Why did the resurrection of Peter Cushing in 'Rogue One' perturb us so much?
Words by David G. Hughes / @BelovedFire_
"Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee?
From darkness to promote thee?"
— John Milton, Paradise Lost
In the knowledge that film entertainment can trivialise death, director Christopher Nolan made an uncommercial ethical decision. Despite the cultural impact of Heath Ledger’s incendiary performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), posthumously earning him an Academy Award, never was his character alluded to during the events of its sequel, The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Who would suggest that death does not have a financially advantageous outcome? Come the death of a musical artist, the charts attest to the fact. So how courageous of Mr. Nolan to repudiate the exploitation of Ledger’s demise against a tide of fan protest that bemoaned the exclusion of their favoured character. They demanded to know where The Joker "was" during the events of the third film, why he wasn’t mentioned, and other sordid attempts to abrogate the crossroads between immortal fiction and mortal life.
The construction of intricate virtual universes complete with temporal continuity and inviolable verisimilitude is becoming a pious obsession for film-goers, departing us from any appreciation of fiction beholden to reality. Arts and culture should embody the truth of being, chief of which is death, and not attempt to outmanoeuvre it. They say the one thing money cannot buy you is time, but how perversely appropriate that it is The Walt Disney Company, bearing the name of an American Saint who, as myth erroneously reports, froze himself immortal, that is giving it a good go. Moving beyond a superficial digital de-ageing formula — a face-life applied with varying degrees of success to living actors such as Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy (2010) and Michael Douglas in Ant-Man (2015) — it is the resurrection of the dead that Uncle Walt’s progenies have their voracious eyes on. A bilious cocktail of corporate God complex mixed with a thirst to acquire lucrative fan approval, contrary to the example of Heath Ledger, this 21st Century Dr. Frankenstein is generating new life, made from dead composites stitched together in editing suites at Industrial Light and Magic. They are exhuming the dead.
This is a suitably macabre and ironic matter when it applies to horror maestro Peter Cushing, slayer of immortal fiends in countless Hammer Horror productions, and bringer of the same as Dr. Frankenstein himself in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Alas, it is Cushing who is made to be the creature of an unfortunate experiment in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Despite the fact that Mr. Cushing died in 1994, he returns to the screen as Grand Moff Tarkin, a character he portrayed on the set of a cheap fantasy “B” picture called Star Wars in the mid-1970s. It is a strange moment when you meet the dead; Cushing, or his digital phantom, appears from the ether and you are faced with an impressive and discomforting likeness. As you contemplate the technology, the accuracy, the audacity, the uncanny eeriness, any plot or dialogue within the scene is immediately superseded.
The implications on the industry are vast and dystopian: the commoditisation of one’s entire being and the privatisation of death.
The digital likeness of Peter Cushing as it appears in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Perhaps, you may say, this is an accomplishment for attaining cultural immortality, one more step to our ultimate transcendentalism. Indeed, French film theorist André Bazin suggests that at the core of all art, contrary to my introductory statement, lies an essential human desire to escape death by preserving likeness – a “mummy complex,” as he calls it, going on to write, “To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life.” Perhaps Cushing’s apparition is a natural extension of this complex. And yet, this feels less like the preservation of life and more like its contortion, bastardisation and substitute. As Bazin would attest, we already have the means of immortality in photography and cinema more broadly. A photograph is a record of something that has already happened, events that the human subject had agency and a degree of control over. It is them. A digital recreation, on the other hand, functions as a human puppetry show, denying a person their right to choose by generating original actions devoid of consciousness. I throw a serious accusation: that free will is removed from this disagreeable process. While our loved ones are immortalised in our family albums, would we really want to direct new movements for our own gratification? Even more so, make money out of this process?
The Cushing Estate may have pondered such a question when they provided their blessing for this embalming process. We can never know for sure because Cushing’s former secretary who handles the estate and approved the re-creation also signed a confidentiality agreement with Disney-LucasFilm. Whether Mr. Cushing himself would have approved, it’s impossible to know and futile to theorise. What is clear is this: even in death, some people cannot escape the exploitation of their image and identity in the service of a corporate overlord. As @pixelatedboat aptly summarised on Twitter: “Congratulations to Hollywood for digging up Peter Cushing’s corpse and making it dance for money.”
Many view the issue contingent on whether Cushing’s family approved of the process, under the assumption that they would recognise his opinion best. Yet Mr. Cushing died prior to digital technology’s domination of the cinema, before issues such as image appropriation could even be regarded as such. It is not too speculative, too Philip K. Dick or Black Mirror, to suppose that the rights of an actor’s likeness will soon be included as part of labour contracts, coerced into signing away their posthumous self. Robin Williams had the foresight to protect his image in his will against this quite literal vulture capitalism. The implications on the industry are vast and dystopian: the commoditisation of one’s entire being and the privatisation of death. Gazing into the soulless eyes of Peter Cushing’s likeness, one can see not life but death — the death of a cinema with any semblance of taste or moral integrity. Convincing photorealistic depictions of computer generated people is regarded in the special effects community as the Holy Grail, and Disney has been unreserved when exploiting and fetishising the technology and cost involved in the process for their marketing.
