In the second season of Bojack Horseman, Bojack is cast as the lead in a film: initially it’s a serious drama, but it’s changed significantly to test better with audiences, and so Bojack ends up going AWOL from production for months. When he returns to LA, he discovers the film has been finished without him: they created a computer-generated version of him based on a full-body scan he was made to take at the start of filming. Not only was the CGI Bojack used in additional scenes filmed when Bojack disappeared, but it was inserted into every frame filmed with the real Bojack to replace him. In the end product, Bojack doesn’t appear at all, just a digital copy of him.
The critics call it the best performance of his career.
When I first watched this episode in 2015, it seemed like comic exaggeration. When actors sign up to big movies, they often sign away much more than just their performance – like their likeness to be used for toys and merchandise – and have no recourse when the film they thought they were making turns out to be something else entirely. It was funny because, like most of Bojack Horseman’s best jokes, it was absurdist with a current of real-world melancholy underneath.
A year later, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story came out.
Rogue One is a bad film. Aside from being depressing and pointless (spoiler, everybody dies) and Felicity Jones being an absolute charisma vacuum in the lead, its whole reason for existing is to fill in a plot hole in the original Star Wars that isn’t actually a plot hole. “Why would the Empire build the Death Star with such a weak point that the whole thing could be destroyed with one shot?” was always an easy question for anyone who bothered to think about it: it’s the arrogance of power and imperialism, the blindness of it. The Death Star had a fatal weakness because they never thought to see some farm boy from the desert who’s a hell of a good shot coming. Somebody even tries to point out the weakness to Darth Vader, and he force-chokes them to death for daring to question him.
But for decades nerds have treated it like a plot hole, and so here came Rogue One, explaining that the guy who built the Death Star was actually a good guy who deliberately built in a weakness so the Resistance could destroy it. (I am sure the people of Alderaan, the entire planet the Death Star blew up before the rebels destroyed it, were very comforted.) It’s just one instance of the Disney corporation’s sudden compulsion to kowtow to clickbait listicles about how all the films you grew up with are actually not strictly logical if you for some reason watch films to point out what is or is not logical, but it might be the worst, because it doesn’t just overexplain, it actively takes away from the original film. I hate it.
But there are lots of bad films. Rogue One is more than that: it’s repugnant.
Rogue One takes place immediately before the original Star Wars, and so some characters from the original film or the prequel trilogy reappear: Jimmy Smits as Leia’s adopted dad, Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma, and of course, Darth Vader. And Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, commander of the Death Star.
Except it’s not Peter Cushing. Cushing died in 1994, over twenty years before Rogue One was filmed. It’s a computer-generated copy.
There are obvious, visceral problems with this when you watch the film. CGI-Tarkin is straight out of the uncanny valley, and is uncomfortable to look at. It’s weird, purely at the right-in-your-guts level. It’s also completely gratuitous, in that it would be pretty easy to write around the character’s absence – maybe he had to visit another imperial base for some reason, or he had a meeting with his superiors about the Death Star’s grand opening – and even easier to just cast somebody else who looked even a little bit like Cushing. Parts get recast all the time for lesser reasons.
But this line of criticism worries me because its brother is that when technology has improved, it will be okay. But it will never, ever be okay. It’s grave-robbing. It’s a sickness. It means treating actors as mannequins to be posed, seeing no difference between the work an actor does to bring a character to life and crudely manipulating their likeness into a simulation of a real performance. And if that’s all an actor is, what does it matter that they’re dead?
Actors are creative people, artists who bring something to the table. I think all the time about Jodie Foster saying that when she was little, she thought acting was a dumb job – “somebody else writes something and then you repeat it” – until she worked with Robert DeNiro on Taxi Driver, and he taught her that acting was building a character: “It was a huge revelation for me, because until that moment I thought being an actor was just acting naturally and saying the lines someone else wrote… And I felt this excitement where you’re all sweaty and you can’t eat and you can’t sleep.” I think most people have a sense of this, because the actors are who you connect to when you watch a film, and most people can tell bad acting from good. But modern blockbuster filmmaking devalues the actor’s work more and more, displaced by mind-numbing action setpieces, until you get to the natural endpoint of Rogue One, where the actor and their work can be removed entirely. All you need is their image, or close enough.
Shortly after Carrie Fisher died, Disney released a statement in response to rumours that a CGI copy of Fisher would appear in future Star Wars movies. “We want to assure our fans that Lucasfilm has no plans to digitally recreate Carrie Fisher’s performance as Princess or General Leia Organa,” they said, “…We cherish her memory and legacy as Princess Leia, and will always strive to honor everything she gave to Star Wars.”
They wouldn’t digitally recreate Fisher out of respect for her memory. This was only a few weeks after Rogue One’s release, so it threw the question into sharp relief: what about Peter Cushing’s memory and legacy? What about honouring what he gave to Star Wars?
It was widely reported that creating the feet and legs of CGI-Tarkin was difficult, because Cushing hated the imperial boots of his costume in the original Star Wars and so George Lucas filmed him from the knees up in his slippers. It’s so ordinary and human and lovely, to picture Cushing in his slippers, to picture George Lucas working around it, because of course those boots would be hell on your feet, and here’s to no-one noticing. Like the best behind-the-scenes stories, it feels like movie magic even as it pulls back the curtain. And in this story, the people who made Rogue One found an obstacle to be overcome as bluntly as possible. Actors are just mannequins to be posed, not men with sore feet.
It’s important to draw the line in the sand, because otherwise it won’t stop here. Maybe Disney respect Carrie Fisher too much to create a CGI copy of her, but most actors are not as famous and beloved as Carrie Fisher. There are thousands of actors who could be digitally recreated with nowhere near the public outcry necessary to make a slight dent in ticket sales. Eventually, there’ll be no need for actors at all. Digitally reanimated corpses will parade across our screens, a simulation of a simulation, striking their poses without once complaining about their working conditions, their pay, or their boots.