After The Irishman and Gemini Man, actors needn’t worry about old age ever again

The Washington Post review of the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill bemoaned that its 57-year-old star Roger Moore had “the pie-eyed blankness of a zombie” and was “not believable anymore in the action sequences (or in the romantic ones).” Years later, Moore admitted that he was “only about 400 years too old for the part”. But a new technology has arrived that could remove all possibility of this ever happening again.

In the coming weeks, two films will attempt to solve a problem that has plagued mankind in general and movie stars in particular for an eternity: ageing. With The Irishman and Gemini Man, the Academy Award-winning directors Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee will unveil before the world technology that could perhaps reshape the future of filmmaking.

Both films utilise a technique that is informally known as digital de-aging, through which state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery (CGI) is employed as digital makeup on the faces of real people. This allowed Scorsese the opportunity to reunite with his long-time muse, actor Robert De Niro (76), and not have to worry about casting a younger actor to play a character whose story is told across several years. In Gemini Man, the 51-year-old Will Smith’s age literally catches up to him, as his assassin character is pitted against a younger, more agile clone.

Netflix will debut The Irishman in the US in limited theatrical release on November 1, followed by a streaming release in India and the rest of the world on November 27. Gemini Man is due in theatres on Friday, October 11.

Although we’ve seen the technique the films use before, rarely has it been used on such a scale. Gemini Man languished in development hell for decades to allow the tech to catch up. The Irishman was met with significant delays as Scorsese ironed out the finer details of De Niro’s appearance. He said in a recent podcast, “Certain shots need more work on the eyes, [because] the wrinkles and things have changed. Does it change the eyes at all? If that’s the case, what was in the eyes that I liked? Was it intensity? Was it gravitas? Was it threat?”

Digital de-aging first became a part of public consciousness after the release of 2003’s X-Men: The Last Stand, in which actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan were made to appear younger in one flashback scene. Director David Fincher’s 2008 drama, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, became an unlikely winner of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, an honour typically reserved for large-scale blockbusters. More recently, Marvel films such as Captain America: Civil War and Captain Marvel pushed the boundaries of the technology in ways that were both attention-grabbing and subtle – Robert Downey Jr lost decades, while Samuel L Jackson lost a couple of wrinkles.

In India, a country that idolises its stars to the point of rejecting them when they show their age, Shah Rukh Khan pulled a slightly more unrefined Gemini Man years before Will Smith in 2016’s Fan – in the film, he played a young stalker who looked an awful lot like a popular movie actor. Salman Khan was digitally de-aged in the recent film Bharat, and is reported to be undergoing similar treatment in December’s Dabangg 3.

Despite opening a Pandora’s Box of possibilities, the technology has also raised a few eyebrows about ethics. The debate intensified after the release of 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in which actors Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) and Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) were essentially resurrected by the production, through a combination of body doubles and CGI, and achieved results that have been described by The Guardian as “one of the most complex and costly CGI re-creations ever”.

Visual effects supervisor John Knoll stood by the strategy. He told Yahoo Movies in 2017, “We weren’t doing anything that I think Peter Cushing would’ve objected to. I think this work was done with a great deal of affection and care.”

Which begs the question: Have actors been rendered worthless if their faces can be used after they have died? How drastically can their performances be tinkered with, yet not come across as a betrayal? Will Salman Khan even be required on set? “The challenge,” Scorsese said in an interview to the British Film Institute in October, “is really about keeping that character, keeping those emotions and their faces alive”.

Only Robin Williams saw it coming, perhaps. He handed over the rights to his name, signature, photograph and likeness to a trust, thereby restricting their use, or abuse, until 2039.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

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