Film Technology Brings the Unreal to Life on Screen. But Has it Gone too Far?
By: Vincent Villani
Anyone who has ever watched a movie knows the power of computer-generated imaging, or CGI, effects. CGI can show us the impossible; hidden worlds, epic monsters and galaxies far, far away. They take concepts that started as drawings and models and bring them to life on screen in such detail it seems as though we could reach out and touch them.
Hollywood films have been pushing the boundaries of CGI and what it can do. However, the film world could soon be turned upside down. “Finding Jack”, a Vietnam war film that recently entered pre-production, will feature Hollywood superstar James Dean in a starring role. James Dean passed away in a tragic car accident at the age of 24…in 1955, over 60 years ago.
Filmmakers Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh say that Dean will be digitally “resurrected” for the film and that his voice will be provided by another actor. Casting an actor who has been dead for 60 years in a new film raises a very concerning question: Is it ethical to resurrect the dead just to sell tickets?
However, this is not Hollywood’s first time putting a deceased actor on screen in recent history.
The most famous case is that of Paul Walker, the young Fast and Furious star who passed away in a car accident before completing filming for “Furious 7” (2017). The filmmakers and Walker’s co-stars all expressed their intention to abide by his family’s wishes and to complete the film in a way that honored their friend who was gone too soon.
As a result, Walker was kept in the film and his face was digitally superimposed on the body of a stand-in actor (who happened to be Walker’s brother) for his character’s final scenes, allowing the film to create a lasting tribute for the young star.
Similar situations occurred in the post-production of franchise films, “Mockingjay Part 2” (2015) and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019) following the deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Carrie Fisher, respectively.
In all of these cases, the actors died suddenly and had signed on to their projects before tragedy struck. It’s understandable why the filmmakers would want to take such measures, not only to maintain the integrity of the stories they wanted to tell, but to give their colleagues a worthy memorial on screen.
The lines became further blurred however, as technology improved and boundary pushing projects were proposed.
In 2016, Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” was released. A direct prelude to Lucas’ original “Star Wars” (1977), “Rogue One” heavily features a key character from the original film: Peter Cushing’s Governor Tarkin.
A legend of stage and screen, Peter Cushing passed away in 1994 at the age of 81. He appeared in “Rogue One” over 20 years later through a digital recreation of his face via motion capture of a stand-in actor.
Prior to release, this “deepfake” of Cushing’s likeness received stark criticism. However, the film’s producers explained that Cushing’s character was iconic within the franchise and was a critical role in the film’s story, hinting that recasting or leaving the character out entirely would dampen the narrative.
Actor Guy Henry, who provided the motion capture and voice for Tarkin in the film, stated that Cushing’s estate approved of what “Rogue One” was attempting to do and that he only took the role because he believed that the film’s inclusion of Cushing’s character was out of respect for the actor’s iconic performance.
So how is the case of “Finding Jack” and James Dean different? The answer: intent, as it is perceived.
In the examples that I have given, as well as countless others, actors that have shown up in films posthumously appeared with seemingly genuine intentions on the part of the filmmakers.
In cases like Paul Walker and Carrie Fisher, the filmmakers wanted to pay tribute to their colleagues who died suddenly. In Cushing’s case, his performance was so iconic and recognizable to fans of the franchise that filmmakers believed no other actor could top it.
Their inclusion was out of clear reverence and the final cuts of said films reflect that intent.
However, in the case of “Finding Jack,” the intent behind using James Dean as the star is not so clear. Dean’s appearance does not seem to have any critical impact on the film’s story at large, leaving little to change if a living actor were to be cast in his role.
The filmmakers insist they intend to be respectful of Dean’s image, but how can a performance in an original film by a stand-in actor, bearing James Dean’s likeness, be respectful in the slightest?
This is not a story Dean has done before or a character he played when he was alive. The only trace of Dean in this performance seems to be his appearance. That hollow shell is to be filled by a stand-in who will be doing all of the work, while James Dean is credited.
This lack of clarity or reasoning has led many people to see the film as a cheap cash grab, capitalizing on nostalgia and shock value for seeing Dean grace the silver screen again.
Several prominent names in the business, including “Avengers” star Chris Evans and Zelda Williams, daughter of the late Robin Williams, have expressed their displeasure with this film’s decision to utilize James Dean’s likeness.
This debate will surely go on until – and surely well after – the film’s release. Updates on Finding Jack’s production have been scarce in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic; however, I expect that when it resumes, it will return to the spotlight in spectacular fashion.