We went to see the new Star Wars movie today, part of our annual Christmas-time tradition of going as a family to a movie theater. Yes, it’s a good movie. Far better than the last four installments, and frankly even better than I remember Return of the Jedi. Rogue One inclines me to go back and watch at least A New Hope again to see the interplay, because I think they did a really good job of linking to that next (story-chronology-wise) film.
What I didn’t expect as part of that linking, was to see actors and actresses digitally reproduced for Rogue One as they appeared – roughly – in A New Hope, despite the latter being filmed 40 years ago and at least some of those actors being deceased. Although Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin is the most obvious example of this, there is one other example at the very end.
I mean, realistically, it shouldn’t be unexpected. Probably 90% of everything in the movie was digitally created or added in terms of scenery, backdrops, extras. Frankly, before getting lost in the story – fairly immediately – I pondered how the stunning opening visuals of the new movie didn’t hold the same grandeur for me, knowing that they’re all computer generated. Part of the immersion into another galaxy is lost for me knowing how little of it is created in our galaxy but rather in a digital galaxy on a hard drive. But, the story was compelling enough so that such thoughts were short-lived.
Until Peter Cushing appeared on screen. Since he died 22 years ago, I know that’s not him. Even were he still alive he wouldn’t look as he did in 1977. Yet there he is, very realistic and life-like and, had I not known all of the above, perhaps I would never be the wiser that he is as much computer generated wizardry as the backdrop of stars and Death Star behind him.
My immediate reaction was one of curiosity. Not as to how they did it, but rather what the implications of doing it are. Does Cushing have an estate, or family that would benefit from royalties or payment for the appearance of his likeness in this movie? Does the movie studio get to use his likeness for free then? Did anyone have to give permission for Cushing to appear in this movie, post mortem? Star Wars fans are well aware that Sir Alec Guiness really disliked Star Wars and his role in it. Could the studio use his likeness in future films, forcing Guiness to keep appearing in a franchise he loathed?
What’s to keep a studio from reusing famous faces indefinitely? And what does this mean for actors and actresses, or frankly, for any of us? What if a director spotted my face in a restaurant, snapped a pic on his phone, sent it to his animators and said ‘put this guy in the film‘? Would I have any recourse? Do I deserve compensation?
My wife sent me this article from The New York Times which discussed very few of these things. The tone of the people quoted reminded me of stories where scientists pursuing questionable procedures are quoted. Inevitably, they respond with something along the lines of Yes we know this is very complicated and controversial so you can trust us that we’ve thought it all through very carefully. Which is not reassuring in the least. I’m glad that thought was given. But the idea that one small group of scientists or directors have the right to decide what is and isn’t acceptable, based on their own personal struggles and considerations of the topic is ridiculous.
Ultimately, they dismiss the concerns because it was really, really important to them and to their story to do it this way. I would argue quite the contrary. Tarkin’s presence would of course be expected in this film at some level, but there was certainly a lot of additional drama and therefore screen time that wasn’t necessary to the storyline at all. And the fact that you wanted to do this to tell your story is not a justification for doing it. Nor is the assurance that it’s really expensive and hard to do so not many other people are likely to do it, including us. The fact that they were willing to go to the time and difficulty and expense of doing it obviously shows that these are not, in and of themselves, deterrent factors.
I was pleased to hear that they received permission from Cushing’s estate, at least.
In a rather unexpected twist of fate, I find myself in agreement with a Huffington Post editorial for a change. It should not be in the hands of later generations to resurrect the image of a deceased actor or actress. It is unfair to the dead, and ultimately another blurring of our own acceptance of and coming to grips with mortality in general. This editorial also rings the same bells, though neither editorial propositions a very compelling rationale for their position.
Here’s my theological rationale: something in us reacts against the idea of using the dead for these purposes because part of us resonates with the idea that they aren’t really dead and gone. Oh, they’re not here with us, for certain. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Therefore it’s more than just a memory we do offense to – we do offense to their reality.
If we truly die, if there is nothing beyond death, then that’s it and like an expired copyright others are free to cannibalize us and our works to the extent that the law allows or prohibits. We can try to ensure that our families are compensated in some fashion, but that’s more of a formality than anything, and certainly one prone to eventual revocation should circumstances make that convenient. There are no moral obligations to consider, because nothing like morality or appropriateness or ethics exist beyond our conceptualization – or reconceptualization – of them.
But if we aren’t truly dead and gone, absorbed back into atomic nothingness; if there is a corpus of ethical and moral standards that we have been entrusted with as stewards, not creators, then our misgivings have a root. It’s not just the economics we balk at, not just the potential for misappropriation, but the possibility of actual offense. Not against an idea or a memory but against a person – a person who may be dead but who continues to exist in a meaningful sense – every bit as meaningful as when they were alive.
If we remember that our theology isn’t separated somehow from the rest of the issues we try to make sense of, these other issues begin to make more sense. It isn’t a matter of respect for the living or the dead, but rather for a person, who might be living or might be dead, but exists just as definitely either way. What’s more, Christian theology indicates that we don’t simply continue to exist, we continue to exist in relationship. What we look forward to is a time to come when we are together again, more together than ever before. Our actions to one another continue to have meaning and weight. And while I have no doubt that if we do take advantage of somebody after they are dead, and we meet together again in glory there will be forgiveness for that, it still dictates how we treat that person up until that reunion. Not as an asset to be exploited but as a creation of God the Father, redeemed by God the Son, and – God-willing – brought to faith by God the Holy Spirit.