This year has been a good year for using computer magic to do a little de-aging on our favorite matinee idols. The year is not half over and we’ve already seen Kurt Russell turned into his 1980 self in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (although, in this case, makeup was used in addition to CGI effects) and Johnny Depp reverted to look like he just stepped off the set of the 21 Jump Street TV series in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
Digitally de-aging is the latest fad sweeping Hollywood, apparently. And not everyone likes it. Andrew Gruttadaro over at The Ringer wrote a column on Tuesday entitled “The De-aging of Old Actors Needs to End.” In it, he asks why the practice has become so prevalent, feeling the de-aging takes the audience out of the narrative, acts as just producers “flexing their budgets,” and is just plain weird.
I like the practice. I think de-aging adds more to movies than it takes away. Here is my counter argument.
It’s Been Used Longer Than You May Think
Gruttadaro lists 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as the start of the de-aging process, but it actually started two years earlier. You can’t really be faulted for wanting to forget 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, but that film’s de-aging Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen was as far as I can tell the first instance of this happening.
Two years might not make a lot of difference, but it does mean that there has been over a decade of work leading us to this point. There’s been more practice and more technological advances. It also means that this is not a fly-by-night thing. It’s just an idea that’s time has come.
Casting New Actors Is Just As Distracting As De-Aging Them
I’ll do have to admit that when I see a de-aged actor on screen, I am taken out of the movie just a bit. Not because I think the de-aged actor looks weird, but rather because I am impressed by how far the technology has come. But the alternative also takes me out of the film as well.
If they cast an actor who looks exactly like to older actor, I start wondering if the two are related. When the younger actor looks nothing like the older, it pretty much ruins the movie for me.
Case in point, 1989’s Batman. Back then, computer generated imagery was still in its infantcy (The Abyss was pushing the boundaries of the technology, and the way they did it was by creating believable looking CGI water) so Tim Burton had no choice but to cast an actor to play the young Jack Nicholson in a flashback scene. The actor he chose to play the young Jack Napier was Hugo Blick, who looked more like a young Michael Keaton than a young Jack Nicholson. Compare the photo on the right of Blick with what Nicholson really did look like at the age they were shooting for. From the shape of the head to the color of the eyes, Blick looks very little like him. I still wince whenever I see this part of the film. And since it comes at one of the most dramatic points of the film–showing Jack Napier killing Bruce Wayne’s parents–is not a place you want to lose the audience at. Why they didn’t get Christian Slater for the part is beyond me.
We Already Know What These Actors Look Like At The Time Of The Flashback
Another reason why de-aging is better than casting a new actor is that is in most cases, the actor in the flashback is competing with the older actor’s prior film work. In the opening of Ant-Man, Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym resigns for S.H.I.E.L.D. in a flashback set in 1989. So, this Hank Pym didn’t just have to look like Michael Douglas, but the Michael Douglas from War of the Roses. Same with Robert Downey Jr in Captain America: Civil War, whose young Tony Stark had to resemble the RDJ of Tuff Turf, Weird Science and Saturday Night Live. And most Kurt Russell fans know that in 1980, he starred in Used Cars. Young Ego had better look like Rudy Russo from that film when he’s pitching woo to Peter Quill’s mom.
Computer de-aging guarantees this. In addition, the prior film work of the older actor gives the computer people an exact template on how the character should look. Casting another actor doesn’t give you this layer of accuracy. All it does is guarantee that whatever actor they cast will be compared to still from whatever film the older actor made during the flashback time period on the Internet for ages to come. Like I’m about to do here.
In one of the examples Gruttadaro gives as a case of a good movie with a flesh and blood actor instead of de-aging is 2012’s Looper. 31-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the younger version of Bruce Willis in the film. When Willis was 31, he was just breaking out into superstardom on Moonlighting. There are plenty of images of Willis from this era. Even with make-up and prosthetics, Gordon-Levitt does not resemble Wills at the same age. Now, it doesn’t take away from the movie–it’s great–and it would probably be cost prohibitive to use a computer to de-age Willis for all the scenes Gordon-Levitt plays in the film, but the memory of Wills’ early career makes the make-up job come up lacking.
