We Will Get Fooled Again

When “The Great Train Robbery” premiered in 1903 many people fled the theater during the scene where the train speeds directly towards the camera.  Those who ran had never seen a motion picture before and believed they were about to get run over.

Sounds kind of silly, right? 

Orson Welles’ famous live radio performance of “The War of the Worlds” in 1938 instigated a panic as people burst out into the streets believing the Martians were invading the Earth.

Again, silly, right?

Such stories are amusing reminders of the naïveté of our ancestors.  The great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Orson Welles and the filmmakers behind “The Great Train Robbery” certainly pulled off a bit of magic with their creations.  But my guess is most of us feel like the sentiment behind Asimov’s quote is a relic from an earlier, less advanced era.

We can’t imagine ourselves getting fooled like the first theater goers because we’ve grown up with technology and live in a more informed and skeptical age.  Basically, we like to think of ourselves as much smarter than people who lived 100 years ago.

But therein lies the danger.  The only fool is the person who thinks they’re too smart to be fooled.  With apologies to The Who and their all-time songwriter Pete Townshend, we will get fooled again.

Two recent announcements out of Hollywood brought this to mind.  The Daily Mail reported that Bruce Willis sold the rights to his face to a company called Deepcake.  By granting Deepcake these rights the company could create a “digital twin” of Willis to use in future movies and commercials, long after he’s gone. 

James Earl Jones
Bruce Willis

While Willis subsequently denied the reports, another story, this one confirmed, proved the trend.  James Earl Jones announced that he struck a deal with a Ukrainian start up that is working with Lucasfilm to recreate his voice using A.I. technology.  Thanks to this agreement Star Wars fans will forever get to experience Jones’s irreplaceable voice of Darth Vader.

It won’t be long before other stars follow suit.  Our great grandchildren could be watching a young Sylvester Stallone in Rocky X.  Harrison Ford could appear in endless adaptations of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  Forest Gump 2 starring Tom Hanks could be the hit movie of 2050. How about a new series of Westerns starring Clint Eastwood?  Imagine the possibilities for long dead starts like Lauren Bacall, John Wayne, or Humphrey Bogart?

Undoubtedly some celebrities have reservations, as was evident from the minor dust up in the press following the Willis announcement.  Tom Hanks may have no interest in lending his digital self to an inferior script peddled by some greedy studio.  But it’s only a matter of time.  The money will be too tempting, if not for the actors, certainly for their heirs. 

Also, the technology aligns perfectly with the predominant trend in Hollywood towards producing remakes and sequels of proven movie franchises.   Why risk hundreds of millions of dollars on something new and untested featuring an unknown cast when Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie are all available with only a few keystrokes on a computer?

And let’s not limit the discussion to television and films.  Think about the implications when we are consuming entertainment in virtual, 3D worlds.

If you think this is unlikely, I suggest you stroll through the racks at your local bookstore (or Amazon if you prefer).  It’s already happening in the world of publishing.  The estates of Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum and Clive Cussler continue to churn out best-selling books even though all three authors are dead.

In the future will we be able to distinguish the real actors from the digital recreations?  If a viewer doesn’t know that the version of Bruce Willis starring in Diehard 15 isn’t real, haven’t they been fooled just like the radio listener in 1938 who thought the Martians were invading?  That may not be the best example, but it’s easy to see how such technology could be used to trick even the most sophisticated person.

Not that I expect anyone will listen, but if it were up to me, I wouldn’t allow people to sell their image/likeness in this fashion.  I’m all for new technology but we should draw some lines.  When you’re dead, you’re dead.  Yes, the Carrie Fisher posthumous cameo in the last Star Wars film was harmless and even poignant in its own way, but if history is any guide human beings have a tendency to abuse technology. 

Taking such a position makes me sound like a dinosaur in some quarters.  That’s fine.  I hold no illusions about the future.  Before the decade is out, we will see feature films starring dead actors.

We should not delude ourselves, however.  To once again butcher the great Pete Townshend, the new viewer is the same as the old one and will get fooled again.

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