Warning: This post contains spoilers for Rogue One.
Special effects are awesome. The waves in Moana looked gorgeous. The Ancient One’s ability to bend cities in half in Doctor Strange was mind-blowing. This year’s Jungle Book looked like it was shot in the wild, not downtown L.A. All those feats came from the filmmakers at Disney, the same studio that’s also responsible for Rogue One. But in the latest Star Wars film, director Gareth Edwards and his team used them to reanimate two characters from the original trilogy. The results are far from awesome. They’re eerie.
Let’s begin with Grand Moff Tarkin. Peter Cushing, who played the villain in the original series, passed away in 1994. The creators of Rogue One resurrected him through a combination of motion-capture technology and CGI. Actor Guy Henry performed the role, and the special effects crew digitally replaced his face with Peter Cushing’s afterward. (The performance isn’t based on old footage, but is akin to what actor Andy Serkis did in Planet of the Apes, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, except with a human face instead of that of a creature.)
The figure that emerges looks like someone out of The Polar Express, which would be cool if this movie was The Polar Express. It is not. That’s largely because the re-animated Tarkin is surrounded by real actors. As a result, the effect ends up showing the limitations of the technology. It’s also distracting: As you ponder what, exactly, is off about this not-human-enough figure—something in the facial movements—you begin to lose track of the plot.
Bringing back the dead is one thing. Making the living appear younger is another. Which is exactly what the filmmakers did with Princess Leia at Rogue One‘s climax. There was something particularly plastic about this version of the young Carrie Fisher—so smooth and so perfect it couldn’t be real—that pulled me out of the moment. (This is becoming old hat in Hollywood. Think: Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Jeff Bridges in Tron.)
I wasn’t alone in my visceral reaction. In the screening I attended, the audience let out guffaws and barks of confusion at the first flash of both Tarkin and Leia. Not to mention the reaction on social media:
Sure, one could argue both of these technological flourishes were necessary to the plot of Rogue One, which takes place right before the events of A New Hope. Or that the filmmakers felt they needed to offer enough callbacks to the originals to sell tickets. But there were obvious ways to make Tarkin less essential to the plot—or to show his reflection or just the back of his head. But instead I was left with uncomfortable questions, like: Which is worse for the future of Hollywood, resurrecting the dead or making actresses of a certain age appear as CGI versions of their younger selves? And if, technologically, we could offer eternal life to actors through CGI, should we?
When it comes to Star Wars, raising these kinds of questions is particularly irksome. After all, what many people like about the original films is how gritty and real their universe looks. When J.J. Abrams created The Force Awakens, he made a point of using as many real-life sets, props, and creatures as possible. Rogue One mimics that aesthetic—save Tarkin and Leia. Perhaps some things are better left in the past.