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Is it ethical for Rogue One to use a deceased actor as a CGI character?

It was a big weekend for Star Wars fans, who flocked to theatres to see the latest film in the franchise, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

If you haven’t yet watched it, check out our review (with spoilers), or the review without spoilers.

So far the film is – to no surprise – a commercial success. It’s well known that anything Star Wars is basically a license to print money, and Rogue One has been no different, scoring the second-largest December in box office history.

This past weekend, Rogue One took in $212 AUD million in North America alone. And if you think that’s big, consider the top spot, which went to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which took in $338 AUD million at the same time last year.

Critical consensus on the other hand has been somewhat mixed.

According to review aggregate site Metacritic.com, Rogue One currently has an average score of 65/100. Generally speaking, that’s good…ish (keep in mind that The Force Awakens has a metascore of 81).

Rogue One has been praised for its strong female lead, healthy balance of nostalgia and risk-taking, and exciting action set pieces. On the other hand, other critics have felt some characters to be generic, and the plotting to be somewhat convoluted. In addition, people aren’t too happy about the CGI Leia and (actually dead) Peter Cushing that appear in the film.

Of the two, Cushing is causing the most offence to people.

Long-standing speculation that Cushing would make an appearance in the film, started about a year ago when the back of his head showed up in a Rogue One teaser trailer. And in case you forgot, Cushing was the British actor who played Grand Moff Tarkin in the original 1977 movie. He was the asshole that famously ordered the destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet, Alderaan.

Thanks to the magic of CGI, Cushing reprises his role of Tarkin in Rogue One. But many fans have taken to Twitter to voice their disgust about the choice:

To be fair, some have been kinder, impressed by the technology and surprised to learn that Cushing is actually dead.

So is this morbid and unethical or cool? Also, does this mean that Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen will be joining The Avengers soon? I really hope not.

Rogue One resurrected Cushing by taking another British actor, Guy Henry, having him act out the role, and then digitally grafting Cushing’s face on top of him. Charming.

And it’s not the first time this frankly creepy technology has been put to use.

In 2015, Furious 7 included an appearance from a (dead) Paul Walker, using his brothers’ faces as stand-ins.

Similar technology has also been used to make actors appear younger, and people seem to have less of a problem with this. People have commented that CGI Leia in Rogue One seems doll-like, but that’s about it. CGI Cushing is definitely creating a different emotional reaction.

Personally, I have no problem with using CGI to make actors younger. Recently, we have seen a young Michael Douglas in Ant-Man, Robert Downey Jnr. in The Avengers and Anthony Hopkins in Westworld.

That works fine because we know these people are alive.

Using CGI to resurrect the dead also produces a stronger “uncanny valley” effect than simply making characters look younger.

The uncanny valley describes the feeling of revulsion or disgust experienced when a human-like replica is not quite human enough. To understand it better, watch this and see if it fills you with a nameless dread:

Well, zombie actors (as I like to call them) might become a thing, so you better get used to that feeling, people.

According to Vulture, in California the right of publicity – or the right for others to profit from your image without consent – lasts 70 years after death. Cushing has only been dead for 32 years, but it’s a bit of grey area since Star Wars is the copyright holder of Cushing’s original performance and can do whatever they want with it.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy confirmed that Cushing’s estate was involved with the film and that his family saw the result at the London premiere. But for some reason, that doesn’t make me feel better.

There are so many talented actors out there. Must we really resort to this kind of thing? Despite the fact that his grandkids might think it beautiful – and let’s be honest – profitable, no one can ask Cushing what he thinks about the whole idea.

For all we know, he’s rolling in his grave.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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