John Knoll, Chief Creative Officer at ILM, the man who pushed for the procedure, counters accusations such as those in this piece by suggesting, “this work was done with affection.” The key word is work. There is no affection when forcing the dead to work. Just because we have an affection for Marilyn Monroe or Marlon Brando, this does not give us the right to unearth an entire zombie horde of Hollywood legends and sell it as entertainment. And yet, we had a taster of this when Galaxy chocolate of Mars, Inc. shamelessly forced a deceased Audrey Hepburn to appear in their commercial and sell chocolate.
This ridiculous notion that affection equates to ownership is symptomatic of a larger trend within the Hollywood industry. A more appropriate notion would be what Oscar Wilde wrote:
Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.
Simply ask yourself: why did Rogue One include the character of Grand Moff Tarkin? Yes, the character does exist in this fictional universe during this fictional timeline, but that does not dictate that the character be seen. You could, rather feebly it must be said, argue that his presence is somehow integral to the plot. Yet any creative writer could work around this by introducing a substitute character to serve the same function. If it is absolutely necessary for the character to be included for some inexplicable reason, then one could simply re-cast the role. As with the re-casting of Richard Harris following his death, Michael Gambon became Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films. I suggest that audiences are quite prepared to forgive discrepancies in the filmic illusion because, sometimes, life as it is interrupts our fantasy. And that’s okay, because it’s only a film, we understand. Any of these solutions are preferable to human taxidermy. The fact is, as much of the marketing indicates, this is technical grandstanding. Even more so, and even more sinister, the real reason for this resurrection is undoubtedly populist fan service, nostalgically seeing an old character as he looked in the original film is sure to provoke a geek orgasm. In other words, this is nerd necrophilia.
His lapse of judgement, or at least opposition, represents why fans, blinded by their effusive adoration, should not control the Intellectual Property they adore.
Director Gareth Edwards on the set of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
It is easy to admire the work of director Gareth Edwards, who was aware of the debate when he professed his uncertainty to the Radio Times: “Like, what do we do? Do we cast someone who looks like them? Do we not have them? Do we just hear about them?'" But his lapse of judgement, or at least opposition, represents why fans, blinded by their effusive adoration, should not control the Intellectual Property they adore. A self-professed fanatic of the Star Wars universe, Edwards’ pursuit of fan-service and what looks ‘cool’ takes precedence over any narrative, artistic or ethical consideration. The fan community hold one of the keys to the treasure trove; therefore, power, both real and illusory, has been conceded to them. The Disney Company has fashioned the impression that because the fans have an affection for the product, they own it, even when it is made up of real people, reduced to obtainable images in an alternate universe. How many more times will we have to put up with populist pandering and proclamations from everyone involved in a project that they are the biggest fans of the franchise, as if their fandom alone qualifies them for employment rather than their technical expertise. Directors like J.J. Abrams, Gareth Edwards, Rian Johnson and Colin Treverrow are hired not just because of their dexterity, but because of their generation: they belong to the age demographic that witnessed the original films on initial release at an impressionable age (age 50, 41, 43 and 40 respectively). As such, they serve a marketing purpose: reassure the militant geek kingdom that they are in control and never again will your childhood be “raped” (is there anything more egregious than comparing mediocre fantasy films to child molestation?).
In a record-breaking year for The Disney Company’s profits, it’s clear to see who the winner is. But the loser is culture. Where Rogue One is strongest is when it relates to the real world — nuclear devastation, totalitarian Empire, and the need for hope and rebellion. Where it is weakest is when it aspires to exist in a strange atemporal realm, a corporate bastardisation of time where the dead are made living and the young are made old (a de-aged Carrie Fisher also appears in the film, but has since passed away). Detached from our chronological nature and devoid of any relation of reality, 'Rogue One' simply buys itself out of what's inconvenient in life and death. This is a zombie culture; unable to fashion new stories, we not only re-do, re-vamp, re-boot, re-make and re-appropriate, we now re-surrect. Generating a deceased actor to act is like re-releasing an album of long gone musical artist, but based on a digital recreation of their voice; who would listen to that? It’s an insult to suggest that a CGI re-creation can function identically to a talented and experienced thespian like Cushing, something they clearly believe by confidently inserting their Creation into several important scenes (it will be curious to compare the screen times of the faux-Cushing and the real one in the original film). It is an act of moral cowardice and disturbing simulacrum when instead of attempting to perfect and understand our real world, we are persistently attempting to perfect the illusion of fantasy ones. Welcome to our brave new world.
David G. Hughes is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He has written for Quillette, Little White Lies, Film International, The Upcoming, Live for Films, and more.