowing “Unforgiven”-era Clint Eastwood to go head to head with “Dirty Harry”-era Eastwood. That's just an example of who they could cast, of course. It could have been any actor who had shot enough films as a younger actor for them to be able to draw sufficient reference material to use to build the younger version.

Looking at “Terminator: Genysys” this summer, I would not have said that we're really ready for “The Gemini Man” even now, but “Ant-Man” changed my mind. I thought it was spooky seeing how well that scene worked. What's important about the “Ant-Man” scene is that Douglas was part of making it work. He played the scene. He provided the guiding performance that FX artists used to create the digital performance, and he approved the way they manipulated his image.

If this story in The Daily Mail is correct (and it's The Daily Mail, so I suspect it is not), then there's a chance we'll see a digital Peter Cushing in “Star Wars: Rogue One.” Not a younger Cushing, of course, but a fully-digital one nonetheless. I have huge problems with this, not the least of which is that Cushing is not alive to sign off on that use of his image. That's why I think the report is nonsense, but let's say it's not. Let's say Disney and Lucasfilm have managed to negotiate with the estate of Cushing to make sure they have the legal right to use his image in a new context. Do they have the moral right to do so? Once someone is dead, should anyone really be allowed to use them to sell products or give “performances” or any other purpose?

It's always been one of the most ghoulish parts of Hollywood in general. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe have been two of the biggest movies stars in the world, year in and year out, ever since they were frozen in time by their deaths, and that seems to be part of the appeal. They are eternally cool, eternally beautiful. Their images are on t-shirts, posters, and are used to sell any number of things. If you visit Hollywood and drive around, the dead adorn every surface. They are everywhere. This is a vampiric industry, and there's no hesitation, no consideration of what it says about the people who constantly use these long-dead icons to line their own pockets. Sure, there are estates that also see some of the money, but how much? And considering how often these images are used without permission, is that really a fair argument?

Bruce Lee was resurrected for a commercial last year, and he's a character you can buy for a UFC game that EA released. I'll admit it… I bought the character, and my sons and I have had many rounds of Bruce Lee versus Bruce Lee or Bruce Lee versus Brock Lesnar or Bruce Lee versus any of the dozens of other fighters in the game, and it's fun. It also feels, when I think about it, deeply wrong. Lee was meticulous in the way he was depicted on film and about the way he approached each and every fight scene. To have digital artists reproducing his moves, no matter how faithfully, without his consent and control seems to me to be a very weird sort of wrong. Again… everyone's made sure to do everything legally. But just because you have the right to reanimate a dead person doesn't mean you should do it.

I hope this Tarkin rumor is garbage. I hope Lucasfilm is smart enough that if they're going to have the character appear, they just hire someone to play the part. I think it's disrespectful verging on grotesque to just drop Cushing into a film he never even heard of, much less agreed to appear in. There is a moment coming, and it may be here already, when the greatest asset any actor has will be their own digital image. Part of becoming a movie star will be signing a contract with a digital scanning company to do a completely head to toe scan of you at your physical peak. That digital asset will then be something that you not only own and control during your life, but that you pass on to your heirs once you're gone. Contract language is going to have to start becoming very specific about what can or can't be done with someone's likeness, and who has the ability to say yes or no to those things.

Like I said… it's a new age. And it's a very, very weird one.

“Star Wars: Rogue One” will be in theaters December 16, 2016, and will hopefully be 100% Cushing free.

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