Films When Geppeto set about creating his artificial boy (as in Giulio Antamoro's adaptation), little could he comprehend, probably because he’s a fictional character, that centuries later, later craftspeople would be capable of producing near lifelike digital marionettes through photographic technology. But that’s what we witnessed this Christmas, when Grand Admiral Tarkin and other special guests appeared in Rogue One: a Star Wars prequel (story).
Which isn’t to say the results are entirely perfect. Beneath the digital Cushing mask, a real actor with an equally impressive stage and screen career, Guy Henry, provides the voice and motion captured performance providing an underlying sense of humanity, yet the results still tip into the uncanny valley. We’re not completely convinced that Sir Peter is back giving a performance, probably because it’s not easy to forget that someone has died.
Much as has been written about the ethics of this decision, of attempting to make an actor posthumously “live” again and give a new performance and I can understand why some would find it distasteful. My adoration for Audrey Hepburn leads me to conclude that the appropriation of her image for selling chocolate bars is an atrocity as is Gene Kelly’s reanimation for a car commercial (his meticulous choreography replaced with something else entirely).
In Ari Folman’s film The Congress, Robin Wright plays a version of herself in alternative future in which actors are able to sign away the use of their image for film work in perpetuity, even past their death, the version scanned and capture as part of the agreement allowing them never to age on screen. The difference there, I suppose, is that the actor agrees to the procedure, even if they regret it afterwards as they see their image used in projects they fundamentally disagree with.
Back to Star Wars and where I stand. I think it’s fine. But I think the ethical fine line is hair thin. In the case of Star Wars, they’re recreating a character, albeit in a near photo-realistic form, which is no better or worse than when the same being appears in the tv series, in Rebels or The Clone Wars. It’s all animation with someone other than Cushing providing voice work or a performance, fulfilling a particular narrative function.
The other potential approach would have been to have Henry simply playing Tarkin and expect the audience to simply accept that the same character was being played by a different actor, as per Saavik across the Star Trek movies. And although it’s true that digi-Tarkin still pulls the viewer out of the film because he doesn’t feel quite right, it does create a clearer sense of continuity with A New Hope.
But this is one of only a few examples where this would be acceptable. If Hammer suddenly had an uptick in budget and decided to create a new horror film starring Cushing, that would be a more dubious decision. Or if someone decided to create a new romcom with Emma Stone swapping meet cute with a young Cary Grant, or a western with Ryan Gosling sparring with John Wayne.
Not that there would be frankly much point. Film is built on renewal and change, the old guard giving way to the new, for better or worse and I’m not sure there’s even an appetite from the audience for this sort of thing. Given the choice, I’d much rather watch a Monroe romcom within which I can be sure she was creatively invested rather than some contemporary pale imitation. There are enough remakes and sequels which fit that category already.