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The Undeath of Cinema

"Now, there are ways that Cushing’s digital resurrection is not so different from techniques used in other Star Wars films. Guy Henry wore the mask of Grand Moff Tarkin; puppets and masks were used to give life to characters in the first three films. Is the 2016 version of Tarkin so different than, say, the Darth Vader of the original trilogy?

Darth Vader was embodied by bodybuilder and character actor David Prowse (who, as it happens, once played the Creature in a Cushing Frankenstein film). Disliking Prowse’s West Country accent, George Lucas had James Earl Jones dub over Vader’s lines. When Vader’s face was finally shown in Return of the Jedi, he was played by Shakespearean actor Sebastian Shaw. Yet much of the character’s menace comes simply from his black costume, intimidating mask, and the distinctive sound design of his breathing apparatus. It’s a collaborative performance, but a compelling one.

The difference, of course, is that Vader’s mask is not the face of a dead man. Though we suspend our disbelief while we watch the film, we find it completely plausible that Vader’s body, voice, and face were all provided by different actors, just as we understand that puppet characters like Yoda and Jabba the Hutt have unseen operators. Vader’s mask is part of his character. His character is a visual icon of menace first, a human being second (and only sort of).

In considering the CGI Tarkin, there is no small irony in recognizing that the character was created for the original Star Wars specifically to give the Empire a human face, to offset the artifice of Vader’s masked visage. Peter Cushing brought his face, and with it his gentlemanly demeanor and his chops as a veteran of genre film. Cushing cannot simply be turned into a mask to recreate his performance.

Star Wars, as a phenomenon, relies on an alchemical mixture of technical and narrative creativity and the charisma of its actors: Darth Vader’s mask staring down Alec Guinness’s weathered face; clever miniatures to make the Millennium Falcon fly, the chemistry between Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford to make us care; Frank Oz puppeting the wise Yoda while Mark Hamill gamely plays the impetuous pupil.

The new Star Wars films work when they remember this formula, as in The Force Awakens when John Boyega’s Finn bonds with the droid BB-8 by exchanging thumbs up. Viewers are ushered into the space fantasy thanks to engaging and identifiable performances by actors. It’s the chemistry of impressively realized droids and aliens meeting with real, likeable human scene partners that gives the Star Wars universe its enduring magic. What becomes of that alchemy when the human side of the equation is replaced with a high-tech puppet?"

Frankensteining Cushing

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