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When Star Wars Strayed Into the Uncanny Valley

Updated on November 4, 2018
Mamerto profile image

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer back in college for a a school paper. Science is one of his many interests, and his favorite topic.

The Star Wars franchise isn’t afraid to try new stuffs. I mean this became their signature selling point and they are good at it. In the years where people were expecting grittier realism, like the Taxi Driver, the world was introduced to a universe of starships, aliens, blasters and lightsabers. No one was expecting science fiction to sell, but Star Wars created history (and gave birth to a generation of film nerds). And they contribute well to film industry’s visual effects. The Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) were formed for the 1977 Star Wars (New Hope), and even without CGI it helped bring the Star Wars universe to life.

Today the Star Wars franchise has all the modern tools to bring the series into the next levels. Some fans might never like it but at least the newer generations who grew up in the CGI age could relate to it.

And then Hollywood experimented with CGI faces.

We are getting a lot of CGI faces in videogames, but Hollywood upped the ante by rendering aging or dead actors. Post-mortem appearance thanks to digital technology came to the films long ago. Now these resurrected actors and actresses become increasingly prevalent. And soon the Star Wars franchise adopted the practice; bring it to a whole level and even giving it important roles in the story.

But the effect is quite unsettling for some fans.

The Use of CGI Faces

The rendered Paul that made us cry.
The rendered Paul that made us cry.

Again like what we mentioned, actors and actresses resurrected by CGI were already in used long before Rogue One. This might sounds like prophetic visions of dystopic movies, and it is for some people. Advancement of digital technology means we could create more detailed and nearly realistic images. And again one might think it could raise moral issues. Nevertheless filmmakers claim that dead actors they rendered are credited in the film, and the families are always informed. And we got to admit that it’s darn good engineering they made. The reason for resurrecting actors though is nothing dystopic and more as a necessity. And some of the famous people that CGI brought from the dead are:

  1. Marlon Brando, in his role as Jor-El in the Bryan Singer Superman returns. Since it is a Quasi-sequel from the original Superman, Bryan Singer felt he needed the original man for the job.
  2. Philip Seymour Hoffman, when he died and his role is needed in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.
  3. Paul Walker, as the filming of the 7th Fast and Furious movie is not yet completed when he died in a car crash. And we got to admit I cried when he appeared at the end of the movie.

Then there are some who was simply too old for the film. Arnold Schwarzenegger was made younger via a stunt double in some recent Terminator films.

Again this is ingenious digital imagery they pulled off. And for those who worry that CGI actors will replace real actors, even the developers themselves admit that real starts too talented to be matched by any computer imagery. Visual effects made a huge leap these years. It’s perfect, almost.

But until now no CGI could still conquer the uncanny valley.

The Uncanny Valley

The Toshiba Android that freaked some people.
The Toshiba Android that freaked some people.

Who among you got freaked out when an idiot friend brought a creepy doll in the dorm? Or when you can get near your sister’s wedding dress because you hated the mannequin wearing it? How about when a human-like robot in an electronics fare gave you nightmares? Nope, you’re not just being chicken. You are feeling the effects of the uncanny valley.

The term was coined by robotics professor Mashiro Mori. According to him, as a robot (or anything humanlike) becomes more human, our response becomes more emphatic. But as the robot becomes more life-like, our response turns from empathy to revulsion. The area of revulsion caused by a “barely human” object to “full human” object is identified as the uncanny valley. Simply something that looks human, but is not human invokes uncanniness. In other words, it freaks us out.

And such revulsion sometimes extends to resurrected and enhanced actors.

When the younger Arnold showed up in Terminator Salvation, it’s no surprise how some people found it uncanny. Yes CG technology improved, but it’s still a long way to capture the essence of a living face. People can still tell its CG. As for me though, the fact that Arnold’s younger self portrays a robot means that I could tell it is not real. When something is uncanny means you can see something that looks like human, but you know it’s not human. In Arnie’s case my brain tells me he is pure robot thanks to the murderous endoskeleton beneath the steroidal muscles. But again reactions differ among peoples.

Unfortunately the CG actors of the Star Wars brought different effects, even for me.

The CGI Doppelganger of Peter Cushing

The real Peter (left) and the Rogue One Tarkin (right).
The real Peter (left) and the Rogue One Tarkin (right).

