James Dean’s death in 1955 at age 24, after only three major movie performances, sealed his legend as the forever-young, forever-beautiful rebel without a cause. Taken from the world too soon, movie audiences would never see his like again.
Movie producers have announced that Dean will star in a Vietnam war film that is in pre-production, after they secured the rights to use his image.
“We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extreme complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean,” Anton Ernst, who will co-direct the film, Finding Jack, told The Hollywood Reporter.
The character will be created by computer-manipulation of footage and pictures of the deceased star. His voice will be supplied by another actor.
Dean’s resurrection is the most striking use of computer-generated images (CGI), but not the first time a dead actor has been brought back from the grave.
Star Wars fans were thrilled in 2016 when the long-dead Peter Cushing appeared in the sequel Rogue One, reprising his role from the 1977 original. The next Star Wars movie, Episode IX, will feature Carrie Fisher, the Princess Leia actress who died in 2016.
Years earlier, filmmakers were able to use more primitive CGI to overcome the demise of actors during filming such as Oliver Reed in Gladiator and Brandon Lee in The Crow.
But James Dean’s return is thought to be the first time a dead actor will return to play an entirely new role.
The news was not rapturously received. Captain America star Chris Evans called it “shameful”, suggesting it disrespected Dean’s memory.
As well as worrying about the ‘authenticity’ of CGI characters, actors may be concerned for their own careers. We all knew the rise of artificial intelligence in the Fourth Industrial Revolution would mean the end for many lines of work. But while bus drivers and manual workers might be at risk, surely computer code could never replace artists or actors?
Maybe actors shouldn’t be too worried. As well as bringing the dead back to life, CGI has been used to enhance the performances of the living. Jeff Bridges was able to return as his young self in Tron: Legacy. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci all got a CGI facelift to act their characters in different stages of their lives in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.
The more alarming aspect of watching a dead actor play a new role is how convincing ‘deepfake’ technology is becoming.
Pioneered as a way of superimposing movie stars’ faces onto porn performers’ bodies, deepfake technology can now be used to create a video of a person doing or saying something they have never done. Politicians can be deepfaked, and so can you.
A single photograph can be enough to create a rudimentary deepfake video – although the makers of Finding Jack will have to do much more work to create a convincing James Dean on a big screen.
The success or otherwise of that film is likely to be crucial when Hollywood moguls consider resurrecting other movie giants of the past.