In the history of film, no aspect of the movie making process is easier to see how far we have come than that of special effects. From 1903’s A Trip to the Moon to King Kong to Star Wars to James Cameron to the MCU, it is no secret that CGI is a key factor (if not the key factor) to a box office smash.
Back in 2008, the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button told the story of how the title character (played by Brad Pitt) lives a life in reverse: being born old then gradually getting younger. Since then, we have seen more examples of Hollywood using technology to either bring back actors to life, such as in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, with the character of General Tarkin being brought back despite the fact that the actor, Peter Cushing, died in 1994. The same movie used the same trick with Princess Leia, played by the late great Carrie Fisher (from what I have read, this will not be the case for the upcoming Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). Actors are also now able to look younger, most recently with Will Smith in Gemini Man and with characters in Martin Scoresese’s newest film, The Irishman (unseen by me at this writing, though I have been waiting for this more than any other 2019 film).
However, this technology has taken a big hit of criticism last week, when it was revealed that a film would be made using this form of CGI to bring back James Dean to star in a movie.
If this is the first time you are hearing about this, I assure you it is not a joke.
James Dean, who died over half a century ago, will be “brought back” to star in a movie. This ranks up with the “colorizing” of old movies (in which Ted Turner made Black and White classics look like trashy coloring books) as the most ludicrous of Hollywood ideas.
Anyone even remotely interested in film history will have heard of James Dean. Born in Indiana in 1931, he starred in only three films: East of Eden, Rebel without a Cause, and Giant (the only one of which I have yet to see).
Though he lived to see East of Eden released, he died in a car crash at the age of 24 nearly a month before the release of Rebel (for which he is probably most famous for). He was the first actor nominated posthumously for an Oscar, then received another posthumous Oscar the next year (for East of Eden and Giant, respectively). The true legend of Dean was now born.
In the 1950s, he grew up when it was cool to rebel, and became one of the symbols of the term (the others would be Elvis Presley and Dean’s own idol, Marlon Brando). Like Brando, he brought a new type of acting to the screen (most commonly known as “the method”), making Dean seem more visceral and raw than others before him. Who knows what kind of career he would have had if it weren’t for his fatal car crash (he was a notorious fan of high speed racing).
His influence is clearly felt to this day (even The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau is a fan, hence “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”), or else directors Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh would not have had the idea to use him (well, his image) in their upcoming movie Finding Jack. Based off of a book of the same name by author Gareth Crocker, the film is about a Vietnam soldier named Fletcher Carson (Dean) who is recovering from a recent tragedy. Despite wishing to die in the war, he befriends a dog that brings his life new meaning.
According to the filmmakers, they did plenty of auditions for the role of Carson, but decided that Dean would be the only actor who could play him, despite the fact that another actor will have to voice the character.
There are a few instances where this has been used are far back as commercials in the 1990s, such as soda commercials involving Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. During the 84th Academy Awards (the one that was sadly hosted by James Franco and Anne Hathaway), there was a segment when Billy Crystal came out to talk about the legendary Bob Hope as a projection of Hope was on stage cracking jokes. Though there was no real reason for this other than to show the technology (the image of Hope basically introduced the next presenters), I still found it cool (I mean, Bob Hope was arguably the greatest Oscar host of all time. Even Billy Crystal would say the same.) The difference is that was the performer representing themselves, not used to serve a work of fiction as some sort of puppet.
God gave us Artistic freedom, but I would argue that this is robbing others of their freedom. Not just the living actors who could perform these parts (the filmmakers said they auditioned many before they determined only James Dean could play the part, but since the Screen Actors Guild has roughly 160,000 members, I have some doubts), but also the director. Film director/icon Alfred Hitchcock said, “In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director”.
Thankfully, the idea of digitally “reanimating” deceased stars is being shot down in the media. Captain America himself Chris Evans has called it “shameful”, as have others such as Dylan Sprouse and Elijah (“Frodo Baggins”) Wood. Perhaps the biggest opponent of the idea is Zelda Williams, daughter of the late great comic Robin Williams, pointing out how her father would not let anyone use his likeness of this sort for 25 years after his death (and if there is ANYONE you can not replicate, it is Robin Williams).
It gets even worse. A licensing specialist CMG Worldwide has combined with a creation studio named Observe Media to form Worldwide XR. According to their website, James Dean is just the beginning (they do plan on using his image more, using the shameless phrase “Think of it as James Dean 2.0”). They have plans for other celebrities, not just film stars like James Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Dorothy Dandridge, Rock Hudson, and Christopher Reeve. From what I have seen, this would include people such as wrestler Andre the Giant, baseball legends “Shoeless” Joe Jackson & Lou Gehrig, jazz drummer Buddy Rich, and aviation icon Amelia Earhardt.
The idea of this is not only foolish, but borderline dangerous. I don’t just mean from a financial aspect (the cost of The Irishman was mainly related to the technology). It is bringing people back to life who more than likely did not know about this advanced tech in the first place (let alone any tech, for that matter. It is almost like necromancy for the 21st century.
Imagine if Jordan Peterson had his image taken, and someone was able to have him talk (or someone imitate his voice) about the wonders of atheism. It would be like me, someone who is five foot, made to look like I can out dunk Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It is as if the people in charge failed to remember the advice given from Jurassic Park in which Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) argues about why bring dinosaurs back to life is a bad idea.
“Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”