After the chaos that followed the appearance of Tupac's hologram at a 2012 Coachella performance, it should come as no surprise that the public has strong feelings about "resurrecting" deceased artists. Tupac’s image cost at least $100,000 and was mostly made up of archive footage artfully edited together, and since then the question of giving other deceased people the same computer–generated treatment has been buzzing in the back of people’s minds. This moment with Tupac’s hologram and Snoop Dogg interacting on–stage marked a terrifying advancement of technology: We can’t ensure that the dead actually stay dead.
It's been hard to ignore the news of late actor James Dean's hologram being used in the upcoming film, Finding Jack. Dean, one of the most famous actors of the mid–1900's, was a symbol of tragic Americana, and he died at age 24 in a car accident. He most famously starred in the films Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, and since then has been lauded as an important figure in cinema history, despite—or perhaps because of—his tragic end.
So what of his hologram? Apparently, in Finding Jack—directed by Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh and set to come on Veteran's Day in 2020—Dean will “play” the part of a supporting role named Rogan. The film is set during the Vietnam War and is adapted from a book by Gareth Crocker of the same name; the movie currently has no actors attached other than Dean's image. Apparently, Dean will not be voiced by himself either. Rather, another actor will provide the voice, while the image of Dean will complete the performance. The result will be a mix of an actual actor and the digital reconstruction of James Dean.
But why even resurrect Dean in the first place? It’s a disrespectful, unnecessary choice that involves more money than it takes to simply hire an actual, living actor. On that criticism, producer Anton Ernst said that “We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extreme[ly] complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean.” This is a deeply ignorant point, not just because it seems to suggest that no modern actor can act as well as James Dean. If anything, clinging onto the image of Dean feels like a peculiar, old–fashioned attitude: an idealization of the past, when perfectly talented actors are ready in the present.
This news saw a ton of backlash. Chris Evans, known his role as Captain America, wrote that “This is awful. Maybe we can get a computer to paint us a new Picasso. Or write a couple new John Lennon tunes. The complete lack of understanding here is shameful.” Elijah Wood of Lord of the Rings fame said “NOPE. this shouldn’t be a thing.”
What's most frightening, perhaps, is that in casting Dean, other actual actors have had their job replaced by a machine—and this advancement of technology has widespread implications outside of cinema, too. For famous actors who have had their images recreated in a hologram, could they be torn down by work that doesn't fully belong to them? What does that mean for the families and estates of these people—families who have often tragically lost someone dear to them? Dean’s family approves of the decision after the directors obtained the rights to Dean’s image, but that doesn't make it less weird.
Such a technique has been used before, particularly for Rogue One, where the role of Grand Moff Tarkin, originated by Peter Cushing, was played by one actor with Cushing’s likeness digitally edited on top. But the difference between this and Dean is that the likeness of these actors was used in a role that Cushing had already played. Dean, on the other hand, is getting made anew and manipulated specifically for the part in Finding Jack. This suggests that we can entirely falsify performances, actors, and even whole films, if we just put enough tech into it. This is alarming to cinema as an art form; if a computer does it, we are losing a genuine touch of human artistry.
There’s a peculiar dichotomy in casting Dean in a role when he’s been deceased for so long—a desire to hold onto the past, the supposed golden days of cinema, while also recklessly pouring money into technology with terrifying implications. Whether the filmmakers of Finding Jack will back down remains up in the air—the response has been strong and may be harmful to box office sales—but what this discourse has raised a poignant question to the world of filmmaking: If we can digitally create a performance, is there even any point?