“Real sets. Practical effects […] That’s the way you want it to be, really.”
“Getting back to the old days, the old ways of doing things.”
That’s Mark Hamill, in his Jedi beard, and Peter Mayhew, in his Chewbacca suit, talking in a behind-the-scenes video from The Force Awakens about the Star Wars universe’s newfound commitment to keeping it real.
The trend in moviemaking at the moment is to use computerized effects as minimally as possible, while utilizing old-fashioned puppets, prosthetics, and massive real-life production values to bring otherworldly beings and locations to life. But what about bringing things back to life?
Over the weekend, London’s The Daily Mail reported that horror icon Peter Cushing would be recreated digitally in Star Wars: Rogue One as the Imperial leader Grand Moff Tarkin. Cushing died in 1994, and his character Tarkin (spoiler alert) met his end when Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star at the conclusion of the original 1977 Star Wars film.
Rogue One, which is shooting now for release in December 2016, is set in the galactic chronology just before the events of that first movie, and the story focuses on the Rebel efforts to infiltrate the Empire and steal the plans that will allow them to locate the Death Star’s weaknesses. (These were the plans Princess Leia was so desperate to protect in the original film.)
Lucasfilm wouldn’t comment on the report, but it stands to reason — given this timeline — that not only would Tarkin return in some capacity, but so too would Darth Vader, the Emperor and perhaps even young Princess Leia. It’s not only likely, but something fans expect from Rogue One.
Vader is easy to resurrect — the mask doesn’t age, and James Earl Jones is still in fine vocal form. The same goes for Palpatine, played by Ian McDiarmid, who wore Shar-Pei-like wrinkled prosthetics to perform the part three decades ago, and reprised the role to become one of the highlights of the otherwise divisive prequels.
Princess Leia is a bit trickier, but if Marvel could roll back the clock 20-plus years on Michael Douglas to make him look like he did in the ‘80s in Ant-Man, it’s certainly possible to achieve something similar with Carrie Fisher for a cameo appearance.
But Tarkin … and Cushing? If The Daily Mail is correct — and right now, that’s a very big “if” — the character would be recreated entirely through digitalization, at least in that distinctive razor-cheekboned face. You could have an actor of similar build play the body, but it would probably take a fusion of pre-existing film footage and straight-up animation to create his visage. Cushing died long before 3-D scanning became commonplace and he only played Tarkin once, so it won’t be easy. There’s not a lot of footage to draw upon.
But maybe he doesn’t have to come back that way.
The character has lived on in comics, cartoons, and novels, and even walked the bridge of a Star Destroyer in the final moments of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, overseeing the framework construction of the Death Star.
He was played in that movie by Wayne Pygram, in make-up designed to recreate Cushing’s appearance — although it had a somewhat more Halloween-ish appearance. If Rogue One does bring the character back, I hope director Gareth Edwards (best known for last year’s Godzilla remake) goes a similar route. It doesn’t have to be an actor fully disguised as Cushing, but just a great performer who can mimic that appearance and performance while bringing his own sense of life to the villainous Moff.
Think of what Ewan McGregor did with Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Phantom Menace, picking up both the lightsaber and the elegant speech-cadence from Alec Guinness. Like or hate the prequels, he was Obi-Wan — even if he wasn’t Alec Guinness.
If Tarkin is glimpsed only as a hologram, or in a brief cameo, then the gimmick of a fully digital recreation might be an entertaining surprise. But if he’s a major character, or even a supporting player with a few key scenes, I have my fingers crossed that the filmmakers don’t go the Tron: Legacy route, trying to digitally simulate a human character the way that 2010 film did with Jeff Bridges.
It’s important to keep an open mind, and I’m ready to do that. I’m prepared and hopeful that whatever the Rogue One crew comes up with will be mesmerizing and magical, and certainly the uncanny valley between flesh and blood and pixels has been diminishing year by year. If the Daily Mail is accurate, animators are now spending a lot of time watching footage of Cushing walking so they can recreate those movements.
That dedication is admirable, but it’s not what made Tarkin memorable.
A lot changes about technology year to year, but one thing that doesn’t change — and can’t be imitated — is the power of a single, soulful performance by an actor. Life is precious because of its impermanence. Cushing is gone, and we can’t get him back. All we can do is watch that original performance and remember.
But Tarkin can still return, as long as they don’t try to do it the hard way — as long as they remember what made him so deliciously fearsome in the first place. That cold space behind the eyes. The clenched jaw. The disregard for suffering.
No matter how precise the final product, all the money and effort that would go into a digital simulation still runs the risk of falling short. It might make the audience see only the spectacle, instead of just seeing that hollow-faced, cold-hearted Imperial leader. But cast an amazing actor, give him the right make-up and wardrobe, and turn him loose …
Suddenly, Tarkin lives. And we’ll believe it.
And that means a lot of other people are going to die.
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