Storytelling Moves Smoother With De-Aged Actors
When a flashback appears in a movie, there has to be a connection between the past and the present day. There has to be exposition to explain the connection. If de-age the older actor, it makes that connection a bit simpler. If you see a young Robert Downey Jr. come on the screen during a Marvel film, you immediately know that it is young Tony Stark.
If you cast another actor, you have to let the audience know that this is a younger version of the older actor in the rest of the movie. That requires more dialogue, more exposition and more time added to the film. The De-aged version can be introduced with only a sentence–if that, making the story move quicker and smoother.
It Allows The Older Characters To Interact With Their Younger Selves
Within the world of science-fiction, the idea of a character interacting with a younger version of themselves is not a foreign concept. With time travel and cloning or other plotlines, characters can come face to face with themselves. And if they are coming face to face with themselves, both faces should look the same.
Case in point #1: Tron: Legacy. The security program for the computer world of the movie based its avatar on how Jeff Bridges’ Flynn looked when he entered The Grid. Since Flynn is still trapped in the Grid, has aged into what the older Jeff Bridges looks like and must face his computer program doppelganger, the filmmakers used the best technology they had available to de-age Bridges for the security program. If they cast another actor, that plot element wouldn’t have worked.
Case in point #2: Terminator: Genisys. In this film, the storyline we know and love was changed so that a T-800 was send back in time years earlier to protect Sarah Connor when she was 9. By the time 1984, the older T-800 is there to greet the T-800 that arrived at the kick-off of The Terminator. Since the model T-800 has been played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in every Terminator film, the T-800 needed to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he needed to look like 1984’s Arnold because present day Arnold was playing the older T-800. So the powers that be de-aged Arnie so he could face off against himself for the film. The movie did use different actors for younger versions of other characters in the film, but to have the T-800 played by another actor would ruin this scene.
The Practice Has Been Used–And Most Likely Will Always Be Used–Sparingly
There are two absolutes in this world. One, Hollywood will use technology to make their films better, and, two, fans will act like the sky is falling when each new technological advance is introduced. If the Internet was around back in 1927, I’m sure we’d see bloggers post “Sound? If I wanted to hear my entertainment, I would have caught the latest vaudeville show!” And the resurrection of Peter Cushing in Rogue One has scared many into thinking that once the technology gets cheaper, we’ll see a lifelike CGI Humphrey Bogart resurrected to star in pornos like Casa-Bang-Ya.
But de-aging has been used sparingly, primarily only for flashbacks. And while de-aging an older actor theoretically takes away an acting job from another actor who might have played the younger version of the character, it’s not like producers are going to spend money to de-age 55-year-old Jim Carrey for an entire film so he can play the lead in a teenage sex comedy. For the foreseeable future, de-aging will be used just as it is now–sporadically to add a little something special to our favorite films.
The Technology Is Already Great And Will Only Get Better
Gruttadaro thinks the de-aged actors look “weird,” “creepy’ and “eerie.” That the technology isn’t good enough to make these characters look real, but as some ethereal avatar of what the person. I disagree. The technology behind this practice has made leaps and bound over the years. Yes, the quality of the work varies depending on how much time or money you throw at it (which might be why young Anthony Hopkins in Westworld looked weirder than young Kurt Russell looked in GOTG 2). But de-aging isn’t going anywhere soon. As a matter of fact, the next Robert DeNiro/Martin Scorsese film, The Irishman, will de-age DeNiro for the film.
There are always growing pains when it comes to employing new technology–both in Hollywood and in the real world–but choosing not to embrace it will not make it go away. It will just leave you further behind when the next advancement comes along.
De-aging is a trend right now, but it’s not a bad one. De-aging is being used to enhance the viewing experience by the customer and provide a better storytelling experience for all. Personally, I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.