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The Undeath of Cinema 

Alexi Sargeant

In a world of serial storytelling, characters commonly outlive the actors who play them. Makers of film and television find ways to respond to the death of an actor, from recasting a role without comment (like Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films) to making the changeover of lead actors a central motif of a series (the Doctor in Doctor Who). Disney pioneered a new response in its latest Star Wars movie: resurrecting a deceased actor to reprise a role from beyond the grave. The technology on display here is impressive. But it both denigrates the craft of acting and violates the dignity of the human body by treating it as a mere puppet.

Peter Cushing’s performance in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is remarkable because Cushing died in 1994. Industrial Light & Magic’s computer-generated imagery (CGI) wizards digitally resurrected Cushing to once again portray the villainous Imperial Grand Moff Tarkin, a central antagonist of the original 1977 Star Wars, in which the character ­brutally orders the destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan. Recreating Cushing for Rogue One was experimental in two senses: Disney was testing out both the technology and audiences’ reactions to it.

A sad accident of timing made another use of CGI in Rogue One more attention-grabbing. The movie concludes with a brief cameo of a young Princess Leia, also created with CGI. In this case, the original actress, Carrie Fisher, was alive to see the result and give it her approval. But Fisher died on December 27, 2016, during the theatrical run of Rogue One. For many viewers, this made the brief appearance of a young Princess Leia in the film all the more uncanny. Even reviews written before Fisher passed away singled out the de-aged Leia as a more distracting character reprise than Tarkin, especially since it was meant to close out the movie on a note of hopeful nostalgia. As reviewer Kelly Lawler put it, “While Tarkin is merely unnerving, the Leia cameo is so jarring as to take the audience completely out of the film at its most emotional moment.”

And yet, Cushing’s posthumous “performance” represents the more groundbreaking and dubious use of the technology. CGI de-aging of still-living actors is already widespread in the industry, in ways both subtle (the “Photoshopping” of movie stars to unrealistic physical perfection) and obvious (creating younger versions of actors like Michael Douglas and Kurt Russell for flashbacks in recent Marvel movies). Digital resurrection, on the other hand, is a much more uncharted territory.

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Alexi Sargeant is a theater director and culture critic who writes from New York.

Alexi Sargeant, "The Undeath of Cinema," The New Atlantis, Number 53, Summer/Fall 2017, pp. 17-32.