Moviegoers watching Star Wars spinoff Rogue One—the latest installment in the Disney-owned series and, as of 2017, the second-highest grossing film of 2016—expected throwbacks. After all, Disney and J.J. Abrams tapped into the saga’s nostalgic appeal with last year’s The Force Awakens, which rebooted the franchise and swiftly became the third highest-grossing film in Hollywood history. Rogue One, a direct prequel to the original Star Wars, was always going to feature nods and references to the original. But Disney may have taken things too far with the reappearance of Grand Moff Tarkin, a role the late Peter Cushing reprised 26 years after his death. (Though Cushing and his British-based estate were both thanked in Rogue One’s credits.) A combination of CGI wizardry and face capture technology resurrected Cushing’s likeness in a prominent movie role. In the weeks since Fisher’s untimely passing, fans have wondered whether Fisher, who had signed a contract for Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, would be digitally revived for Episode IX. (Fisher reportedly finished filming for 2017’s Episode VIII). Lucasfilm released a statement yesterday assuring fans that they have no plans to move forward with a Carrie Fisher CGI treatment. However, with so much recent debate over the issue regarding Fisher and Cushing, serious questions about the ethics and legality of this growing blockbuster trend, must be asked.
Cushing is not the first actor to appear on screen posthumously. In 2000, Oliver Reed succumbed to a heart attack while working on Gladiator, prompting CGI fixes for certain scenes. Marlon Brando was also digitally revived for 2006’s Superman Returns, two years after his death. The Fast and the Furious star Paul Walker appeared in last year’s Furious 7 after his fatal car accident. (A combination of his brothers’ likenesses and CGI editing in post-production filled in the gaps, not unlike Gladiator.) CGI, in these types of instances, provides an effective post-production technique to salvage film when faced with tragedy. But its potential for abuse is glaring—especially considering this practice’s possible future popularity.
Reception to Cushing’s portrayal has been mixed—with many finding CGI Cushing to be eerily “uncanny”. Personally, I agree with this camp, but there is no denying that the technology is improving enough to potentially become viable and, more tellingly, popular. Six out of the seven previews that accompanied my viewing of Rogue One were for other film franchises—Guardians of the Galaxy, Transformers, The Fast and the Furious, Pirates of the Caribbean, Planet of the Apes, and Spider-Man, respectively, Major studios such as Disney enjoy the fiscal and legal resources necessary to execute CGI enhancement while churning out and rebooting blockbusters on an assembly line, fueled by consumer nostalgia.
The living, however, have also received their fair share of CGI cosmetics. Disney first flirted with CGI rejuvenation with TRON: Legacy, a 2010 sequel-reboot of the 1982 sci-fi film. Jeff Bridges’ likeness from a 1984 film was digitally applied to a stand-in actor for the character Clu, thanks to CGI practices developed in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Arnold Schwarzenegger was another high-profile star to receive digital rejuvenation in 2015’s Terminator Genisys. Six years after TRON: Legacy, Disney and the pioneering staff of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM)—the group famed for its visual effects from the original Star Wars and beyond—conjured the late Carrie Fisher’s 1977 Princess Leia for Rogue One’s final scene.
It is worth noting that in the United Kingdom, postmortem publicity rights are unenforceable, unlike the United States, where such laws vary by state. In Cushing’s case, as Vulture further notes, Lucasfilm already owned the actor’s footage from the original Star Wars. While Lucasfilm may own the rights to Fisher’s footage, per her contracts, California law establishes postmortem right of publicity for 50 years after a celebrity’s death—a protection, as Variety mentions, which applies only to those who, like Fisher, died in California. Regarding Fisher’s character’s future in the series, Lucasfilm was faced with several options: reshooting Episode VIII to write off the character, recasting the role of Princess Leia/General Organa, or opting for the CGI treatment Cushing received. Prior to Lucasfilm’s statement on the matter, ILM’s Chief Creative Officer, John Knoll, was quick to dismiss the latter option: “It is extremely labor-intensive and expensive to do. I don’t imagine anybody engaging in this kind of thing in a casual manner,” Knoll explained. “We’re not planning on doing this digital re-creation extensively from now on. It just made sense for this particular movie.”
But not everyone in Hollywood agrees with Knoll. The late Robin Williams’ eponymous Trust, foreseeing this perhaps inevitable blockbuster trend, restricted the exploitation of his likeness—such as a hologram reappearance (à la 2012’s infamous Hologram Tupac at Coachella) or CGI resurrection—for the next 25 years. For despite the promise of hefty payouts to deceased actors’ estates and the nostalgic allure of reviving actors for major studios and moviegoers alike, digitally reviving the dead threatens to blemish their reputation and work, from beyond the grave.