We’ve just seen the next step towards a cultural standstill.
I don’t mind the cartoonish CG versions of previously flesh-and-blood human characters in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. We’ve seen worse. I also don’t find the resurrection of Peter Cushing’s image for a reprisal of his character Grand Moff Tarkin to be unethical (see my points about that here). But I do have a big problem with what these creations mean for the future of movies and what they prove about the state of pop culture in the present. Well, it’s more of a concern than a problem.
Don’t worry if you still haven’t seen Rogue One or don’t plan to anytime soon. There’s no need to go into further spoiler territory to explain why the movie’s employment of CG humans, including one instance of the ongoing trend of de-aging still-living actors, could potentially lead to a major change in Hollywood. As major as THE END OF ACTORS! Sure, that’s the extreme worst case scenario, but it’s a half-joked-about threat that’s been talked about for decades. And there are movies that treat it as science fiction.
No, acting is not actually going to be one of the many professions replaced by automation. However, maybe there will be fewer efforts to push possible new movie and TV stars on audiences. Maybe old movie stars will just be maintained as the only movie stars. Everyone from Florence Lawrence to Laurence Olivier to Olivia Munn will live forever as the only famous names on the big screen. No more fresh faces, just as there are no more fresh ideas. Why look for the next Brando when you can just keep using Brando?
Maybe he’s not the best example right now, but his name does go to show that real actors can be as ethically problematic as artificial ones. Anyway, Hollywood really could only work with a limited number of bankable icons, like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, as well as movie stars of the last generation of genuine movie stardom – Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Harrison Ford. More than these real people, though, the true stars will be their best-known characters. Han Solo and Indiana Jones are two perfect examples.
Disney probably knew the CG characters in Rogue One weren’t perfect, that audiences wouldn’t entirely accept them. Or they at least realized one of these digital people couldn’t carry a whole movie. Otherwise, they’d have halted the search for a young actor to play Solo in the next Star Wars Story installment. In their perfect world, they could have had a de-aged Ford in the role of the character in his early years. They know and we know the fans would rather have Ford as Solo forever, if that could be done satisfyingly.
It’d be the icing on the nostalgia cake for Hollywood. Already they’re capitalizing on the present value of nostalgia to make up for their creative bankruptcy. They’re rebooting and reviving every franchise that might be an easy sell to crowds, but they‘re seeing that it doesn’t always work the way they want it to. Independence Day: Resurgence could have done better with Will Smith. Or his likeness in the part of Steve Hiller. A digital version wouldn’t be able to pass on doing the sequel.
And Disney wouldn’t have to worry about Johnny Depp getting too old to play Jack Sparrow or Robert Downey Jr. wanting to retire, at least from portraying Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The beauty of the latter character is he’s already half CG anyway. Limit the Tony Stark scenes outside the armor and all you need is a believable re-creation of Downey’s face to insert into the “metal” mask. Who wants to bet Dick Van Dyke being cast in Mary Poppins Returns is actually secretly to reprise his role, de-aged?
Eventually we will be in an entertainment standstill. It will be like we’re in the Matrix and all pop culture truly ended in the 1980s, and we just keep getting more and more stuff we loved back then, and it’s not just the IPs that are recycled but the people who appeared in them. We can finally get proper sequels to Top Gun, The Goonies, and Beetlejuice without them being reunions of aged actors or legacy hand-offs to younger casts. Surprisingly, Robert Zemeckis isn’t all over this idea for more Back to the Future sequels.
Think all this is unlikely? Probably on an industry-wide scale, but there was a time when it didn’t seem likely all of Hollywood would go digital. Or that 3D would be such a standard for movie releases. These things get a big push when someone like Martin Scorsese embraces or settles on the technology. Because he can make a great digital 3D movie like Hugo, that legitimatizes the format. Well, this week also brought news that Scorsese has been testing the wizardry and will use it to de-age Robert De Niro for The Irishman.