Conjure up, for a moment, the notion of technology run amok. It would not take the self-respecting film buff long to recall a list a mile long of cinematic examples of technology as a threat to humanity: The Terminator franchise, Frankenstein, Ex-Machina, and the list goes on. The techno-fear genre has existed for as long as it has because people can readily identify technology as “other” and, by further extension, at odds with the roots of humanity.
We can wax poetic on technology in film as a sign of societal advancement or any other noble allegories. But the truth is that we’re disturbed by the other and the in-human (think: the “Uncanny Valley” effect). Even in our contemporary dialogues, we collectively recognize that technology is something more vast and more powerful and present than many of us realize. We’ve all been rendered powerless by our own technological betrayals.
It is through the power of technology that actor James Dean will return to the big screen, 60 years after his untimely death. You read that right.
Directors Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh, by way of their recently launched production company and the cooperation of Dean’s estate, intend to create a “realistic version” of the late star for a large role in their Vietnam-era war movie Finding Jack. Finding Jack is loosely based on the existence of military dogs that were left behind, after the conflict, and James Dean (yes, again, that’s the deceased James Dean) will have a secondary lead. Licensing rights to the star’s image have been obtained from James Dean’s estate and a voice actor will provide the spoken lines to the fully resurrected CGI body.
Per Ernst and Golykh, after an extensive search for the perfect talent for the role, they concluded that Dean was the only suitable choice for the part of “Rogan” and set out to make the dream a reality. Many view the role as an official acting credit to the late actor. Finding Jack will follow Dean’s final role in Giant (1956) which was released only a year after his most iconic film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
There is no doubt that James Dean is one of those “candles in the wind” in our popular history. The young, handsome movie star was struck down too soon when he was killed in a tragic car accident. Like so many of the great Hollywood stars, we culturally feel the loss of such a beauty and a talent taken in the prime of their life. None of this changes the ghoulish nature and implications of this “resurrection.”
I’ll refer back, for a moment, to my brief description of James Dean’s impending “performance.” The body is to be CGI replicated and the spoken lines will be provided by another actor. Really chew on that for a second. The body is being used, but the voice is not his own. It feels… objectifying.
There’s no denying that we’ve reached a cinematic turning point, in terms of what CGI can do. The technology is here and it is magnificent. Films like Gemini Man have already been successful in de-aging actors and convincingly showing that we can do just about anything. So, why does CGI James Dean feel so wrong?
As mentioned at the outset, there’s something instinctive about our very human aversion to technology or, at least, our wariness of it. To be technological is not to be human. That “human” element is precisely what’s missing in this discussion and it should disturb us greatly.
Consider the de-aging CGI in Gemini Man. What’s the difference between that and a full-on recreation? Well, it’s the fact that Will Smith is still here to comment on it. We are more than our faces and our legacy. We, as humans, are individuals with agendas and desires and ideas of ourselves that we may never reveal to anyone else. A CGI resurrection of James Dean strips him of his agency and robs him of the finality of death. There is no bringing back James Dean, the individual, no matter what licensing agreement a family signs.
It feels somehow wrong that we can sell a face of the dead and that James Dean will never be able to have a say. Not to mention the Pandora’s Box this opens on a legal, ethical, technological, and, most importantly, financial front. Suppose a studio can own the perfect CGI copy of an actor? Financially, it would be lucrative for them to do so. No salaries, no SAG-AFTRA to worry about. What legal questions does this arise about the ability to recreate a face, use that face, and possibly license away our souls (or soulless husks, I guess) from our loved ones?
Cynically, one has to wonder about the marketing angle in all of this. Is it possible that James Dean’s “ghost” is the last-ditch attempt to draw attention to what very well could have been “just another war movie?” Perhaps, but the seal has been broken and there’s no turning back now.
Let’s leave the lawyers and bankers out of it, for a moment. It’s artistically bankrupt, plain and simple. We may have the technology to recreate a well-known face, but what kind of performance can we expect it to give? Human emotion and feeling are what makes acting one of the most intimate art forms. There’s no computer program for that. On a broader level, for many performers, the chance to breathe life into a former icon is a gateway to stardom and accolade. What becomes of all of that?
What happens to art and our ability to evolve in art, when we have the ability to recycle previous talent for much cheaper than seeking out and promoting the new? It’s a sobering thought exercise and a future we’re currently ill-equipped for. The strangulation of the soul of cinema.
It would appear that, for better or for worse, death is not as final as we have previously believed.
What do you think about the use of CGI James Dean? Do you believe in “resurrecting” dead stars?