James Dean, who died in a 1955 car crash at the age of 24, is making an unexpected return to the big screen. The cultural icon, known for Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, has been posthumously cast in the Vietnam era action-drama Finding Jack.
Directed by Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh, the project comes from the filmmakers’ own recently launched production house Magic City Films, which obtained the rights to use Dean’s image from his family. Canadian VFX banner Imagine Engine will be working alongside South African VFX company MOI Worldwide to re-create what the filmmakers describe as “a realistic version of James Dean.”
We all saw this coming, didn’t we? Since this is about involuntarily resuscitating dead actors so greedy family members can put them to work doing whatever a director screenwriter wants them to do, I feel no need to write a new post, especially since my position hasn’t changed one bit from the other instances in which I looked at this issue. So here it is again, lightly edited…
I see where this is going, don’t you? We’re heading straight to “Looker,” the science fiction film directed and written by the late Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park,”“Westworld,” Disclosure,” “ER,”—How I miss him!). In that prescient 1981 movie, an evil corporation transferred the images of living models to a computer program that could use then make the new CGI versions to do and say anything, and do so more effectively and attractively than the living models themselves, in television ads and even in live appearances via hologram. Then the company had the models killed.
OK, I think that’s unlikely. Still the problem is the same ethical problem I had with regenerating the deceased actor Peter Cushing in “Rogue One”:
“This is, ultimately, a simple Golden Rule exercise. Would you, without your consent, want a computer-generated clone bearing your name being used in mass entertainment, with no limits on what it might be made to say or do—forever?”
This technology or ones like it will soon be able, as in “Looker,” to make reconstructed images of past performers do and say whatever their masters choose, whether or not it enhances or undermines the image and reputation they constructed in life, and whether or not the late individual would have consented had he or she been given the chance. Living artists should take steps immediately to protect themselves from post mortem exploitation, or, if they don’t care, at least make certain that their heirs and offspring profit. When Carrie Fisher died and the prospect of Zombie Carrie continuing on in the “Star Wars” franchise loomed, Yahoo reported that other film stars were rapidly taking measures to protect their images:
“Celebrities are increasingly involved in making plans to protect their intellectual property rights,” said Mark Roesler, an attorney and chairman of CMG Worldwide, an agency representing celebrity estates. “They understand that their legacy will continue beyond their lifetime.”
Roesler said at least 25 of his clients are engaged in actively negotiating the use of their or their loved ones’ computer-generated images in movies, television or commercials. Employment contracts govern how they can be used in a particular film or commercial, while a performer’s will can address broader issues. Some actors or heirs worry that overexposure will tarnish a celebrity’s image, Roesler said. Some explicitly rule out posthumous depictions involving sex or violence, while others focus on drugs or alcohol. “We have seen people address marijuana,” he said. “We’ve seen liquor addressed.”
California law already gives heirs control over actors’ posthumous profits by requiring their permission for any of use of their likeness. As technology has improved, many living actors there are more focused on steering their legacy with stipulations on how their images are used – or by forbidding their use.
…It seems clear that more than film performers need to take action, if they don’t want to be remembered by future generations for doing a strip tease in Radio City Music Hall. I think a law protecting performers like Maria Callas, who didn’t see this coming (she died before “Looker”), would be fair and prudent. I would also endorse laws protecting all dead public figures from undignified future cyber- or hologram manipulation absent their consent.
Should living heirs be able to declare that, for the right price, their famous ancestor can become a digital TV huckster for condoms? Should Callas’s family be allowed to give permission for her hologram avatar to sing “Carmen” naked and in Klingon at the Hollywood Bowl?
An Ethics Alarm poll at the time surprised me: 70% answered the question, “Should laws prohibit technological exploitation of dead performers and celebrities without their consent?” in the affirmative. Such a law would have blocked the exploitation of James Dean, who surely never considered the possibility of being made to play a transsexual serial child killer decades after his death if his family was a little short of cash.