Another pervasive challenge of today’s online era: How should one live with the digital dead?

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James Dean is remembered as a cultural icon of teenage disillusionment and social estrangement, as expressed in the title of his most celebrated film, “Rebel Without a Cause.” After his death in a car crash, the American Film Institute ranked him as the 18th-best male movie star of Hollywood’s Golden Age of film production in its 1999 “100 Years…100 Stars” list. In an attempt to recreate Dean’s iconic cinematic appeal, Magic City Films announced Nov.6 that Dean would star in a fourth credited motion picture film, despite having died over six decades ago.

Dean’s likeness will be resurrected with the special effects of computer-generated imagery for a Vietnam War film entitled “Finding Jack,” a visual adaption of the novel from South African screenwriter and film director Gareth Crocker. Even though directors Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh obtained the rights to use Dean’s image from his family, the announcement was met with backlash from individuals in the film industry and the general public. “We never intended for this to be a marketing gimmick,” Ernst stated in response to the outrage. 

Ernst spoke with the Hollywood Reporter about the film’s criticisms on social media and said he was “saddened” and “confused” over the overwhelmingly negative comments. He also brought up Carrie Fisher’s appearance in the new Star Wars film, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” as an example of less controversial posthumous CGI. It appears that Ernst may not understand the difference between honoring Fisher’s legacy in a role that she was already scheduled to play and starring Dean in a random movie 64 years after his death.

Using the visual remains of Dean as a workable resource, regardless of whether the decision had good intentions behind it, may be an act that sets an unfortunate precedent for the future of film and visual effects. To watch one of Dean’s movies is to encounter, in a palpable way, the alluring on-camera presence of a concrete person. To make a lifelike version of Dean prompts the opposite effect by suggesting that someone as iconic and emblematic as him can be easily replaced. 

Instead of commemorating the dead, “Finding Jack” is seemingly capitalizing on the potential of technology to reduce performers to the magic of special effects. The so-called “realistic” version of Dean will be created with archived photos and videos with the help of an unannounced voice actor. Even though the inevitable progress of technology has allowed filmmakers to render a person’s appearance through CGI, it is virtually impossible for that rendering to accurately portray who the person was. Hollywood has slowly but surely been moving in this direction for a while, but that doesn’t mean that the film industry should be upsetting the fine balance between technological progress and authentic taste.  

It’s unsurprising that when it was publicly announced that the brooding heartthrob who captivated the mid-century United States would return to the big screen via CGI, modern celebrities became increasingly concerned about their posthumous image rights. Bette Midler weighed in on the matter by tweeting, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you things have gotten more difficult for white guys in Hollywood. Even dead ones can still get a job.” Zelda Williams, whose late father Robin Williams restricted the exploitation of his image for 25 years after his death, tweeted: “Publicity stunt or not, this is puppeteering the dead for their ‘clout’ alone and it sets such an awful precedent for the future of performance.” Former Disney child star Dylan Sprouse alleged on Twitter that Magic City Films has “found a new way to rob graves of dead icons and milk the masses for less!”

It shouldn’t have to be said, but here it goes: Dean was an electric, brilliant actor who impressively molded the Golden Age of Hollywood and American teenage culture in the 1950s. His beloved roles in “Rebel Without a Cause,” “East of Eden” and “Giant” are ineradicable art pieces of 20th-century cinema. No amount of creepy CGI zombification will be capable of taking that away from Dean. 

Was Dean really the only male actor who could play the role of Rogan? Doubtful. The reasonable solution to this news in the entertainment industry is to let the departed rest in peace and their legacy speak for itself. Unfortunately, the team behind Dean’s resurrection via CGI apparently couldn’t care less about the public’s reaction and are following through with the film’s expected release date on Nov. 11, 2020. Whether or not it’s a strange marketing stunt that will draw attention to “Finding Jack” is still up for debate, but one thing is for certain: This project is grotesque and disgraceful. 

If all it takes is a wad of cash and a distant relative’s permission to greenlight “Finding Jack,” then these filmmakers aren’t being respectful of Dean’s legacy. Magic City Films seems to be glossing over the inhumane repercussions of a Dean CGI puppet that lacks personality and craft. If the casting directors Lisa Beach and Sarah Katzman couldn’t find a lead with a pulse for a particular film, then Ernst and Golykh should have found new casting directors. This soulless executive decision puts the future of cinema at risk; unfortunately, the need to protect the dead from digital predation is not going away anytime soon.

Contact Salma Gomez at [email protected].