The first time I watched a Star Wars movie was when I played my mom’s old VHS tape of “A New Hope.” Maybe viewing the film via the physical medium of its era made the experience more authentic than I appreciated at the time, but all I remember was squinting to make out the pixelated stars and spaceships that looked more like grainy, fuzzy specs zipping across the screen and impatiently waiting for Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, “When Harry Met Sally”) to show up. Leia did eventually arrive, but I only became more skeptical of my mom’s claims that the technology in the film was groundbreaking for its time. She was right, though. For better or worse, the franchise’s innovations in film editing have only grown with time, culminating in one of its more recent, much more problematic endeavors: deepfakes.
Deepfake technology allows a person in an existing piece of media to be replaced by someone else in their likeness, like an extreme version of overdubbing someone’s voice or photoshopping a face onto someone else. As you can likely guess, the potential misuse of such technology is a concern, and the normalization of its use in art is equally worrisome, especially the manipulation and repurposing of media without consent. From de-aging characters to reviving dead actors, Star Wars has not only jumped on the bandwagon but paved the way for this technology to become increasingly commonplace and conducted convincingly, eerily well.
In “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Star Wars first branched out into the resurrection of deceased actors with the return of Grand Moff Tarkin, originally played by Peter Cushing (“Dracula”). Though Cushing died in 1994, they deemed his presence in the film a necessity and used archival footage from previous Star Wars films and a 3D CGI mask mapped onto a body double to revive him on screen. The choice was lauded for its innovative approach and as an homage to both the character and Cushing. I remember watching “Rogue One” for the first time, entirely unaware of this and feeling a perverse sense of discomfort upon later learning that it wasn’t actually him in the film; the once intentional artistry of his performance, from his facial expressions to his voice, had been manipulated and reconfigured into a chop job that I was mildly embarrassed not to have noticed initially. It was more than a clever amalgamation of the art and the artifice, but a total annihilation of the line between the two. My question wasn’t whether they had done a decent job pulling it off but whether they were right to have done it at all.
After Cushing’s revival in “Rogue One,” implementing deepfakes into Star Wars’ already extensive repertoire of CGI was hardly a giant leap. The franchise’s use of replicative technology as a crutch to perform tireless fan service and cameo appearances was only exacerbated by its newfound dependence on these advancements. In “The Mandalorian,” Mark Hamill’s (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”) face was de-aged several decades so that a 20-something Luke Skywalker could briefly appear in a quick cameo. The producers got bolder in “The Book of Boba Fett,” where they gave him dialogue and a digitally edited voice that sounded as robotic and soulless as an Artificial Intelligence “offering you Jedi tech support over the phone.” As nice as it was to see pseudo-Hamill back on screen, it was a weak imitation of his original performance at best, and its repetitive use is quickly losing its novelty. Rather than use the more traditional devices at their disposal, like recasting a part or creatively navigating storylines, Star Wars repeatedly favors technology over the immeasurable non-synthetic talents of a good casting director, hair and makeup crews, or consistent writers.
At the very least, Hamill is a willing participant in these endeavors to parade Luke Skywalker’s baby face around every new Disney+ show. The same cannot be said for Carrie Fisher. Fisher died in 2016 and, in order to give her character a proper send-off in “Rise of the Skywalker,” producers used a combination of unused scenes from “The Force Awakens,” archival footage from the ’70s films and her daughter Billie Lourd as a body double to artificially generate a digital replica of Leia. The creatives assure that the tribute was done with the utmost respect for Fisher’s legacy and with Lourd’s blessing, but it feels like a slippery slope, a line that cannot be uncrossed. While I’m sure that Fisher’s estate agreed to the use of the footage and that it’s all sound and legal, is it ethical to exploit and repurpose someone’s artistry when they could not consent to it? I don’t see how we could cleanly discern the respectability, the positive or negative propensity of an artist’s intentions, in order to wholly justify its use. As well-intentioned as an homage or as remarkable as the effects of this technology could be, is it really worth it?
Perhaps George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, said it best. In the midst of creating the prequel trilogy in the early 2000s, Lucas vehemently shied away from the idea of using technology to revive dead film actors, arguing that “acting is a human endeavor” and that all you would be left with is a “caricature” of a performance. Even in terms of artistic integrity alone, the effectiveness and validity of the process become questionable, but isn’t that what all of this is for? To further the advancement and impact of an artistic project?
I can’t say whether Fisher would have been touched or appalled by the resurrection of Leia, but that’s the thing — nobody can. Maybe we feel we have a right to the performances actors give, cultural collateral for the fame and success we bestow upon them, but this feels like a blatant betrayal of that trust. When a celebrity explicitly expresses their desire to not be “revived” on screen for a biopic or the like and we do so anyway in the name of art, we do it out of respect for their artistic value, not out of respect for them as human beings.
TV Beat Editor Serena Irani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.