Warning: Some spoilers for Rogue One to follow
At this point, Star Wars fans are accustomed to seeing their favorite characters return from the dead, and their favorite stories recycled with new computer effects. The new Star Wars movie Rogue One takes both ideas to the next level by resurrecting a familiar human character — Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader’s formidable right-hand man in A New Hope — in a CGI performance. True to George Lucas’s forward-thinking vision for the Star Wars films, it’s an impressive piece of special-effects craft that’s never been attempted on this level. Whether it works — and what it bodes for the future of the Star Wars universe — is another story.
Grand Moff Tarkin, the ruthless general who presided over the Death Star and ordered the destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet Alderaan, was played by British actor Peter Cushing in the original 1977 Star Wars. The character was blown up with the Death Star at the end of the movie, and Cushing himself died in 1994 at the age of 81. Tarkin has returned to the big screen once before, for a wordless cameo at the end of the prequel trilogy. In 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, the character was played by Wayne Pygram, outfitted with extensive prosthetics to resemble Cushing. Reportedly, George Lucas considered using stock footage to bring Cushing’s character back to life for Sith, but the poor condition of the existing footage made it impossible.
Watch ‘Rogue One’ director Gareth Edwards talk about the lack of an opening crawl:
If this is true, then Rogue One is the fulfillment of Lucas’ dream. Rogue One’s Tarkin is an uncanny digital re-creation of late-1970s Peter Cushing with a voice to match. (Rogue One takes place immediately before the events of A New Hope, when a band of Rebels steals the Death Star plans from the Empire.) The character’s first appearance elicited gasps from the audience at the New York press screening — but the real shocker is how much screen time he gets. Though it probably only adds up to a few villainous minutes, Tarkin’s role is a substantial one. And while CGI has been used to resurrect dead actors before (the most notable example being Paul Walker in Furious 7), it’s never been done with a major character for such a sustained amount of time.
The effect is so groundbreaking that when a report leaked last summer of a CGI Peter Cushing appearing in Rogue One, many outlets flat-out didn’t believe it. Even with significant advances in motion-capture technology (allowing, for example, Robert Downey Jr. to play his younger self in Captain America: Civil War), it seemed too daunting a task. But Industrial Light & Magic’s John Knoll, who came up with the concept for Rogue One (and also co-created Photoshop), was confident that it would work.
“John was always like ‘No we can do this, we can do it, we can do it,’” director Gareth Edwards told RadioTimes. “To be honest, a lot of people were nervous the whole time, like ‘Is this gonna happen?’ And then we went all or nothing in.”
So ILM set about creating a character based solely on Cushing’s scenes from a single (non-digital) movie. Fortunately, Cushing made plenty of other films — he’s remembered in particular for his Hammer horror movies — which reportedly came in handy when the animation team realized they had no footage of Grand Moff Tarkin’s feet. (Cushing often told the story of how the leather riding boots worn by the Imperial troops were too small for his feet, so Lucas agreed to let him wear his house slippers and shoot him from the knees up. Here’s photo evidence.)
“They are going through hours and hours of old footage from the horror movies to recreate his legs and feet to produce realistic movements,” a source tattled to the Daily Mail last summer. “It is eerie to see someone who has been dead for so long come to life on a screen.”
Still, a motion-capture character requires an actual actor, whose performance is then transformed by digital animators. (A more traditional example from Rogue One is the droid K-2SO, played by Alan Tudyk.) To play Tarkin, Edwards cast Guy Henry, a classically trained British actor who already had a few minor Hollywood baddies on his resume (Heyer in V for Vendetta, Pius Thicknesse in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2). “It was very gracious of him, because essentially he’s doing this big performance and getting zero credit for it,” Edwards told RadioTimes of his actor. “He was gonna be totally replaced, and then had to keep it all secret.” (In order to cover its legal bases, Disney also obtained permission from Peter Cushing’s estate, which is managed by his former secretary.)
All this top-secret ILM work had one goal: To make it appear as though Peter Cushing has magically returned to reprise his Star Wars role. Whether they succeeded is debatable. Without a doubt, Digital Tarkin looks like Cushing. (Disney has not yet released any photos or clips of the digital recreation.) He sounds like Cushing. But he is not Cushing. One of the things that makes Cushing’s original performance so terrifying is how genteel he is. Take a look at the scene in which Tarkin destroys Leia’s home as she watches in horror (below). The cold glint in his eyes is that of a ruthless killer, yet he’s so cordial, almost playful with Leia. Watching him, you’re not sure if you want to cower in a corner or curl up and take a nap inside one of his mellifluous “r”s.
The cartoon Cushing, on the other hand, has none of those beguiling qualities: He is an English-accented attack dog, affixed with a permanent sneer. And the longer he is onscreen, the more two-dimensional he appears (literally and figuratively). While a few critics have complimented Cushing’ s “performance,” most are finding it distracting at best, an uncanny-valley nightmare at worst. “Even [Cushing’s character] Baron Frankenstein would have been horrified by this kind of grave-robbing,” writes New York’s David Edelstein.
Rogue One contains one other can’t-miss-it CGI character whose appearance is more convincing, if only for its brevity. But the effect is far from flawless. Much more satisfying is the reappearance of Return of the Jedi character Mon Mothma, played by lookalike actress Genevieve O’Reilly (the original performer, Caroline Blakiston, is now an octogenarian). Like Ewan McGregor playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the prequels, O’Reilly adds new dimension to a character whose original appearance was all too fleeting — and if Lucasfilm isn’t bringing these characters back to make us see them in a new light, then why bother?
Maybe the answer is: Because it’s never been done before. Years from now, Rogue One will be noted as a landmark in movie special effects — and though Tarkin will no doubt look even cruder in retrospect, new animation technology can always be applied later (much like Lucas tweaked the rudimentary Jabba the Hutt character in his Special Edition of A New Hope between its 1997 theatrical premiere and the 2004 DVD release). Digital Tarkin may be divisive now, but in 40 years, when Lucasfilm decides to honor Harrison Ford by pairing off digital Han Solo and digital Indiana Jones for a buddy comedy, no one will blink an eye. The scariest thing about the Peter Cushing character in Rogue One is that he’s only the beginning.
Watch the ‘Rogue One’ cast critique their action figures: