Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
Warning: This article reveals critical plot plots from “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
Of all the surprises seen in “Rogue One,” none was more unexpected — or more divisive — than the return of Grand Moff Tarkin, whose presence might have been less of a shock if actor Peter Cushing hadn’t died in 1994.
While this isn’t the first time that a movie has used technology to bring someone back from the grave, the prominence of Tarkin’s role in “Rogue One” has rekindled the debate over digitally manipulating deceased performers. For this week’s survey, we asked our panel of critics a question (or two) that taps into all sorts of fascinating implications: Was the technology in “Rogue One” used unethically, and how did Cushing’s appearance impact your experience of the film?
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko), Pajiba/CBR.com
Within “Rogue One” I found this technique alarming and off-putting. For one thing, this CGI Cushing looks a sliver too animated, his face pulling mugs like a Pixar villain. For another, I know Cushing’s dead! So his appearance ripped me out of the film as my brain ran down a path (screaming) of hows and wtf.
This resurrection path from uncanny valley seems inevitable. The ethics of such a thing were explored in Ari Folman’s surreal 2013 drama “The Congress.” Disney has used CG to recreate younger versions of Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. for “Ant-Man” and “Captain America: Civil War,” respectively. And before that, both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were resurrected and repurposed to hawk vacuum cleaners and Volkswagens. But its inevitability doesn’t make it less atrocious. There’s an important distinction between making a living actor look younger for a flashback and slapping a deceased performer’s face in a new film. The latter cannot consent. Sure, their estates can sign off. And perhaps in the case of Cushing his approval is assumed since he appeared in previous “Star Wars” films. In this case, it might well be sold as well-intentioned fan service. But the fact remains Cushing couldn’t say no.
As much as the public prefers to think of actors as personas not people, we — and the studios — do not own them. And so to take their likeness and voices and reconstruct them to new end when they can’t consent is repugnant and wrong.
Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York
Is this a thing we’re supposed to be upset about? Strikes me as the height of preciousness. If you’re even remotely familiar with Peter Cushing’s career in horror (in movies about reanimation, no less), it’s not hard to imagine that he probably would have gotten a huge kick out of this. Instead, we have to assume a finicky disdain as self-appointed protectors of Cushing’s integrity — a pose that’s far worse than digitally bringing him back to life. Also, this whole franchise is a goddamn corpse brought back to life.
Why are we singling out the one element that’s actually a little weird and arresting and uncanny? I woke up during those moments.
Mike Ryan (@MikeRyan), Uproxx
Lucasfilm secured the rights to do it, so it’s not unethical. And I’m glad there will be a new “Rogue One” wing added to the Peter Cushing estate. But, the technology isn’t there yet. I’d have preferred an actor who just kind of looked like Peter Cushing. Honestly, I have no idea what Tarkin said most of the movie because I couldn’t concentrate on anything but those freaky-looking CGI lips. That said, I hope CGI Peter Cushing wins an Oscar just to read the “I think acting awards should go to living people” think pieces.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
I confess: I didn’t realize that the actor in question was 1. Peter Cushing, and 2. reanimated from the dead, until after I saw fretful tweets on the subject. While watching the movie, I was struck by a performance that seemed a little different, a little more roundly rhetorical than the others, but also a little more feet-on-the-ground… a little more real. It’s ludicrous to worry about fidelity to reality and to life in a movie that’s made by computer — and if the direction of the actors were better (there’s nothing wrong with the actors themselves), Cushing’s presence would rather have stood out as unpleasantly artificial. Instead, Edwards failed to get much in the way of performance from anyone (or if he got it, his bosses left it in the cutting-room hard-drive). The only difference between Cushing’s work here and Brad Pitt’s in the splendid “Benjamin Button” is that Pitt is alive to consent. If Cushing’s estate consented, end of ethical issue.
The real question is one of art. How about “Jackie” in which Jacqueline Kennedy’s face is superimposed onto Natalie Portman’s, or “Viktoria” in which the Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov’s real face is digitally transplanted onto that of the actor, Georgi Spasov, who plays him? In those cases, the ethics would involve the consent of the actor — and the art involves an element of expense that such modest films are unlikely to be able to incur. With the rise of reincarnations, the digital divide only gets wider — but digital wizardry is no more of a guarantor of the art of movies than is the simple and naturalistic filming of what a filmmaker finds in front of the camera. There’s no formula — but any new tool of the medium is potentially a springboard for invention, imagination, inspiration. Maybe the merit of the digital-reincarnation technology in “Rogue One” is that, being a novelty, it aroused Edwards’s, or the CGI technicians’, imagination in a way that more familiar ones didn’t.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
In my review of “Rogue One,” I wrote that CG Tarkin “might just be the worst (and most overplayed) CG character in the history of modern Hollywood… As damning a pox upon the ‘Star Wars’ franchise as Jar Jar Binks or the digital Jabba that was inserted into the special edition of ‘A New Hope.’ The results are unnatural, unethical, and borderline unholy. Worst of all, they’re hideous. Cushing’s lifeless digital husk is a blight upon the most beautiful ‘Star Wars’ film to date, its presence squeezing the air out of several different scenes. Zombie Tarkin is macabre, distracting, and the start of a long slide down a slippery slope, but — worse than that — his presence isn’t just a blemish on the face of ‘Rogue One,’ it’s a symptom of its fatal decision to glorify the past at the expense of charting a new course for the present. But here we are, the filmmakers casting themselves as Lazarus lost in the uncanny valley, so turned around that no one realized how much better the movie would be if it ditched Tarkin entirely (his sole purpose is to defang Orson Krennic, a villain who’s reduced to nothing but another phantom menace).”
Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan of this whole idea. But I’m less concerned with the ethics of Tarkin’s inclusion (however knotted they may be) than I am with the galling un-specialness of the effect. Resistance to this kind of “progress” is futile, and Hollywood has a long history of deploying visual techniques before they’re perfect (in retrospect, this can even be kitschy or charming), but Tarkin is grossly symptomatic of a blockbuster era in which the effects are wagging the dog. How does that line from “Jurassic Park” go? “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should?”
Well, when it comes to “Rogue One,” they couldn’t and they shouldn’t have. Not only is Tarkin a buzz-killing eyesore, but his character submarines the movie. You can’t tell the story of the Death Star without this guy? Fine, beam him in for a hologram cameo. But making him as central as he is here sucks the life out of the film’s real villain, reducing Krennic from a compellingly frustrated middle manager to a comically underwritten nuisance who does nothing but remind you how good this movie might have been.
Germain Lussier (@GermainLussier), Gizmodo/io9
This conversation feels like one people probably had in Hollywood decades ago. “Why would anyone want to see movies in color?” “Movies don’t need sound!” “How dare they bring back dead actors with CGI?” CGI characters are a fact of life and a continually evolving step in the development of the art of film. And much like those early color or sound films, the quality of them are only going to get better.
Did Tarkin take me out of the film for a second? Yes. I was not expecting to see him nor the amount of screentime he got. The same can be said for the other CG character who, to my eyes, did not look as realistic. (Neither looked “realistic” but Tarkin was closer, to me.) As a fan though, I expect Star Wars to be on the cutting edge of technology. (Don’t forget Jar Jar was the first fully CG character, “Attack of the Clones” was the first feature fully shot on digital, not to mention everything ILM did with the Original Trilogy). So to see those beloved characters in the film, in anyway, was special for me and on brand, even if they weren’t perfect. And narratively, they make sense, but that’s another story.
Now, is it ethical to do this? The only people I’d trust with that answer are the people responsible with the legacy of the actors in question. In this case, Peter Cushing’s estate is credited, thanked, and likely well paid for this right. If they’re okay with it, who are we to say that it’s wrong? Plus, put yourself in Peter Cushing’s shoes. If you knew decades after you passed away, not only would people still want to see you on the big screen, they would cheer it, wouldn’t that be something you’d be happy and okay with? I think that’s more likely than his family is trying to make a quick buck or something.
Also, I think the process here was performance capture (though I haven’t read that for sure). So a real actor was on set, performing, and then they were overlayed with the original actors. This to me seems like an evolution of Gollum and Caesar, which most people don’t really have a problem with. Those aren’t actual humans of course, but there’s an art to it, it’s not a smash and grab job.
Filmmaking technology like that is always moving forward and some of it is complicated and controversial. This is no different. I think the implications are kind of scary, but I sincerely doubt we get to a point where Hollywood is remaking classic films with the original, deceased, actors, even if they could. What’s the point? So, in this case, I’m okay with it and though it doesn’t look perfect, it works.
Jonathan Olley..© 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd.
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics / Film School Rejects
Is it ethical for Marilyn Monroe to be selling Snickers in 2016? Is it ethical for Paul Walker to be in a Fast and Furious shot he didn’t personally film before he died during its making? Is it now ethical for Peter Cushing to be co-starring in a Star Wars movie 22 years posthumously? I actually think the last of these is the least strange because it’s not exactly recycling the man’s previous physical work. It’s an animated likeness of the Grand Moff Tarkin that Cushing played. This is a bad example given the controversy behind it, but it’s more like Jeffrey Weissman made to look and act like Crispin Glover in the Back to the Future sequels. It’s more about an iconic character being replayed by someone else, it’s just that in “Rogue One” the someone else is computer art.
My acceptance isn’t necessarily approval. Why couldn’t he have just been played by another actor doing his best attempt to imitate Cushing and maybe even been made up to look like him? Would they have digitally recreated Richard Harris if they had the technology to do so better when Harris died instead of replacing him with Michael Gambon? The same year they brought Laurence Olivier back from the dead for “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” Two years later they brought back Marlon Brando for “Superman Returns.” Both of those were unclear faces and brief appearances. Olivier never said he wanted to be in the latter. Brando at least had played Jor-El before. Still they have credits for movies they never even knew about.
Cushing is not in “Rogue One.” He’s not credited for playing him. Guy Henry is. That’s the actor who filled in on set. They then threw a digital version of Tarken, how he looked as played by Cushing over him. Star Wars has been doing this for a while, in a way. It just looked better when they had Christopher Lee to film his own face before it was superimposed over his stunt double. It’s unfortunate that they are still putting tech out before it’s completely perfect, just as they did with CG Yoda. Speaking of whom, will it be okay for Yoda to be voiced by someone other than Frank Oz but imitating Frank Oz when he dies? It’s done with cartoon characters and Muppets, and now it’s being done in facial form as well as voice. It’s all definitely worth discussing the ethics of, but this case I find better than most.