“The Congress” (2013) and the Use of CGI.

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS FOR ROGUE ONE.

I want to talk about a movie I saw in 2013 that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It’s called “The Congress” and it’s a movie that has proven to be weirdly prophetic in the three years since its release. At the time it came out I remember thinking to myself that the things the film predicted about the future were almost guaranteed to happen, but that such events were a long way off. I was wrong.

The film presents a world in which anyone can take a drug that allows them to hallucinate themselves into a virtual, world. This world is completely animated. (The film starts in live action but eventually transitions into an animated film.) Here they are free to do anything they can dream of. Most of the film takes place in this animated world. Obviously this seems to be some sort of commentary on both taking drugs, and virtual reality, a type of media that is becoming more and more popular as technology advances. As the characters get lost in their virtual worlds, the real world outside is falling apart, possibly making another statement on our increasing attachment on technology and detachment from the real world. But also asking questions such as: which reality is the real one? How do you define ‘real’? And does it even matter? Questions about the nature of reality have always been common in science fiction films, but this one seems to hit closer to home with the recent evolution of virtual reality. All of these questions are interesting, and just one way in which The Congress now feels weirdly prophetic.  However, there is another aspect to the film that feels even more relevant to recent events.

As I said, the films takes place in the near future, but before we go into the animated virtual world, we are shown what the movie industry has evolved into. In this future, theater sales have declined so much that all the film studios have combined into one. However, a technology has emerged that promises to save not only the film industry, but out of touch actors as well. CGI has evolved to the point where the studio can make exact digital copies of real people, practically indistinguishable from their real life counterparts. Sound familiar? Recently, Star Wars Rogue One used CGI to recreate Tarkin and Princess Leia. When I saw the Congress back in 2013, I knew that CGI was evolving fast and that the film’s depiction of future CGI was accurate, but I never imagined it would come so soon. Although I could still tell that Tarkin and Leia were not real actors, the CGI was extremely impressive. And dang near close to indistinguishable from a real human. I’m uncertain whether or not I would have known that they were CGI had I not known that, in real life, one of the actors was dead and the other much older. The Congress brings up some interesting questions regarding these CGI reincarnations. Questions that although at the time felt far off from being asked, were nonetheless fascinating. And now here I am, asking those exact questions about a real life scenario. The main question is, when is it appropriate to use these CGI reincarnations?

The film depicts Robin Wright, a failing actress, surrendering the rights to her own image. This means that she gets paid an enormous amount of money from the studio, and in exchange the studio gets to use her image however they please. But it also means that she can never act again and must stay away from the spotlight forever. At first Robin is hesitant about this deal, but ultimately she accepts it simply because her career hasn’t been going well, and she needs the money. She later comes to regret the decision as the studio continuously uses her CGI image to make her appear in movies that she never would have agreed to do. As a result, her real life image becomes distorted, and people come to see her as an action star, even though her real self has done no such thing. The world now sees a fake version of Robin Wright that they perceive as reality.

While I don’t think the studios would ever stoop this low in real life, it does make me question certain decisions. For example, do we know, with certainty, that Peter Cushing would have approved of using his image to recreate Tarkin for Rogue One? Sure, the character rights belong to Disney, but Tarkin was portrayed by a real person whose image they are using. With CGI so real, it looks as though he is actually acting as that character again. Does his own image not belong to him? How do we decide what is acceptable and what isn’t? With Carrie Fisher we at least know that she was alive at the time and approved of her CGI recreation. But now that she is gone, is it OK to recreate her for the next star wars movies without her permission?

Similar to the Congress it would be possible to get actors and actresses to sign away the rights to their image under certain conditions, so that in the event of death, the studios could recreate them digitally. But even then, we would never truly know whether that actor or actress would approve of how they used their image. Personally I think that there are only two acceptable ways of doing this. Either do it when they’re alive but too old, such as the case with Carrie Fisher and Leia, or do it when an actor passes away during the filming process, and only if they gave permission ahead of time to use their image to finish the movie. Doing it without permission, such as in the case of Tarkin, feels a bit wrong to me. Disney owns the rights to the character, but not the actor. Casting someone else, though it might take you out of the experience, feels a bit more respectful. (I know in this case, they did cast someone else, but they CGI’d his face to look exactly like Peter Cushing). With the recent death of Carrie Fisher, I think ultimately Disney’s decision not to recreate her digitally for episode 9 was the right choice. But as I said, maybe it would have been acceptable if she had given prior permission.  Or maybe if they only had a quick scene to explain her absence or pay tribute.

As is clear from my rambling, the answer is not so clear. And these are questions that will probably be asked more and more as the line between CGI and real actors continues to become blurred. Some shows have even begun to tackle such subjects already. The show “Bojack Horseman” contains an episode in which a CGI Bojack has an Oscar worthy performance in a film, and the real life Bojack is praised for it. It will be interesting to see how other shows and films will portray these sorts of scenarios as time goes on.

As a final note, I’d like to point out that I’m sure that the creators of Rogue One took the necessary steps to make sure the use of Peter Cushing’s image was legal, though my questions lie more in the realm of ethics than legality. If you’re interested, I highly recommend watching The Congress if you want a great, freakishly real depiction of what the very near future might be like.The film is also visually stunning, and features an incredible performance from Robin Wright playing herself.

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