Opinion: The problem with de-aging our megastars | CNN (2024)

Opinion: The problem with de-aging our megastars | CNN (1)

The film "Here”features Tom Hanks and Robin Wright, who are 67 and 58 respectively, playing characters from their teens through to their80s, writes Thomas.

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets@HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Viewmore opinionon CNN.


As any self-respecting movie buff (or man over 40) will tell you, Robert De Niro’s big break came in 1974’s“The Godfather Part II.”De Niro played a younger version of Vito Corleone, the mafia boss whose original portrayal by Marlon Brando is the stuff of legend.

Forty-five years later, De Niro starred as another outsider-turned gangster, playing Frank Sheeran in Martin Scorsese’s 2019 epic,“The Irishman.”The movie follows Sheeran’s progress for more than five decades from 1949 until 2000, whenhe’s seeing out his dotagein a nursing home.

As an actor already in his mid-70s, De Niro was ideally suited to play the older Sheeran. Unlike in“The Godfather II,”however, no up-and-comer was enlisted to play his younger counterpart. Thanks to de-aging technology, De Niro portrayed Sheeran throughout his life, the lines onhis face digitally smoothed.

Opinion: The problem with de-aging our megastars | CNN (2)

Unlike in“The Godfather II,” no up-and-comer was enlisted to play De Niro's younger counterpart in the 2019 epic "The Irishman," so they turned to de-aging technology, writes Thomas.

The movie garnered rave reviews and picked up 10 nominations at the 2020 Academy Awards. It also kicked into high gear a debate about de-aging that seems set to escalate with thehotly-anticipated release of“Here,”due to open on November 15.

“Here”features Tom Hanks and Robin Wright, who are 67 and 58 respectively, playing characters from their teens through to their80s. Thefilm’sdirector, Robert Zemeckis, haslikened its visual styleto that of silent movies. If“The Irishman”is anything to go by, I suspect Hanks’ and Wright’s digitally botoxed features willinfuseit with a similarly jarring aura of unreality.

A quick bit of housekeeping before we proceed. There are a few ways to make actors appear younger on screen usingtechnology,each with advantages and disadvantages. The de-aging technique in“The Irishman”useslight-based softwarecalled FLUX. It essentially deploysextra camerasanduses AI software to iron out an actor’s wrinkles, but doesn’t change the shape of their face too much.

Opinion: The problem with de-aging our megastars | CNN (3)

In 2019’s“Gemini Man," the younger version of Will Smith’s character Henry Brogan has afully CGI head.

In 2019’s“Gemini Man”however, the younger version of Will Smith’s character Henry Brogan has afully CGI head, animated via motion capture a la Andy Serkis’sGollumin The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Unlike the jowly “young” Sheeran, who looks nothing like De Niro in his prime, Brogan’s high cheekbones and slim jawline are reminiscent of a Fresh Prince-era Smith, albeit one who might have been lifted straight from a computer game. De Nirorefused to actwearing a helmet and marker spots, and being De Niro, he got his way, hence theuseof the FLUX technology.

Unfortunately, not everyone was convinced by the outcome.DirectorQuentin Tarantinosaid heacclimatedto the de-aging pretty quickly when hesaw“The Irishman”in the theater, but “noticed it more” when he watched it on TV. George Miller, who directed this year’s Mad Max prequel“Furiosa,”said heconsideredcasting Charlize Theron again for the titular role and de-aging her, but decided after watching“The Irishman”and“Gemini Man” that it wouldn’t be “persuasive.”

Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023). Walt Disney Pictures Related article Opinion: Indiana Jones passes his mantle to the queen of millennial side-eye

A recurrent problem is that unless you use an entirely CGI face, which can besuperimposed onto another actor’s body,you’re still restricted by the older actor’s physicality. There’s an excruciating bit in“The Irishman”when a supposedly young Sheeran kicks another character out of his shop. Sheeran’s meant to emanate vigor and intimidation, but he “chases” the guy like a wobbly senior, his movements stilted and ponderous.

There’s a similar issue in 2023’s“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.”Indy, played bya de-aged Harrison Ford(who was 80 when the film was released), is pursued by a train full of Nazis in a flashback scene. He dives and ducks out of the soldiers’ grasp, but though his face is youthful, the performance is lethargic compared to the whip-sharp Indy of yesteryear. Same thing in 2019’s“Captain Marvel,”when a de-aged Samuel L Jacksonattempted to render a fighting fit mid-90s Nick Fury. Reflexes dull, joints creak, and no actor, no matter how skilled, can turn back time.

This, really, is why de-aging megastars always feels a bit icky. While it’s undoubtedly useful — and recasting household names comes with its own baggage — you get the sense that directors and producers are trying to capitalize on the nostalgia evoked by actors’ reincarnation, rather than attempt something new. In the“Here”trailer, Hanks’ character sports a haircut that could’ve been lifted straight from his 1988 hit “Big.”It’s manipulative, and appears to stem from the same anxiety that consistently sees Hollywood churn outremakes and sequels.

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Given the sheer amountof time and moneyfilmmakers have poured into de-aging, it seems a real shame that their efforts can’t be redirected intopromotingfresh talent instead. Timothée Chalamet played a young Casey Affleck in 2014’s“Interstellar,”Gwyneth Paltrow played a young Maggie Smith in 1991’s“Hook,”and Michael Cera played a young Sam Rockwell in 2002’s“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.”Crucially, De Niro’s imitation of Brando, the greatest actor of his generation, set him on the path to becoming the greatest actor of his own.

Opinion: The problem with de-aging our megastars | CNN (2024)
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