Shaidle Unchained

No Peace in the Uncanny Valley

January 10, 2017

Multiple Pages
No Peace in the Uncanny Valley

Star Wars makes you stupid. Star Trek makes you smart.

Yes, both fandoms pursue cosplay, compulsive crap collection, and other life-wasters. But whereas Star Wars is a masturbatory end-in-itself, some Trekkers have at least pivoted their passion into meatspace, er, enterprises. Just trivial junk like, you know, inventing the mobile phone and stuff. (See the goofily edifying How William Shatner Changed the World. And okay, “astronaut” is a fake job, but “action-figure appraiser” is orders of magnitude faker.)

Explaining the precise psycho-mechanics underlying this “life transcending art” Caucasian cargo-cultery is beyond my intellectual capabilities. I’m on safer ground musing about those Star Wars fans expressing a rare degree of deep thinking following Carrie Fisher’s death.

Fisher, most famous for her role as the series’ “Princess/General Leia,” was much beloved, as evidenced by the outpouring of grief and, well, stuff like this after her passing.

However, a nigh-on-Talmudic debate about Fisher’s afterlife sprang up simultaneously. Not about whether or not the late actress was headed for heaven or hell, of course—that stuff’s for grannies and hillbillies, amirite?—but a moral and ethical dilemma all the same.

This tweet is representative:

No @Disney we do not want a CGI Princess Leia in future Star Wars movies. Have some respect for the family and loving fans of Carrie Fisher —Jack Posobiec (@JackPosobiec) December 28, 2016

“Just because something is possible, and legal, doesn’t make it right.”

Because indeed, such technology exists, as Star Wars fans in particular are aware. The late Peter Cushing, who appeared in the original 1977 film, was digitally reanimated in the latest offering from the franchise. I was pleased to discover that there are still some in our post-everything world who found this ghoulish stunt disturbing.

I’ve felt this way ever since I first saw “Fred Astaire” dance with a vacuum cleaner twenty years ago. Yes, this crass, clumsy commercial was okayed by his estate, as required by law (see: Lugosi v. Universal Pictures).

But—all together now:

Just because something is possible, and legal, doesn’t make it right.

Perhaps my gut-level disgust at such spectacles is traceable to my Catholic upbringing. The West’s Judeo-Christian foundation is surely reflected in our reverential attitudes toward the bodies of the dead. Potentially boisterous visitors are reminded (with varying degrees of success, alas) that the USS Arizona and 9/11 memorials are burial grounds, for example. I’m enough of a Christian to find Israel’s ZAKA teams a bit of a muchness, but the impulse behind their quixotic mission is recognizably civilized.

But picture the average unchurched American millennial or Gen-Xer, groping for the precise theological and philosophical language to express their horror at the prospect of turning deceased human beings into marionettes. I’m impressed and relieved that some of them are even trying, are still capable of revulsion at something besides counterfeit “racism” and microaggressions.

Because the entertainment conglomerates who own the licenses to these lucrative franchises, and the other corporations that have stuff to sell, don’t possess such scruples. Like most stinging satires, 2013’s The Congress—a film about this very topic—will likely end up serving as more of an accidental instruction manual than a prophylactic.

That revolting Fred Astaire ad was followed by similar ones “starring” “Gene Kelly” and, most recently and disturbingly, “Audrey Hepburn”; each time, objections were raised, but again, said critics struggled to express their misgivings. The word “soul” even makes rare, welcome cameos in these stirring complaints, and I wonder—arrogantly, I know—if this was the first time said writer (especially—I’m so mean—the Time scribe) had ever had occasion to type that particular word before. Calling the Hepburn effort “the creepiest commercial ever made,” the best the L.A. Times columnist can manage is “Well, yick.” But still.

Similar noises were made when Fast and Furious franchise lynchpin Paul Walker died in the middle of shooting entry No. 7, and “Weta Digital was asked to complete the sensitive and arduous task of reanimating” the star. But hey, the show must go on and he would’ve wanted it that way and whatever. Fans still flocked to the film.

We’re informed that:

It is extremely labor-intensive and expensive to do. I don’t imagine anybody engaging in this kind of thing in a casual manner. We’re not planning on doing this digital re-creation extensively from now on. It just made sense for this particular movie.

(Not coincidentally, echoes of the “safe, legal and rare” clucking that surrounds abortion and euthanasia are impossible to ignore just there.)

This state of affairs was predicted by Arthur C. Clarke and J.G. Ballard (“A kind of banalisation of celebrity has occurred: we are now offered an instant, ready-to-mix fame as nutritious as packet soup”) and lesser SF writers (see Joel Henry Sherman’s 1990 story “The Bogart Revival”). But none of these authors required particularly acute foresight to envision it.

One need only look up at the ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda, and recoil at the sight of George Washington being assumed into heaven like the Virgin Mary in drag, to realize that America’s febrile relationship with the “great” has long required twisting certain men and women, without their consent, into self-indulgent talismans and salable souvenirs.

(As a matter of fact, the Founding Fathers devoted considerable attention to the subject, indeed to the “problem,” of Fame, but the first president, of all people—that would-be Cincinnatus—surely would have been appalled by Brumidi’s popish confection.)

We’re told that we can judge a society by how it treats its animals, and its prisoners, but what if we can judge it, too, by how it treats its celebrities (who are, in some respects, a hybrid of both)? The modern famous are, paradoxically, rare and ubiquitous. There has only been and ever will be one Sinatra, one Marilyn—and yet there they are, too, over on that shower curtain, and this cookie jar, revered banalities.

To staunch this eventuality, some celebrities have wisely arranged their estates to prevent posthumous commodification and “cyberslavery”; Robin Williams thought to block “anyone from digitally inserting him into a movie or TV scene or using a hologram, as was done with rapper Tupac Shakur at Southern California’s Coachella music festival in 2012—16 years after his murder.”

Would that others had done likewise. (I’m looking at you, Joe Strummer—but note: A mere 10 years ago, this sick campaign cost Saatchi its Doc Martens account, and they weren’t even legally in the wrong. Would the same happen today?)

But it’s disconcerting that human beings have to undertake such rearguard measures at all.

And I fear that, when it comes to those dueling outer-space sagas, Star Trek will let me down in this regard. Leonard Nimoy was, arguably, even more iconic and beloved than Fisher, and his Spock character (as “Spock Prime”—don’t ask) featured prominently in the reboots that I like to call Star Trek Babies. When Nimoy died in 2015, so did his character. (Yes, again. I know.)

I regretfully suspect that, in the alleged interest of “fan service,” the actor might be digitally revived in the future. The same profound affection Trekkers feel for Spock/Nimoy, that will make them initially recoil at the very idea, might also render their yearning to see him one last time hard to resist.

Then there is poor Anton Yelchin. The impish 27-year-old actor who portrayed young Chekov in the reboot died in a heartbreakingly stupid accident after shooting the third film in the series. And like the other “crew” members, he did sign a five-picture deal…

There is it, then: the billions of box office and merchandise dollars at stake, spanning both legacy properties. Exhibit A: Disney—being Disney—had taken out an insurance policy on Carrie Fisher through Lloyd’s of London, triggered to pay out in the event that she was “unable to fulfill her three-film [Star Wars] contract.” That awful eventuality having occurred, Disney will be collecting a check for $50 million.

So, much faster than this very peculiar metamorphosis normally takes, Fisher joined that elite league of celebrities, like Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, and James Dean, who turned out to be worth exponentially more dead than alive.

And we wonder why they all take drugs.

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