Carrie Fisher passed away yesterday. This news is varying degrees of "super sad," depending on who you are. Her friends and family have just experienced the devastating loss of a loved one, while most of the rest of us are heartbroken fans who are upset that she'll never write another book or make another movie.
Except she might. You see, Carrie Fisher was in Star Wars, and as the recent release of Rogue One has demonstrated, Star Wars is now bigger than any individual actor's life, or death, or dignity therein. If you haven't seen Rogue One, know that there are going to be some spoilers ahead (probably nothing you couldn't have predicted, but you've been warned).
In Rogue One, Peter Cushing reprises his role as Grand Moff Tarkin, the skeletal British fussbudget in charge of the Death Star and the only Imperial officer in the entire series who ever gets to tell Darth Vader what to do. And I'm not talking about a quick cameo, like the weird flesh puppet that pops up at the end of Revenge Of The Sith -- Tarkin has a substantial role in this new movie.
And Peter Cushing died in 1994.
"Decorum? In our moment of greed?"
Now, magicking dead actors back to life using skillful editing and digital effects isn't a new thing -- there's John Candy in Wagons East, Brandon Lee in The Crow, Oliver Reed in Gladiator, and Paul Walker in Furious 7, to name a few. Except in all of those examples, the actor in question died while the movie was still in production, having already completed some or most of their scenes. Cushing had been dead for two decades when Rogue One went into production. In other words, Disney executives got together and planned to have a long-dead actor in their new Star Wars film. The potential for fan nostalgia outweighed the need to respect the man's life by acknowledging that it had ended. And the very last shot of Rogue One is of a CGI Carrie Fisher, reprising her role as 19-year-old Princess Leia.
Now, Lucasfilm (and Disney) own the likeness of Carrie Fisher as the character Princess Leia. Just as they own the likeness of Peter Cushing as G-Moff Tarks. They don't call everyone who has ever been in Star Wars to ask their permission every time they make a new action figure or video game.
If they did, "Harrison Ford punches Lucasfilm intern" would be a monthly headline.
And while the rules governing using an actor's likeness in a new film are considerably murkier and generally require the consent of the actor's family or estate, it's entirely possible that Disney will decide to construct a digital homunculus of Princess Leia for Star Wars: Episode IX.
Whether or not bringing a beloved celebrity "back to life" to reprise a role is an honor or a disgrace to their memory is a conversation we've largely avoided having for the past two decades, in favor of just daydreaming about what dead screen icon we may be able to see again by using computers to spit into the faces of both God and time. Humphrey Bogart played the main character an episode of Tales From the Crypt in 1995, nearly 40 years after his death. Sir Laurence Olivier was resurrected by computer wizardry to play the villain in 2004's Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, for reasons no one will ever be able to explain. Marlon Brando didn't let his recent death keep him from appearing in Superman Returns. Dead celebrities show up in commercials with surprising regularity. I don't know if anyone asked Tupac's mother whether she wanted to see a hologram of her son perform at Choachella, but there he was, rapping with Snoop as if he hadn't been murdered in front of the entire world before he was 30.
"I didn't choose thug life ... or this."
But Rogue One has pushed us into some crazy new territory in which technology has allowed a dead man to play a substantial role in a major movie. Vin Diesel reportedly talked with Paul Walker's brothers about having them come back as body doubles for Fast 8 so Walker's character could continue being in the series. That may be obviously gross to some of us right now, but how will we feel in 10 years? I had more than one friend insist that CGI Peter Cushing was the best character in Rogue One. Will we give a shit about respecting Paul Walker's death in 2030, or will we just think it's neat to see him in a new Fast & Furious movie? (Which they absolutely will still be making in 2030, regardless of how many cast members have been replaced by CGI doubles.) How many of us would've been angry if Christopher Nolan had decided to create a sophisticated computer puppet of Heath Ledger to complete his Dark Knight trilogy as he originally envisioned it? Will anybody be upset if Richard Attenborough shows up in Jurassic World 2, or will we all just cheer because John Hammond was a character we liked in a movie we loved?
To that end, how many of us, given the choice, would prefer Disney use a CGI Carrie Fisher to complete Princess Leia's role in Episode IX, rather than abruptly write her out of the story? Would that be exploitation or a tribute? Does it depend on the role, or is time the only distinction? It seems that we as a society are going to have to come up with an answer to that question in the very near future, because Hollywood has never been good about policing itself in that regard. They'll keep giving us things as long as we keep clapping for them, and if we clap for Peter Cushing's ghost being trotted out for another Star Wars, we may find ourselves doing the same for Carrie Fisher.
Rest in peace, Miss Fisher. You led an incredible life, and we're lucky that you shared so much of it with us.
Carrie Fisher 1956 - 2016: Drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra.
How did these hyper-specific tropes spread so quickly?
The Hollywood rumor mill has been playing games with celebrity deaths for at least a century.