Rogue One is one of my favourite in the series. It was set just before the beginning of A New Hope and it will be great if the audience will see some familiar characters. The problem is a major character known as Grand Moff Tarkin was played by Peter Cushing who passed away in 1994. The filmmakers are left with the following choice: they could just omit the scene with Tarkin in it, or they could hire a look-alike. A younger version of Tarkin made a cameo in The Revenge of the Sith played by Wayne Pygram.

But somehow filmmakers felt that Tarkin is too important to be left out in the Rogue One film. And no body double could bring out the essence of Peter Cushing. After all Wayne Pygram wore prosthetics to achieve the likeness of the Grand Moff, and he never spoke. Hence they hire Guy Henry, an actor with the same built and close facial features, and a team from ILM. Henry will play as the body double, and the ILM team will do the rest.

And voila! Tarkin was brought to life.

As for me I found it ingenious and amazing. It’s very realistic and lifelike. Some people don’t agree.

And I do understand why reactions differ and people freaked out. On the positive note the boldness of Rogue One to bring out a CG Tarkin paid well. He’s incredibly alive, with detailed conversations with the unfortunate Krennic. In fact it’s like Peter Cushing came to life to mock the hapless director. Tarkin appeared as we knew him 40 years ago, but not without flaw.

The acting of this CG actor is great (thanks Guy Henry!) the face looks real but unfortunately not real enough. I dug into the dark reaches of the comment sections of every forum, blogs and even reviewed clips of Rogue One’s Tarkins to check what others found wrong. Firstly is the facial expression. We see faces every day and we know every natural movement they make. Our brain is made to recognize faces after all. We also know how faces made slight changes of expressions when people talk. With such familiarity on how live faces function, it’s no surprise how people found the CG Tarkin to be strangely stony. No matter how life-like it looks, the CG face doesn’t approach the level of expressions real faces had. The expression is too cold and the movement are still too stiff. Some reckons that the facial movements are incomplete. And the way the CG Tarkin blinks is also too slow. And although the skin texture approaches a new level of detail, it is still not as natural as real skin

Now our aversion to slight unrealistic spasms CG face displays reflects the Mortality Salience in our psyche. The unnatural movement is basically telling our brains that the individual is sick or dead. Hence we must stay away so infection won’t spread. Whatever the reason is, I don’t think that the CG Tarkin deserves all those hates seeing on how good he interacts with everyone in the movie.

I could live with the CG Tarkin, but what happened in the end of the movie gave me chills.

The Final Scene That Disturbed Some People

The live Leia (left) and her CG version (right).
The live Leia (left) and her CG version (right).

The ending of the Rogue One was a bitter-sweet tragedy. I’m not sure but the theme seems to be sacrifice, as the heroes gave it all to steal the schematic diagram of the Death Star. We see how the rebels scramble to run for the stolen file, as Jyn Erso got vaporized by the Death Star above her. Such an emotional close to the story…

Okay enough of that. Actually Jyn Erso’s death had zero effect on me. I was too busy cheering on how Darth freaking Vader steamrolled the hapless rebels. But what came after gave me the shock of the lifetime. There with her face turned against the camera is Princess Leia. And she turned to smile at the audience with her CG enhanced face.

Funny but I never felt that way at the resurrected Tarkin. Maybe CG enhancements worked better on older and wrinkled faces. Those lines made a digital face more alive, and somehow less freaky. In the case of our well-loved Princess, she is simply too perfect, so perfect that her features don’t look natural. The skin is overly smooth and the smile looks cold and lifeless. I mean much of her face is lifeless, hence triggering that uncanny valley reaction in my psyche. I also heard someone commenting how the CG Leia resembles a badly done Botox.

And then her eyes…

It’s just the way she stared. I think her gaze look a bit glassy.

In the end it’s not the tragic close that left me disturbed. Seeing Carrie Fisher’s unnaturally young face is hard to digest. Funny how other CGI faces never really affected me until the ending of Rogue One. Is it because Carrie Fisher will soon pass away that I found her CG face to be some form of portent? Nah! I just hit the uncanny valley, that’s all.

And with all the scary space aliens the Star Wars series presented us, nothing compares to the CG Leia when it comes to shock value. I’m sure digital media holds much potential in resurrecting dead actors in the future. But until that day where technology perfects itself, the uncanny valley will continue to haunt us.

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