Now Yoda, what next?

November 3rd, 2011
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There’s a recent entertainment story relating how Star Wars‘ Yoda will be replaced with a computer-generated (CGI) image in the new Blu-ray release. This made me think about a related subject that’s been bugging me for a while now: when will the next Marx Brothers movie come out? No, seriously. The technology is rapidly advancing and, if we aren’t there already, we will soon be able to resurrect dead actors en masse in new movies.

There are a few factors that, I think, will hasten the use of digital actors. One is the absolute dearth of new ideas and creativity in Hollywood, as demonstrated by the numerous re-makes and multiple films based on every comic book under the sun. Frankly, the same has happened in literature, where conflating things like Jane Austen and zombies is considered novel. So the constant need for new material will push this along.

More importantly, there’s the money. CGI can at once dispense with living prima donnas and, above all, paying them. So if you can do remakes of film classics with facsimiles of dead actors, why not? You have proven, iconic stars that – at least initially – will have some audience drawing power, even if they’re being digitally re-created.

Directors and actors are already talking about this and other developments like blending the attributes of living or dead actors based on potential audience appeal.

Had it not been for a recent Air Canada flight I would not have known that CGI-Yoda is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes Lucas controversies. The documentary The People Versus George Lucas describes the whole subculture devoted to Star Wars and the global rage at what has happened with the films.

I guess, given the Trekkie phenomenon, one shouldn’t be surprised such a thing exists. The fanaticism involves everything from the compulsive memorization of whole scripts, bankrupting oneself through the purchase of action figures, to fan-made film recreations of all shapes and sizes – that now proliferate on Youtube.

The thing is, hundreds (thousands?) of people seem to be in an ongoing feud with Lucas over his tinkering with his films. Besides something like the computerized Yoda, there are many things non-fanatics like me simply wouldn’t notice – like the fact that in Episode IV (the original Star Wars) Han Solo proactively blasts the bounty hunter, Greedo, in the cafe scene. In the tinkered version, Lucas has Greedo shoot first. This has the anti-Lucas loonies launching into conspiratorial rants worthy of Oliver Stone. Indeed, the “Han Shot First” crowd reeks of the grassy knoll.

Lunacy aside, this whole debate has a serious, almost metaphysical side. For example, what constitutes a “finished” work of art. Does the artist have the right to tweak  a finished piece ad nauseam? And there’s the further issue of simply replacing living actors with digital ones.

MrK holds forth a truly apocalyptic vision of almost Orwellian, or certainly Stalinist dimensions, where older versions of films are expunged and new generations no longer know the original work or its intent. Interestingly, Lucas himself suggests this when he states that, after “improvements” older versions of his films will no longer be available.

I am not much more optimistic. What can be done likely will be done. Imitating previous stars and genres will become reproducing them. One blogger already proposes a sort of paleo-Brokeback Mountain, with Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne. A greased, slippery slope indeed.

Where these streams come back together is the fact that George Lucas has reportedly bought up the rights to the images of various dead actors, leading the conspiracy crowd to even more gyrations. In the documentary they refer to the fact that Lucas actually spoke against colorization of classic films back in the 1980′s. And now he’s doing what?

As the technology develops, it’s hard not to think that numerous alternative versions of film classics will emerge, as with the Star Wars fan films. And getting back to the Marxes, they wanted  Kaufman and Ryskind to modify their hit play Of thee I Sing for them, but it never came off. Perhaps now it will.

What appears certain is that we are facing an ever-changing medium, or media, due to the relentless march of technology. Just as with modern theatre, live actors will likely persist as long as people value them. They can after all market themselves as “real”. But history also shows that, if a technology exists, it will be used.

At best there will likely be competing versions of current and past films, if only for the reasons of exhausted originality already mentioned. The hand-puppet versions of Empire Strikes Back will pass and, with the advent of ever-better technology, allow the proverbial pasty lard-ass in his basement to generate full-length, hi-tech features.

So, along with the Marx Brothers in Of Thee I Sing, there will likely be Casablanca of the Zombies and the dramatization of every Thor comic ever produced.

Brave New World indeed.

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By John Weissenberger