“All things shall pass”. It’s an old saying that will never lose relevance. Right?
Well … perhaps it will.
There was a time where an actor, being human, would one day retire or pass away. One day you’d have to say goodbye. However, that day is gone. For example, James Dean passed away in 1955, decades ago. He only filmed three movies in his lifetime, but his impact was enormous. Instead of solely living on through his legacy, a movie titled Finding Jack was announced in 2019 that would ‘star’ him.
How is this being accomplished? Mad science? Witchcraft? The answer is simply technology. The process is called digital recreation, and this is not the first time something like this has been done. Paul Walker’s brothers filmed some of his scenes in Furious 7, with VFX putting his face onto their bodies. Peter Cushing was inserted into a Star Wars movie filmed decades after he died. The realism of the technique is still being advanced, but these characters looking fake isn’t what is controversial about the process.
When this was announced, many actors took to Twitter to speak out against it. Chris Evans, the actor who plays Captain America, tweeted, “Maybe we can get a computer to paint us a new Picasso. Or write a couple new John Lennon tunes”. Zelda Williams, the daughter of the late Robin Williams, equated this process to puppeteering. The audience may see someone’s body, but its actions are being controlled by someone else.
It’s worth mentioning that James Dean’s family supports this decision, and views this as his fourth movie. All of this is completely done with the permission of the people with the most right to take offense. Still, this one act seems to open a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of sorts. CMG worldwide, the company representing James Dean, also represents many other deceased celebrities. Neil Armstrong may be starring in a movie a few years from now. There could be a Superman sequel starring Christopher Reeve. The biggest celebrities in the next decade could very well be some sort of “Greatest Hits’ from film’s past.
What does this mean for up and coming actors? There’s really no way to know at the moment. It could put them out of work, or it may end up doing nothing at all. We’ll have to keep our eyes open for the answer to that. As to the fate of this one movie, that’s also unclear. It was supposed to come out last year, but the pandemic put that on hold (as it’s done to practically everything else). To add onto the uncertainties, it is also impossible to know how James Dean himself would have felt about this. The movie takes place during the end of the Vietnam war, an era the actor did not live to see. It’s like wondering what Shakespeare would have thought of "Avengers: Endgame." We can guess, but there’s too many differences to know for certain.
Regardless of what your thoughts on the subject may be, it is undeniable that we are witnessing the start of something new. Whether we should embrace it or fear it is a debate many in the film industry are sure to be having, if not now, then soon. It looks like the legend of James Dean may never die, but is this immortality or grave robbing?