Can Legendary Cinematic Performances Truly Be Brought Back To Life With CGI?

The act of trying to synthesize a classic is as seemingly alluring as it is difficult. Or maybe it’s impossible. Last week, we saw two distinct examples that may have proved that theory in the announced eventual return of James Dean’s visage to the big screen and the premiere of Doctor Sleep, the sorta sequel to The Shining. It’s at this point that I’ll point out that I’m going to spoil a sizeable surprise from the film here. That’s it. That’s the warning.

In a pivotal moment in Doctor Sleep, grown-up Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is confronted at the Overlook Hotel by his father, Jack Torrance, who has become stuck as the new version of Lloyd the Bartender following Jack’s ax-wielding breakdown at the end of The Shining. But Jack Torrance looks distinctly less Jack Nicholson-like than the last time we saw him (this is me discounting the Steven Webber TV-movie version). Instead, Torrance the elder is played by Henry Thomas with vague similarity to Nicholson’s version — at least in his look (and hairline).

Writer/Director Mike Flanagan spoke to Uproxx’s Mike Ryan about why he wanted to bring father and son together on the screen, the decision to recast, and why he opted against some kind of digital recreation of Nicholson. It’s a vital read if you want to learn a little bit more about the background here.

You may be happy, mad, or indifferent when reflecting on Flanagan’s eventual choice, but it’s easy to see his logic: the amount of throwbacks to The Shining would have required a level of CGI involvement that would have, for sure, overtaken the story he wanted to tell with Doctor Sleep (to say nothing of the budget). But while Flanagan’s choice to recast may have been right when weighed against the alternative, I’m not sure that they got what they wanted from the Danny/Jack exchange if what they wanted was to draw people deeper into this story.

This isn’t meant as a slight against Henry Thomas. He’s great, and cold, and menacing as a version of Jack Torrance. And, to an extent, that’s exactly what the job was. As Flanagan describes in the interview, he didn’t want a Jack Nicholson impression (even though the look is certainly aimed toward recalling Nicholson). But in trying to conjure an iconic meet-up that cuts out 40 years of spent time, something is lost. Something that probably can never be found by another actor or a digital avatar: the essence and manic electricity that Nicholson brought to his portrayal of the character that became utterly and unshakeably definitive. To try and re-create it guarantees a sensation not dissimilar to the uncanny valley effect that would have been felt had Flanagan used a digital marionette to pull all of this off. Basically, there was no right way to make this happen. They tried, it made an impact, but it’s also very easy to get taken out of the moment and the film as you compare Thomas’ mannerisms and the memory of Nicholson’s way with the character.

Warner Bros.

In a perfect world without earthly limits, that showdown would have been cathartic and special. You really can’t fault Flanagan for reaching for that, especially when playing in that sandbox. It’s harder to understand why director Anton Ernst needs to cast a computer-generated zombie of James Dean for Finding Jack, an upcoming Vietnam war era drama, however.

Ernst told The Hollywood Reporter that he and his co-director Tati Golykh “searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extreme[ly] complex character arcs” before landing on Dean. That’s a hell of a humblebrag, but Dean’s inclusion still feels kind of random. Ernst is also said to be “confused” by the backlash from the film community (and the larger culture on social media), talking about how they don’t want the story to suffer from the distraction. But is it surprising that people would have strong opinions about this level jump in dead celebrity CGI theater?

Ernst and Golykh (and their backers) have to realize that it was always going to be hard for this film to be thought of as anything other than the “CGI James Dean thing.” Finding Jack isn’t The Irishman, where digital de-aging is a part of the fascination, but certainly not as big a part of that as the thrill of seeing Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in a Martin Scorsese movie that takes the iconic director back to the genre from which he has drawn a lot of his greatest works.

Finding Jack also isn’t Rogue One, a Star Wars movie where we get a minor glimpse of a character (played by the departed Peter Cushing) constructed from archival footage and expensive digital masterwork. Something where the actor has already been a part of the franchise, so there would be, at least, a perceived comfort level with being associated with the project and the act of pseudo-reprising a role.

In a way, you almost feel bad for these filmmakers. Questions about whether they should do this (despite having approval from Dean’s estate) are going to continue to dominate the conversation at the start of this project. And when it comes out, people are going to drag the film if this CGI version of Dean can’t replicate the aura of cool that made him so unforgettable in his time. And like Thomas having to measure up to Nicholson’s Jack Torrance (even if that wasn’t the explicit battleplan), it’s just not a fair ask. Because while it seems like we can create almost anything imaginable and put it on a screen, the razzle-dazzle seems to bottleneck when it comes to what we’re able and/or willing to process and wholly believe, especially when it comes to duplicating iconic moments and mythical figures.

As for the outrage and the commerce of these things, well, the former will erode and in a few years with a few more projects like this caught in our teeth, we’ll all start to tire of the ethical debate over how legacies should be governed and by whom and for how long. We’ll just shrug. After all, isn’t that what happened to the whole “dead celebrities hawking vacuums and other products” thing? It just became normal, but also, sorta rare. Which ties into the commerce question. Because when was the last time you saw one of those aforementioned commercials? It’s the same thing with the promised rise of the dead rockstar hologram tour. There was Tupac at Coachella in 2012, a few other blips on the screen and some things that are still ongoing, but people aren’t talking about them on the regular and they certainly didn’t change the game or take over the world. At least not yet. Should we really assume that this kind of legend chasing will do any better and drift into the mainstream? As history has shown, the novelty and controversy may actually be the apex points of these things.