Warning: Minor spoiler for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ahead
As we approach the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story‘s first week in theaters it’s clear that Disney and Lucasfilm have produced another huge hit. For many fans, it’s the prequel they always dreamed of, seamlessly connecting its story to the events of Episode IV: A New Hope. Not only does Rogue One‘s central mission work as a perfect setup for where A New Hope begins, but pivotal characters from the Star Wars universe who we’d expect to be taking part in the events preceding A New Hope do exactly that.
For instance, Darth Vader appears briefly in Rogue One, menacing both Director Krennic and a slew of hapless rebels. His inclusion works on many levels. Narratively, it only makes sense for audiences to learn what the big bad of A New Hope is up to during the time just before his arrival on Princess Leia’s ship. And from an effects standpoint, it’s also something which can be easily accomplished thanks to Darth Vader being a character who is completely obscured by his mask and armor. As long as James Earl Jones is alive and available to record dialogue, Darth Vader can be reproduced on screen in basically the exact same condition as he was first seen in 1977. In his case, it’s very much the suit (and voice) that makes the man.
Rogue One features a litany of characters from across the franchise, from crucial roles to cameos, but in this respect, the movie’s crowning achievement comes from “resurrecting” Peter Cushing through some unparalleled digital effects work to again “play” the role of Grand Moff Tarkin. There is no A New Hope without Grand Moff Tarkin, and the same is true of Rogue One. The two films occur so closely to one another within the Star Wars timeline that to exclude the Grand Moff would have been a huge oversight. It’s also near impossible to imagine another actor (especially in a live-action performance) imbuing that role with the same sense of authority and arrogance as Cushing did. Unlike Darth Vader, what makes Grand Moff Tarkin tick isn’t so easily replicated by just putting another actor in a suit. Or is it?
Tarkin’s role in Rogue One is not a minor one; the character has just as much (if not possibly more) screen time than he does in the original Star Wars. There was a clear decision made by the filmmakers to include Tarkin as much as they did, as well as a clear decision to do so in the manner they did. As many have already noted, it would have been possible to cast a look-alike actor (which is exactly what happened for Tarkin’s quick appearance in Revenge of the Sith) or cleverly obscure Tarkin’s face for the scenes in which he appears. Yet it’s equally possible that those methods may have proven even more distracting, either leaving audiences to compare one actor’s performance with another, or wonder why they were never given a clear look at such a pivotal character.
Though Rogue One is hardly the first film to bring back the dead – either through the use of old footage or digitally created effects – it is certainly the first film to have pulled off the feat so convincingly (some viewers weren’t even aware the character was CGI). And for those did know that Cushing, having died in 1994, couldn’t have actually been involved, the finished effect was still astonishing. Sure, upon close inspection his skin is a tad too shiny and his eyes don’t track exactly as a real human’s would, so it isn’t as if Rogue One‘s CGI-Cushing can fully escape the uncanny valley. But still, what is achieved in Rogue One is remarkable and a huge leap forward technologically. For both casual viewers and longtime fans, Peter Cushing – or, at least, his eerily accurate likeness – did once again grace the big screen.
In Rogue One, the CGI Cushing is by most accounts a success, but it has raised questions that go beyond Star Wars. Obviously, in the case of a franchise like this one, those actors’ likenesses are in a sense “owned” by Lucasfilm. This is what enables the manufacture of countless pieces of merchandise plastered with Luke and Han and Leia’s faces. In that sense, using Cushing’s likeness in Rogue One can be seen as simply an extension of that principle (for the record, permission was sought and granted by Cushing’s estate). But the CGI Cushing isn’t only replicating his physical likeness, but his performance, his voice, his mannerisms – everything that makes up Cushing’s portrayal of Tarkin was painstakingly recreated for this film. Does all of that take it a step too far?
Imagine, if you will, an entire film cast with dead actors. Even if all the necessary permissions were granted and the project used them tastefully – as Rogue One does with Cushing – does that make it right? Where does the performance of the actor under the digital make-up end and the one recreated with digital wizardry begin? This question has been explored in the context of motion capture performances of CGI creatures (most notably, the Planet of the Apes prequels), but it takes on a whole new dimension when the CGI creation is an actual person who was once alive.
Isn’t it a little morbid? Is it frivolous to think we can just as easily populate a screen with facsimiles of real people as we can aliens? What about a historical film that expertly recreates the likenesses of dead but very real people? Is that being faithful to the material, or is it insulting to imagine we can recreate normal, everyday people, not just actors or characters, for the movies? And what happens to the living, breathing actors of today? Are they to accept roles in a film that will cover them with Humphrey Bogart or Marilyn Monroe’s face?
Bringing everything back to Star Wars for a final note, it seems unlikely that this will be the last time Industrial Light & Magic will employ this technology, and it almost certainly will happen again in a Star Wars film. Looking ahead, might Rian Johnson choose to resurrect Sir Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi as a force ghost in Star Wars: Episode VIII? There’s certainly precedence, with Guinness’ voice being used during The Force Awakens, and given that he’s already been a force ghost before it might make sense to have him return alongside Yoda to help guide Rey on her journey. For as much talk as there is of Ewan McGregor reprising the role, it now seems plausible Guinness could do the same.
Given the success Rogue One has had in recreating a Peter Cushing performance, the future potential of this technology is vast, and it’s clear that such a technique will need to be handled on a case by case basis. But just because one film has done so as respectfully as anyone could have hoped, there’s no guarantee the next will treat it in the same way. The film industry has certainly proven that they can bring back characters as they were portrayed by since-deceased actors, but we need to also be concerned with the question of whether not they should.
What did you think of Tarkin’s appearance in Rogue One? Let us know in the comments.