There is, as those who have seen will know, something deeply creepy at the heart of the new Star Wars movie, ‘Rogue One.’ Don’t get me wrong. I’m bowled over by the film itself. I think it’s better than ‘Force Awakens’ and may well be the strongest iteration of the franchise since ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ But that’s not it, not at all.
When we’re not being pummelled into new dimensions by the special effects – the cleverest of which involve the Death Star either in orbit or on the horizons of various unfortunate planets – the nerds among us can revel in spotting the numerous references to other movies. The darkness of the thing is a huge nod in the direction of Game of Thrones. All those kiddies who keep hearing about the show but rail that their parents won’t let them watch it because of all the graphic nudity; not to worry: Disney has you covered: this is Game of Thrones in space, without the naughty bits.
Look, wasn’t that the Japanese legend Zaitoichi suddenly showing up on an alien planet? Come to think of it, one of the scenes involving him is a straight lift from Mulan. But Mulan is another Disney movie, and after all, if you can’t rip off yourself, who’s left?
And I’m not even giving out about that. Mainstream movies constantly reference other films and stories. Part of the fun of Rogue One is watching the skill with which it is done. One of the worst things about ‘Avatar’ was the crude, brainless way it harvested the corpses of other concepts, such as ‘Brainstorm’ and ‘Alien.’ How it could have done with a writer who understood how to do a tight script, which is something Rogue One benefits from enormously.
But that’s not it, not at all. The ‘it’ is the presence of Peter Cushing, an actor I know to have been dead since 1994, reprising his 1977 role as Governor Tarkin, complete with new lines and gestures. No. This isn’t some remarkable lookalike pretending to be Cushing, it’s the guy himself, reanimated from beyond the grave, the first digitally undead actor (that I am aware of) to star in a main feature.
After a while, of course, you begin to spot things. The technology behind Cushing’s CGI resurrection is awe inspiring, but it’s not perfect yet. There’s something about that weirdly feral glare from the eyes; the way his temples seem to keep flexing. During his actual biological time upon Planet Earth, the actor famously resembled a vampire, in his new, digital undeath, he looks even more like the real deal, and it only serves to make what the producers have done even more unsettling.
These are, after all, the people who gave us Lassie and Pinocchio, not to mention Herbie the Volkswagen, well, not exactly the same people, but you know what I mean. Now they’re handing us reanimation: dead flesh served up in scary digital facsimile. What used to be the stuff of horror movies is now part of a Disney main feature. Can there be any better metaphor for the age?
It is a testament to the age that I fretted about the legalities long before thinking about the ethics. Surely, I reasoned, somebody would have had to sign some form of waiver, they couldn’t just go along and do it, could they?
It turns out that Cushing died in 1994 without heirs, and his estate was willed to the woman who had served as his assistant. Reports about exactly what kind of agreement she signed are hazy, but she is quoted somewhere as expressing a deal of shock about the result. If memory serves, Cushing was regarded as being a religious man while he lived. Did she stop to think what he might have thought about this reincarnation?
Yes, I can already hear some of the arguments: if it’s a crime, it’s an entirely victimless one, any injury is entirely theoretical etc. But it bothers me that we have crossed a new Rubicon in terms of how we perceive life and death and the way someone’s memory should or should not be respected, and there has been absolutely no discussion about it, because Disney’s corporate right to keep its plot lines secret comes before any other consideration, human or metaphysical.
There was a time in my life when I very briefly considered becoming a professional actor. Chickening out is one of the very few life choices I’m glad I made, because now you have to compete for parts not just against the better connected living, but against the dead as well.
The technology isn’t quite there yet, but it is, without doubt, only a matter of time, and not much time at that. Why bother auditioning new guys for that remake of ‘North by NorthWest,’ when you can just reanimate Cary Grant instead? Surely a digital Marilyn Monroe is just around the corner. Will she fall foul of a digital President and digital gangsters, and end up shocking the world with her digital tragedy, washed away on a wave of digital booze and pills?
Will, some years hence, a digital Dustin Hoffman find himself admonished by a digital Lawrence Olivier for taking the whole method thing way too seriously: “ever try acting, old boy?” And while we’re on the subject of method, what on Earth will happen to poor Daniel Day Lewis when he’s confronted with a digital version of himself that acts better than he can?
Oh brave new world, let me off at this stop please!