Over the holidays, I spoke with my friend who works in the CGI end of the film industry. It was just after Rogue One had come out, and we had a lot to hash out. Of course, one aspect of the movie he felt compelled to discuss was the CGI likeness of Peter Cushing which appeared in several scenes. He felt, for all the time and energy apparently spent on it, it should have looked better. By contrast, I found myself wondering not how it could have looked better, but whether it should have been done in the first place.
Cushing, who portrayed the memorable villain Grand Moff Tarkin in Episode IV, passed away in 1994. While the role was not entirely a CGI fabrication– actor Guy Henry performed the role, and his facial movements were translated to the digital Cushing mask placed over his face– there is something truly odd in a uniquely 21st century way about watching these new scenes featuring what appears to be the deceased Cushing.
Several other articles online consider the ethics of “resurrecting” a dead performer in this way. One piece from The Independent briefly touches on the potential future complications of creating perfect facsimiles of the dead, an idea inspired by the Tarkin scenes in Rogue One. Another considers the question of consent: is it enough to merely have the blessing of an estate, when it is unclear what a deceased person would have individually felt about, for all intents and purposes, working after their death? Would they have agreed to act at all without the autonomy that comes from working in the flesh?
My perspective on this matter draws on these questions, but adds yet another: does re-creating dead actors violate the very aesthetic experience that is the movie?
Consider the different kinds of aesthetic experiences an audience might enjoy from a single film or play. There’s composition, which has to do with whether the story is well told, with compelling characters, dialogue, etc. well-suited to the film’s purpose. An audience member might also enjoy strictly visual aspects of a film, savoring the kinds of pictures and images it evokes. These things considered, few aesthetic elements have quite the significant, visceral impact on an audience member’s investment in the work as performance. For as long as theater and film have existed people have marveled at the gifts of good actors. We enjoy watching them in almost the same way we become engrossed in finely tuned athletic ability of an Olympic hero. When an artist’s reputation precedes them, our knowledge of their skill serves to enhance the enjoyment of the performance.
Everyone who likes movies can point to at least one moment in their movie-going life when they were moved specifically by a reputably good actor’s performance, either in addition to, or even sometimes in spite of, other aesthetic elements in a film. I can point to several if asked, but for some reason whenever my brain looks up the term “good acting,” it goes first to Sean Penn’s performance in 2008’s Milk. He was given many accolades for his work in that film, and I particularly enjoyed watching him just vanish into his new personality, an skill which Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal called a “marvelous act of empathy.”
Sean Penn, as it turns out, is actually the perfect example on which to project my case for questioning the morality of recreating dead stars precisely because of the mountain of praise he has garnered over his career.
An artist must build legacy and reputation. Penn’s reputation as a thespian, while by no means perfect (forever Spicoli), has grown with him. If he were to die today, I would evaluate him wholistically as a good actor. This ability to evaluate his skill and work becomes much more difficult with the potential of his continued work beyond his death. Of course, one should say that it wasn’t Peter Cushing who acted in Rogue One, but someone else wearing his likeness. To that I would say, simply, think of the future. There will come a time, not too long from now, when we are able to create consciousness, and then models of specific people’s consciousnesses. The question of an artist’s reputation becomes blurrier here, where we can have an intelligent Penn facsimile act in films virtually forever. Who’s to say if the original Sean Penn would grow and change in the same way, if his artistry would run the same course. Who knows if an intelligent Penn facsimile could even act as well, without the pressure of his own mortality weighing in the back of his mind, as it does on us? The conclusion of our lives often provides a nice arc to the craft of lifelong artists, and adds an appreciable change in perspective and performance along the way. And yet, you could not say that that isn’t Sean Penn acting in 2048’s remake of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
I doubt very much that it would even be socially acceptable to discern between the two Penns if both had genuine intelligence. To say “I recognize only the real Sean Penn as an actor” would be dreadfully ignorant. Thus, we would be forced to consider both Penn’s one and the same because, aside from the excusable physical makeup of their bodies, they would be. As a result, evaluating the artist wholistically would be subject to so much more than the original Penn would be able to control. Is it morally correct, as a person who is not Sean Penn, to recreate Sean Penn, thus complicating his legacy? I’m not certain it is.
Of course, speculating about the impact of an intelligent, synthetic Sean Penn overlooks a massive trend in filmmaking, and indeed all corporate activities, to minimize costs. A digital Penn that is just sub-human will have the added financial appeal of not being as expensive as an actual, intelligent Sean Penn. In this case, programmers will be able to use partially constructed consciousness to create compelling performances without the light behind the eyes that would mean a big paycheck. You know, kind of like most hosts on Westworld. The acting career of Sean Penn would now become even more dubious, as people would not be able to definitively say that this new computer mock up isn’t Penn, nor would they be able to say it is. Rather than having a new arc or life to it, Sean Penn’s career would become stagnant, without the subtle changes that come with additional experience. Whatever Penn’s original wishes for his reputation might have been would become irrelevant, mowed down by the Hollywood profit machine.
To return to my earlier point, either of these alterations to the artist’s legacy would have a bearing on the audience’s aesthetic experience of the film in front of them. Without the idea of reputation, our ability to appreciate the artist’s performance as representative of his or her overall craft would be significantly diminished, thus reducing our appreciation of the production overall. Compelling though it might be, we’d know that we’re still only looking at a greatest hits mash-up of performances, rather than an authentic new work from a respected artist. The practice of resurrecting the dead to act in new films would leave a hole in the overall aesthetic value of a movie, however one might calculate it. As someone who finds works of art central to the health of a society, I cannot find a practice with such consequences ethical.
As an afterthought, we should consider why we feel the need to resurrect the dead for new performances in the first place. Why did Coachella some years back project Tupac on stage? Why create a digital mask of a relatively minor, albeit memorable Star Wars character?
In my opinion, the answer is simple: nostalgia.
Nostalgia is so powerful that it’s inspired an entire modern movement of looking backward in film and television. Think of the numerous reboots we’ve seen in mainstream film and TV in the past few years. Even mediocre works of the past, like Full House, have enjoyed a resurgence because companies like Netflix knew it could count on nostalgia to make the venture profitable. Disney, in particular, has learned that nostalgia is an incredible salesman for its movies. But nostalgia, as fun as it can be to play around with, is not a substitute for breaking new artistic ground. Films that rely on nostalgia as their primary motive only cause people to look backward, hardening them against the acceptance of change and distorting their perspective on where they’ve been before. When taken too many at a time, nostalgia films are bad for you. Seeing as the resurrection of the dead serves primarily this purpose, I’m forced to question the morality of the practice further.