The Larger Implications of Hollywood’s De-Aging Fascination

Hollywood seems hell-bent on de-aging its stars. We look at what this really says about the blockbuster ecosystem.

Oh, Ridley. Every time director Ridley Scott seems to be making headway with his audiences – where people start believing that maybe 2012’s Prometheus might not actually be the kiss of death for the Alien franchise we all feared – he has to go and say something that turns the dial back to zero. Earlier this week, an excerpt from Empire Magazine’s feature on Alien: Covenant included one particularly disheartening tidbit: Scott was not necessarily ruling out the decision to digitally de-age Sigourney Weaver in future films in the franchise. And while some might consider this simply wild speculation on the part of Scott, his colleague, or the magazine, there’s enough smoke here that we should probably address this head on: digital de-aging isn’t necessarily a bad technique, it’s just a terribly unimaginative one.

All else being equal, I find the process of de-aging – as describing in detail in this 2016 New York Magazine story – absolutely fascinating. A skilled Hollywood technician uses the tools available to him or her, and digitally adjusting the age of your stars requires no less skill than the application of a rubber nose and a whole bunch of latex. My only problem? It’s further proof that blockbuster filmmakers are taught that, while they may be asked to compromise on vision, they’ll never be asked to compromise on visuals. Just last month, IndieWire spoke with actor Keegan-Michael Key about his upcoming slate of films and what he admires about the independent film scene. In the interview, Key voiced his opinion about the largesse of most blockbuster films, offering the following exercise as a potential solution:

So I wish studios would say, across the board for a year – and this is never going to happen – every feature we make, no matter how long or big the script is, everybody gets $20 million. That’s it. That’s all you get. $20 million for your principal photography budget. Right there, that’s still $10 million more than the most expensive indie you’re going to see. But we get bogged down.

This idea isn’t as far-fetched as you might think – entire features have been written about Jason Blum’s rigid adherence to movies that cost under five million dollars – but it does perfectly encapsulate my issue with the digital de-aging process. If you’re trying to make a summer movie on only $20 million dollars, you need to maximize the storytelling function of each effect in your movie. Take Marvel. The superhero factory opened eyes with the digital de-aging of Michael Douglas in Ant-Man and Robert Downey Jr. in Avengers: Civil War, but both special effects sequences were done because they had the money, not because it was absolutely necessary. Marvel could’ve chosen to cast younger actors; they could’ve conveyed the relevant information in a disjointed or first-person flashback; hell, they could have done away with the flashbacks entirely. But Marvel had the resources to de-age its two stars, so voila, now exists a frighteningly authentic recreation of both Douglas and Downey (albeit ones with slightly rubbery lips).

The simple solution is to write around the things that won’t work on camera. I’m no screenwriter, but it took me a whopping five minutes yesterday to come up with an approach to Weaver’s character that would require zero digital effects. We know from the special edition of Aliens that Weaver stood in as the older version of her daughter Amanda; why not have a 70-something Weaver play the older version of Ripley’s daughter? Instead of digitally de-aging your star for one last action-packed battle between heroine and monsters, you could make a far more poignant movie about a woman who is willing to throw away her life’s fortune for closure on what happened to her mother. And what about Peter Cushing’s eerie digital doppelgänger in Rogue One? There’s no obvious reason to bring the venerable British actor into the standalone Star Wars film – unless you think your audiences are really that stupid and need an additional reminder of when this movie takes place – so either get rid of him entirely or find a way to imbue an object with Cushing’s screen presence. Show a door at the end of the hall that soldiers are loath to walk through or mimic his voice and have him only appear via an intercom. It’s cheap, it’s obvious, but it also requires you to come up with a good idea. De-aging is many things, but a good idea? That it isn’t.

Of course, the real big test of digital de-aging has yet to come. A few months ago, reports leaked that Martin Scorsese was tinkering with the digital de-aging process for The Irishman, his epic crime thriller that follows gangster Frank Sheeran at many points in his life. Should Scorsese choose to move forward with this project – should we be treated to old-sounding 20-year-olds in Netflix’s expensive film – there may be a lot of people wondering why Scorsese didn’t just hire a younger group of actors to play the roles. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: if the movie you want to make seems simple but will require ungodly amounts of money, maybe it’s not the money you should be worrying about. Maybe it’s the simple.