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Back from the dead: the Rogue One role that will change Hollywood forever

Sydney Morning Herald logoSydney Morning Herald 20/12/2016 Michael Idato

Warning: spoilers.

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For fans of the Star Wars saga, the standalone film Rogue One is filled with subtle and overt connections to both the larger franchise and the 1977 film which kicked it off.

But few are as prominent and compelling as Peter Cushing's appearance in the film as Grand Moff Tarkin, the Imperial bureaucrat who, as Star Wars fans know, ultimately takes command of the planet-blasting Death Star.

Actor Peter Cushing. © Provided by Sydney Morning Herald Actor Peter Cushing. Cushing's appearance in Rogue One is compelling for a variety of reasons, from its rekindling of the brilliantly chilling shadow he cast across the 1977 film, to the nostalgia-tickling glee for those to whom he was the stuff of childhood nightmares.

But one reason stand above all others: Cushing died in 1994.

For the record, Cushing is not the only digital exhumation Rogue One attempts. The second, a scene featuring the 1977-era Princess Leia Organa, provokes an equally powerful reaction from the film's audience.

And to the casual glance both digitally-rendered characters are exactly that: obvious but very convincing simulacra. The Independent in the UK went so far as to declare "one of the best performances in Rogue One is by an actor who died in 1994."

Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) is a 1977 American epic space opera film starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness. © Universal History Archive Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) is a 1977 American epic space opera film starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness. But unlike Princess Leia's cameo appearance, Tarkin is a centrally present story thread in the film, illuminating his emergence as an Imperial leader, and his rivalry with Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).

In the past, Star Wars films have gently recast roles: Wayne Pygram played the younger Tarkin in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and Genevieve O'Reilly plays the younger Mon Mothma in Rogue One, a character first introduced in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

But here director Gareth Edwards had the Tarkin character in play roughly around the same era in which fans knew him: Rogue One is set immediately prior to the original 1977 Star Wars film.

And rather than recast the role, Edwards was persuaded by visual effects supervisor John Knoll that Cushing's Tarkin could instead be recreated, using digital grafts onto an actor's body, in this case British actor Guy Henry. (And for Princess Leia, actress Ingvild Deila.)

A CGI Peter Cushing in Rogue One. © YouTube A CGI Peter Cushing in Rogue One. The effect is staggering. It is by no means the moment that actors should hang up their hands and leave everything to the post-production department. And it does look "effectsy".

But it is plainly a turning point for the technology and its impact will be felt in Hollywood for decades to come.

Cushing's return to the screen more than two decades after his death flags not just the possibility that other actors, and characters, considered long dead, could be exhumed in a similar fashion.

It also challenges the notion of exactly who owns an actor's likeness? What if actor X does not want to return for the sequel? Or actor Y refuses to shoot nude scenes? Or actor Z is simply unavailable?

For Hollywood, where those questions are negotiated in a game of tug-of-contracts played out on a daily basis, the implications of Cushing's dazzling appearance are manifold.

What is more, for actors whose in-character likenesses are owned by studios – such as the casts of franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek – where does the line in the sand sit? At what point is exploitation taken one CGI-render too far?

For now, the reveal of Cushing's post-mortem guest appearance simply has the audience dazzled. And whatever its shortcomings, all credit must go to the visual effects team for not just capturing his likeness, but his sinister manner. It is a performance worthy of the great master himself.

And that leaves just one lingering question: should Cushing win an Oscar for Rogue One, who gets to take it home?

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