Last week, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that James Dean will star in an upcoming war drama called Finding Jack. Yes, the very same James Dean who has been dead for 64 years at the time of this writing. And when I say James Dean, I mean a CGI version of the deceased actor who will be voiced by someone else. Hooray for technology!
According to directors Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh, they searched “high and low” for the right actor to play digital Dean’s character. However, after being unable to find a real living person anywhere on the planet who was suitable for the role, they opted for Dean. After being granted permission from his family, of course.
As soon as the news came to light, we should have known that it would give birth to an eerie new trend of bringing dead celebrities back for more hurrahs. That said, the signs that dark days are ahead have been apparent for years, ever since Tupac Shakur’s hologram performed with Snoop Dogg at Coachella. But it looks like these digital exhumations are about to become commonplace.
Earlier this week, Variety revealed that a new company Worldwide XR, employees of which worked on Dean’s digital incarnation for Finding Jack, has been formed with the intention of creating more digital humans for entertainment purposes. Furthermore, they own the rights to over 400 famous people, and I suspect that they’ll add more to the roster in the coming years.
Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Rock Hudson, and Burt Reynolds are some of the more notable actors who could make a comeback courtesy of Worldwide XR. However, the company also controls the images of nonactors like Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, so don’t be surprised if we see them exploit the Civil Rights Movement as well.
Call me cynical, but this is a moral bankruptcy of the highest order. Despite the outcry surrounding the Dean news — not that it was a good idea, mind you — they chose to press ahead with the aim of desecrating more dead celebrities through digital necromancy. The company founders have defended their intentions by promising that they’ll do justice to the people they’re re-creating while arguing that the emergence of digital humans is inevitable. Why not then, eh?
Unfortunately, they are right in regards to the inevitability of more digital humans populating our screens. The technique of de-aging actors has been all the rage in recent years. On top of that, Disney has used the likeness of deceased performers, namely Peter Cushing in the Star Wars franchise.
There’s an argument to be made in favor of Disney’s decision because Cushing agreed to be a part of the franchise in the past. I don’t think it’s a good argument, however, as bringing him back as a digital avatar is still kinda creepy and has only helped fuel this problematic trend.
There are a couple of huge issues with this burgeoning craze. First of all, the actors in question aren’t around to give their consent. Their estates can do it on their behalf, sure, but that’s still not the same as an actor actually agreeing to be a part of a movie. I’m sure some estates would let Hollywood physically rob their ancestors’ graves if the money was good.
Many of these performers worked to create legacies, to star in works they felt passionate about. If they made mistakes along the way, at least they did so under their own accord. Casting them in movies long after they’ve departed is not only disrespectful of their agency, but it risks tarnishing their legacies. It will be tragic if future generations base their opinion of Dean through his CGI zombie and not the performer who gave us classics like Rebel Without a Cause.
Then there’s the excellent point that Bette Midler made following the Dean news. She stated that even dead white guys can still find work in Hollywood. She makes a great point — casting digital restorations makes it more difficult for today’s actors to get work. If this trend keeps escalating, there will come a day when filmmakers see casting fresh talent as superfluous.
The beauty of cinema is that it allows performers to live forever, but they don’t need to become CGI projections to be immortal. Let the dead rest in peace, having left behind a body of work that they physically poured their blood, sweat, and tears into. Otherwise, they risk being remembered as soulless inhabitants of the uncanny valley.